When I was in my really formative years, about ages 16 and 17, I was addicted to all things American. The music, the movies, above all, the television; they seemed so, well, fresh when compared with the stuffy anglophilia I had absorbed through my pores from as far back as I could remember.
Of all that Americana, most of which I have since turned a more sceptical eye towards, the one program that has stayed with me, through thick and then, was Naked City. It was for its time a really human show (‘gritty’ would be the term used today) dealing with the detail, small and large, that afflicts the lives of ordinary people in the streets and brownstones of New York. The leading character was Detective Adam Flint played by Paul Burke, who had a brief career in movies and television.
Although Detective Flint seemed always on the verge of tears, so human was Naked City, it was not his lachrymose persona that so impressed itself on my memory. It was, rather, the voiceover that ended every episode: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them”. From that time on, I realised that everyone, no matter how humble, has a story to tell, and it was in accepting such a maxim that the pole star of a long career in journalism was firmly fixed.
Last winter, I was having a getting-to-know-you coffee with Debby O’Brien, our local elected representative on Armidale Regional Council, and it was a pleasure to find that she gets it, that every thought prompts a question which finds as its answer another thread woven into what we used to call, ironically, the rich tapestry of life.
Through the unwinding warmth of her coffee, Debby described growing up in Moree; whereupon we found that her younger sister’s close friend from school, Jenny H., went on to the University of New England where she became a friend of my wife’s; in turn, we also found that Debby has an uncle named Leo O’Brien from the Maitland area, while my father-in-law has a cousin called Leo O’Brien from Millers Forest; and, what’s more, Debby once lived in Armidale at 20 D. Street during her post-graduate years; we live at 22 D. Street.
Crazy stuff, but it all emerged because we each instinctively listened to the other and treated the other as an object of respect, and, most importantly, as the conduit to some body of knowledge, no matter how arcane, and not as a subjective extension of our own dazzling egos.
It reminded me of a social function I had attended not long before when I was accosted by a gentleman in his 70s — not in his 20s, I might add — who asked me what I had done for a living before retiring. I had barely got out the words that I was a mild-mannered reporter from a great metropolitan newspaper, when he shot me a searching look: “Which one?” he demanded to know. It was obviously the wrong one, doing nothing to enhance his self-opinion, his self-worth, his embittered prejudice or even the health of his tapeworm, for there the discussion abruptly ended.
Thirty years before, the response, almost universally, would have been an awed: “Did you ever interview Whitlam or Fraser or Hawke?” and should I have replied, “Well, yes”, it would have inevitably prompted an even more awed follow-up question, “What were they/he like?” A few of the more nuanced might have asked, “What was it like to interview them/him?” But, in comparison with the small change you get today, I’m not complaining about the general response. After all I was never a celebrity journalist.
Nor am I a sociologist or a psychologist, so I can’t give a definitive reason why we are no longer interested in other people. We can’t entirely blame it on social media with all its hateful trolling and persecution, because this infection has spread from over-excited teens to age-brackets who should know better. It is almost as though the socialisation we grew up with in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, had been so skin-deep that when the ’80s bore down on us shouting ‘Me, Me, Me, Me’, we were glad to be rid of what Kipling, had he been writing today, might have called “the human being’s burden”.
The sad thing is that we are all the poorer for it. As it happens, we have a woman living in our street who attended the University of Indiana when the parents of the fabulously talented Joshua Bell were on the music faculty, but I doubt that anyone else knows. When I was on the staff of the Financial Review there was another reporter there who had been at Kent State University on the very day of the massacre in 1970. Yet I doubt many had enquired enough of her to eventually ask: “What was it like when the National Guard opened fire?”
To me, it doesn’t seem enough to say ‘hello’ to a neighbour, as all the well-meaning social gurus urge us to do. It might help more if we actually listened to their reply and engage with it and absorb it, instead of looking into our smartphones for a more rewarding social experience.