That 7-year old kid at the fun-fair was quite a charmer, despite his quirky mood-swings. Or maybe, he charmed thanks to those shifting moods, because, truly, they were a delightful spectacle to watch. The boy was the youngest of a bunch of kids which had been set loose (under benign parental guidance of course) amongst the attractions of a local summer fair. As small as he was, he looked very brave amongst the bigger kids.
But then, as swift as a cloud passing over the sun, his face would fall, his lips would tremble, tears would start rolling. And soon he'd be sobbing as the unhappiest little boy in the world. To be all smiles again five minutes later, eyes sparkling and ready to go for it. Oh and then how combative he would look, with anger flaring up in his eyes, when he didn’t get right away the coveted red football…
As adults too, we get bombarded all the time by multifarious emotions of frustration, despondency, anger, elation, … but thick layers of self-control smother most of those emotions, before they even make it to the surface of our face. Haven't we all had years & years of training in self-control. Dignity! Restraint!
Indeed, “could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy” (1) - surely we all have been told something to that effect at some stage in our education (even if only by our own, sterner alter ego).
Therefore, watching adult people in public spaces, is usually not very exciting. Adult people have perfected strategies of non-expressiveness, routinely deployed when they're on their own in, say, trains, waiting rooms etc.
When I first started working (oh, ‘the horror the horror’ (2)) all those years ago, I had to commute each day by train & underground. If I wasn’t reading, I used to watch people – trying to guess their lives. But all those silent people on the 7.12 morning train, wrapped up in their thoughts or their newspapers ..... – it was impossible to guess what they thought or felt.
It was on that same morning train, wrapped up in my own somber Monday morning thoughts, seeking support in a book (3), that this brilliant passage (about people in a train-compartment) by Virginia Woolf struck me:
“Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of – what? That life’s like that, it seems. Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge on each face. Strange though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket-book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!”
trying to confine the footnotes to credits only
(1) From the “Lost Girl” by D.H. Lawrence – must confess I never finished reading that book. But well, I did retain this piece of dour-governess- morality at page 60 : "Happiness is a sort of soap-tablet – he won’t be happy till he gets it, and when he’s got it, the precious baby, it’ll cost him his eyes and stomach. Could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy: like a baby in the bath!”
(2) 'Ever so useful, Joseph Conrad' – as Moss would put it. She (Moss) also coined the brilliant expression “life’s penitential status” which, coming to speak of it, was indeed how I thought of life when first being subjected to the harsh and inimical discipline of working life.
(3) Virginia Woolf: An Unwritten Novel (as published in ‘the complete shorter fiction’)