179. Paying attention


One result of my childhood is that I’m an attentive listener. With good recall.

My father steered that. Inadvertently. As kids, if Neil or I said something rude or out of line, chastisement ensued. Worse was Eric Godier’s First Commandment that “I shalt not be argued with’. Never any chance to debate and reflect, no encouragement to tweak and streamline my thinking. All of my internal neural motorway signs were erected by fear and pointed in one direction, away from painful consequence.

When he raised his voice, my ears rang and the house shook, or seemed to. I have documented his physical punishments, and the ceilings that these placed upon my exploratory boundaries, in Blog 18.

With any sentience, plus a bit of sensitivity, you can learn from this shit. One: don’t do what dad did. Two, dig out the positives and use them. In my case, the process of listening hard to learn exactly what the rules were, and to reduce the potential pain, slowly took on a life of its own.

An accompanying outgrowth was preferring to write rather than talk. I understood later that writing maintains a control of my space that talk risks yielding.

A flourishing listening ability in adulthood helped my roles as a father and journalist. Maybe as a husband? You would have to ask Maureen. It certainly strengthened friendships and created new ones. The judgement thrown around liberally as a young man has been cut out, wherever possible.

Problem weighing on your mind? I’m happy to hear you talk that out. Anything at all. To mirror it back to you. My gain is that I enjoy being trusted. There is little better than mutual respect built between people over a period of years. And intimacy, which I crave.

But I don’t always get it right. The ego can still jump in. The desire to make a witty quip, or to interject too often.

One problem that may never go away is that I expect listening reciprocation. Also friendship reciprocation. If that doesn’t happen, the suppressed rage of my childhood bubbles and builds.

About three years ago, I went for a few beers with an old mate. Our drinking sessions had been so joyous and open, putting the world to rights, often on long summer evenings.

This one started well. Everything and anything up for discussion. Family, money, sex, politics, the rising price of fish. Time for another beer. A guy next to us at the bar was chatting with his mate, mentioning loudly that he had once met the Lord Chief Justice.

I could see my friend’s ears pricking up. The stranger had, it seemed, also met Gordon Brown at some stage in his professional capacity. He knew important people in London’s political circles. My friend turned to these guys, and said their talk had intrigued him. He was a Labour Party man. He turned back to me, but was drawn increasingly back to the strangers. I looked at my phone, waiting for the interlude to cease.

I might have shown interest if the talk had been a bit more than loud one-upmanship, wearing the shirt of political insight. It was also obvious that the two blokes had issues with each other. Insults were creeping in. The conversation was punctuated by intervals of the raucous laughter that male conversation defaults to. I felt zero desire to join in. Just as well, as there was no invitation. That was hurtful.

So, for about 10-15 minutes, I stared at the optics behind the bar. My friend turned to me every now and again from the threesome, looking ever so slightly sheepish. I rictus smiled, but the bile was building. His back was turned. How could he do that?

An old issue for me. I wouldn’t treat a friend with this lack of respect, why the fuck can’t you be the same? Probably holes and rigidities in my attitude, but I’m sticking with it.

When my mate finally decided to turn back, there was no apology. Instead a eulogy to the joys of unplanned, spontaneous conversation. Which left two options. To find a foothold in new conversational ground. Or to tell him frankly that he lacked discernment, and had wasted 20 minutes of our friendship time with a pair of boors, who were now standing at opposite ends of the bar from each other.

My anger was so heated up that I think it would have killed our friendship. I was frightened that there would be no control in my criticisms. No middle way. Back to feeling like a kid again. So we somehow reverted to our norm, with me biting my tongue every time he mentioned his new acquaintances.

Strangely, when my friend caught his bus home, I ended up chatting with he who had met Gordon Brown. He was a Hammer, born near Upton Park. And most of his contacts were made as a cricket umpire. He was far more considerate and quiet when not trying to impress. But he didn’t ask me a thing about myself. The telling clue.

I cycled home ablaze with anger, riotous with spleen, amped up by the beer. I couldn’t imagine what to do with the feelings. But sleep worked the trick. Deep and long. I felt OK in the morning.

If it ever happens again, I will walk out. Talk about it when calm has returned.

Do I want too much from people?

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