On being civilised
I really appreciate being in a civilised environment. I guess it’s hard to define what that means. It involves people speaking softly, holding the door for someone arriving behind you, forming a recognisable queue when there’s queueing involved, actually looking at someone when you talk to her, … Yes, I’d even add getting up to present your chair to someone who may need it more.
Luckily, I meet a lot of civilised people in the hospital these days. But a memorable highlight of what it means to be civilised we encountered during our recent visit to London. I like the way that most of the major London musea are completely free to walk into. It takes about two minutes to walk up to the British Museum and be face to face with the Rosetta Stone. How cool is that? This is maybe one of the 10 most recognisable cultural artefacts of all of human history. They could probably charge 10 Pounds, have long queues and notices of what you’re not allowed to do and then hide the object somewhere deep down in the museum. But nope, you just walk in, take a left, and there it is in all its glory. There’s a lot of other glorious stuff in that building. (There can be a bit of a crowd at the entrance, and not everybody in the crowd is all that … civilised, but still.)
And it gets better: you know, in the Victoria and Albert museum, they have a very varied collection of all kinds of wonderful stuff, including the most wonderful stuff that exists: the original drawings by E.H. Shepard for the Winnie-The-Pooh books. (No. Not the Disney mutilation. The Real Stuff.) I don’t remember how I know this because the drawings are not on display. But I remembered that we had seen the drawings on an earlier visit, maybe 20 years ago…
And that’s the thing: when you enter the museum, you can just ask at the reception to see the drawings. They give you a telephone number you can ring to make an appointment. And then a nice lady takes you to a private study room – via a long tour behind the scenes, all the longer because I was in a wheelchair and we had to pass through many corridors and offices, take several elevators, cross from one wing of the building to another – sort of helped building up the expectation…
Nobody asks you what you want to do with the drawings. Nobody asks you to fill in a form. You don’t need a ‘permission’. You don’t need to show identification. The lady just comes to pick you up at the entrance and takes you to this nice private study room. And then someone brings you boxes with the drawings and you’re free to look at them for as long as you like, take pictures, whatever. No pressure, just a nice opportunity to enjoy a highlight of Western culture, at your own pace, nice and quietly.
This is priceless material – actually, a single drawing is apparently worth about 200.000 pound in an auction. Nobody told us we weren’t supposed to write on the drawings or fold them or take them with us. Because the assumption was that we were civilised people and that this is not what civilised people do. We didn’t know whether photos were OK, so we asked.
That, for me, is so much the core of what A Good Life is all about: we respect each other, and the valuable objects around us. And when in doubt, we ask. Quietly, because you may find yourself in a small study room, somewhere in the innards of a world class museum, surrounded by … civilisation.
So, here’s to all you civilised people out there (like the people who took us to the reading room and brought us the drawings from the archive): many thanks for making my life so much more enjoyable.
And you know what little Piglet tells his friends on the drawing? “It’s really hard to be brave.” I agree with that. We all have a little Piglet inside of us…