There was a line I found particularly poignant in the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams’ sermon at St Paul’s in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. He quoted St Paul, saying, ‘Compete with each other only in the generous respect you show to one and all; because in learning that respect you will find delight in one another.’
It reminded me of a recent conversation I had on a packed Tube train. A lady with crutches got on and, almost simultaneously, all those seated seemed to find the floor or their newspapers infinitely more absorbing. I asked her, loudly, if she’d like to sit down as I’d be happy to ask someone to move. She demurred as she was getting off in two stops, but then proceeded to regale me with shameful tales of crutch-impaired travelling woe. She also told me the story of a pregnant friend who, on asking a man if she could possibly take his seat, was told, ‘You got yourself into the state you’re in, so why’s that my problem?’ Possibly worse was that no one else in the carriage leapt to her friend’s defence.
Sure, we’re all a bit tired, stressed, worried about myriad things, and the London Underground at rush hour could test the Dalai Lama, but is there ever an excuse for such appalling rudeness? Common courtesy, it would appear, isn’t common at all. And it made me wonder, as the eyes of the world inevitably fall upon us throughout the forthcoming Olympic Games, and London is stretched to capacity, whether we will strive to present our best selves and a collective sense of national honour will emerge? For while there are many supposedly British traits that irritate – ingratiating self-deprecation, obfuscation and net-curtain twitching – our dignity in times of travail was always something to admire.
I hope, as Dr Williams concluded, that the legacy of all this celebration, from the Jubilee to the Olympics, will be, ‘The rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.’