Part of the Invisible Diaries series:
Week 3 / Day 2
Seeing people in their own environment, in their home, in their street, is right up mine. I’ve always been delighted by overheard fragments, an expressive pose – a dramolett, as I have come to call the encounters I preserve. Decades of Alan Bennett research and ‘doing dramaturgy’ in the sociological sense have also trained me well, and shown me there’s no better place than Leeds for a good dramolett.
Last week, while out delivering and shopping for people, I had one of the strangest and funniest doorstep conversations I can remember:
Holbeck. Day. Doorstep of a young woman who has to shield.
Kara has just received 8 post-it notes of shopping list, which she is trying to read back to the woman.
Kara. Cow & Gate baby food, apple & banana, apple & pear – NOT banana & pear? OK.
Ella's apple crumble purée – NOT blackcurrant? OK?
4-6 months. Is that the age of your baby?
It's for your disabled pet rat, I see.
Is that the only food it can digest, then?
It can’t move its hind legs, I see….
I should have asked the name of the pet rat, I muse, while I distance-queue round ASDA car park in Beeston. My subconscious is impressed enough by someone on the phone earlier saying that she had “a hankering for pineapple” that I buy some special offer tinned pineapple.
The day of deliveries unfolds in little moments of dramatic encounters. You learn so much about people when they’re in their own settings. Older people are the most expressive – their style of performing themselves, the way they want to be seen evident even from several metres away: Doreen might be struggling with cracked ribs, a cough and a frail husband, but I have never seen such immaculate matte golden nails; Brenda might have been stuck at home for 4 weeks, but she has an immaculate blow-dried bob.
She’s in no mood for pleasantries, though, because a) it’s green-top milk I’ve brought, not blue-top, and b) she’s grumpy I am not taking her money. I explain that we have two spaces full of food donations at The Holbeck, but her pride is hurt.
I should have looked at Twitter before I set off!
“Do you think that this free food delivered might encourage a softening of people’s character?”
“You really worried about that?”
“Well Yes it could make people servile”
“you try giving anyone in Holbeck over 65 years old any other milk but blue top and come back to me you loon”
Off to bring food round for Eric and Barry, who live in flats on the same floor and look out for each other. Alan had warned me that he mistakenly said Eric was 93 the other day (he is 83!) and Eric had mimed shooting him with his walking stick. Alan, of course, had responded by ‘being hit and dying’ outside Eric’s flat, to delighted chuckles from the old gentleman. “Take it steady, love, and thanks for looking after us”, he says to me by way of goodbye.
There are many expressive responses to having to accept help, and we use them to guide us in the way we approach people in Holbeck and Beeston: there are the ones who are ashamed, who see it as social stigma; the ones for whom it’s no big deal; the ones in between who still have their pride, but who have had to learn to accept help; the ones who enjoy the visits to alleviate the monotony, or because they are natural performers; the ones who are scared (children in particular); the ones who feel left behind; the ones who don’t have the capacity or trust to engage at all.
Performance is everywhere, and Holbeck in LS11 is one of the best places in the world to encounter it.
Dr Kara McKechnie is a German-Scottish hybrid. Born in London and educated in Germany, she worked for Opera Stuttgart, Opera Karlsruhe, Heidelberg Theatre et al. Her academic career started at Heidelberg University and continued at De Montfort University (PhD thesis on Alan Bennett; monograph 2007).