The three lovely ladies from Houston, Texas were peering around confusedly, turning their London street map round and round. I rescued them – the way you do – at the bottom of Charing Cross Road and pointed them the right way: across Trafalgar Square, straight down Whitehall – you can’t miss Big Ben, Westminster, the London Eye and all the rest.
I was going in the same direction so I strolled along with them and made polite conversation. Without thinking, I did what I always do – drifted across to St Martin-in-the-Fields through the (slowly) moving traffic, giving no thought to traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, etc. The ladies were astonished: “Are you allowed to do that?” “I don’t know about allowed” I said, “but it’s what we do: Londoners wouldn’t get anywhere very fast if we worried about the lights. Anyhow, you know that song Rule, Britannia? Britons never shall be slaves?” They said they did. “Well”, I said, “we really mean it”. I bit my lip to avoid slipping into my typical sideswipe about being whistled at fiercely by humourless New York policemen when I did the same thing in what they like to call The Land of the Free …
So why am I writing a piece about being told what to do? Obviously I don’t like being told what to do – only, sometimes, it’s quite nice. In a management career spent giving a lead, taking decisions, guiding others, you have to make a lot of the running. That’s OK, but it’s a mighty relief just to be in a place where all you have to do is follow instructions. At your daughter’s wedding, for example, you just respond to the key words: “credit card”, “cheque book”, “speech”, “tip”, “dance” (or, if I’m brutally honest “don’t dance”). Seriously, by the time you get to the day all you can do is follow instructions – it’s too late to do anything else. A relief, as I say, even if things go wrong.
One of my special treats these days is to do a volunteer shift in the Community Garden in our local open space, Clissold Park. It’s a small corner packed with raised beds, a serious greenhouse, and all sorts of strange but important things creeping around the nooks and crannies. We grow organic vegetables, herbs and fruit, all under the supervision of the fabulous Sophie, who does all the instructing, guiding, decision making. I have a lot of gardening experience but little or no knowledge, so I just turn up, approach Sophie and wait for orders. These are invariably genial, accompanied by gently firm guidance on avoiding cross-infection with secateurs, on how few plants are actually weeds, on the proper distribution of compost.
The healthy sales to locals every Monday morning are testimony to the results of all the hard work. I have learnt a lot, got much satisfaction from doing small things, but most of all I’m just content to stand back and receive orders. It makes a change. And it feels right.