‘I cannot but conclude that the bulk of your natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’
Jonathan Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
I have never forgotten ploughing my way through Gulliver’s Travels as one of our set books for English. I must have been about twelve. I hated it! Complex in the extreme, it was probably my first introduction to satire but 18th Century politics held little interest for me then – or now – and the hidden references were a proverbial minefield at the hands of an enthusiastic English teacher who demanded the same of her pupils. I finished it, under duress, but the book remains buried on the shelves, its title not one I have any desire to revisit.
For me, however, Gulliver’s Travels is also synonymous – rightly or wrongly – with the word ‘misanthropy’, its author, Jonathan Swift, commonly regarded as a misanthropist: ‘a person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society’, according to Google. I never forgot that word, nor its definition, Pop and I, forever, recognising traits in ourselves with, perhaps, emphasis on ‘traits’. For neither of us could be accused of disliking our fellow beings; rather, we, merely, prefer/red to be selective in our friends and chosen company!
So, there are degrees of misanthropy and, clearly, its traits are inherent. Pop and I were alike in so many ways, primarily in our shared sarcastic humour, but neither of us was ever a fan of people, in general. Ironically, an acclaimed Consultant Psychiatrist, his job was all about people and not only was he superb at it but he was extremely popular in his field. The characters he met, the stories he could tell, he bore witness to human nature in all its glory and he would often say that the murderers he met were among its nicest! For clarification, occasionally his remit involved the psychiatric assessment of those awaiting trial for legal purposes …
Humour defined him but he was an only child and enjoyed his own company. An avid reader he, also, loved listening to the radio, the World Service being his favourite. Never one for crowds, he chose his friends and those he wished to spend time with and those lucky enough to earn his trust and friendship were rewarded with the same, and unfailing loyalty. His best man – whom he had met at school, if I remember correctly – was a friend for life (and the minister at my wedding!), as were his close-knit colleagues at Stratheden. A proud member of the R&A, golf was his other love and he played every Wednesday and Saturday with his three partners-in-crime, relishing the ritual drinks in the Big Room afterwards, followed by lunch in the panelled dining room upstairs. A man of routine in every way, the company he sought was on his terms, as much as possible. He either liked or disliked those he met instantly – and there was no disguising it! All very amusing if it didn’t happen to be one of my friends for he was never one to suffer fools – not that I am suggesting my friends were fools! Anyway, on the subject of friends, I shall never forget him telling me that, realistically – at the end of the day – one is lucky to count one’s true friends on one hand. He did. They were the lucky ones.
I am exactly like him in all of the above. Content in my own company, I have little desire to be amongst strangers, rather choosing to spend quality time with those I value. Like Pop, never one for small talk or social climbing, my mother’s efforts were wasted on me. Happy with my circle of friends in Edinburgh, she was desperate that I go to London – as my sister before me – to ‘broaden my horizons’. In translation, that meant making an effort to find a husband of suitable pedigree and wealth! As the saying goes, one can take a horse to water but one can’t make it drink …
Am I a misanthropist? Was Pop? True, he didn’t like people, in general – me, neither. I suppose, in many ways, he was an observer of the human race and could be forthright in his criticism – me, too! Ironically, however, he was very good with people – from all walks of life – his judgement based on the person, never the background. For, at the end of the day, he liked individuals … ditto!
We scattered his ashes on the West Sands, a place which remained in his heart as ‘paradise’. I share his love of solitude, being at one with nature, but it is increasingly hard to find in this world, today, whose bench mark is the lowest denominator. Take this weekend, just passed … We had booked a table, in town – at somewhere tried and tested – to celebrate Becca’s recent birthday. However, it was Saturday night and a Bank Holiday weekend … we should have known! Alarm bells rang, at once, seeing the long table next to us with the tree of cocktails, but I was still unprepared for the occupants and their behaviour! All women, of course, they were already sufficiently intoxicated as to make the mastering of the English Language well-nigh impossible as they slurred their demands for further alcohol to the poor young waitress: ‘I oooorderrd a White Russian …’. In truth, the words ‘vulgar’ and ‘uncouth’ barely scratch the surface! Obese, loud and, clearly, ignorant, they were rude, crude and completely stewed as they discussed boobs, thongs and going commando while we endeavoured to keep our food down. I give up! Note to self: NEVER, again, venture into town on a Saturday, particularly on a Bank Holiday weekend. Maybe I should have listened to my mother after all and put in the ground work required – for insurance purposes, if nothing else!
The end of May and we returned, as promised, to the Hill of Tarvit to catch the last of the Rhododendrons. A glorious Sunday afternoon, nature did not disappoint as the blooms, spectacular in colour, clung to their vibrancy. As the house stood proud, hinting at the resplendour of days gone by, I was taken back to the innocence of childhood and the promise of optimism. I savoured it all: the trees, age-old in their wisdom; the carpet of bluebells through the wood beyond the gate, leading up to the style and the beckoning hill … timeless, as the crows made their presence felt in conversation. It was perfect. We paused to savour the moment, sitting on the vast lawns behind the house, basked in sunshine … only to be joined by an older couple and their son – late teens – who proceeded to sit down, directly to the left of us! Why? What is wrong with people and their disregard for the space of others? Either they are just plain ignorant or they just don’t care. Whatever. Nothing surprises me about the masses anymore. Nor did the fact that, in the most glorious of settings, they, each, sat glued to their screens, oblivious not only to each other but to their surroundings. Depressingly, there is no rewind button but, in the meantime, if abhorring such behaviour is classed as misanthropy, then I, proudly, hold up my hand!
‘You call me a misanthrope because I avoid society. You err; I love society. Yet in order not to hate people, I must avoid their company.’
Caspar David Friedrich
This is Trish, signing off.