There are a lot of special things about South Kensington tube station. First, it simply has history. The London Underground was the world’s first public underground service and South Ken one of its original stations – witness the bold, mid 1860s, wrought iron lettering over the entrance.
Second, and at a more personal level, South Ken is special as it is my portal to France. Coming out into the daylight means walking into France with the French Institute and the French Embassy just across the road, French cafés and shops dotted in all directions; and by dint of the French Lycée just round the corner, French is the lingua franca of the street.
And there is also a social dimension. All day the station seems overrun by excited children passing through its downstairs foyer. Not just the 3-18 year-old French contingent, but also those on pilgrimages to and from the museums – the Science, Natural History and the Victoria & Albert museums are all nearby. And for good reason they buzz with excitement. Whether it is adolescents being assertive, young families finding their way, or unwieldy school crocodiles on the march, all contribute to the commotion, the general hubbub.
Things were rather different here a few weeks ago for one child, a 5 or 6-year old who was walking along looking sad and withdrawn. The explanation for his demeanour was soon apparent. He was with his father and they were side-by-side, but somehow separate. I watched the boy try to hold his father’s hand, but it gently moved away. I assumed this was by chance. But a minute or so later the little hand tried again. This time their hands touched but immediately the father pulled his hand free. And a third brave attempt was met by the same withdrawal but now distinctly brusque. Not a word was spoken. The child’s head dropped, his face was vacant and forlorn, and the last I saw was the boy’s lonely figure trotting behind his father desperately trying to keep up as they went off down the escalator. How the father could have behaved so coldly is difficult to comprehend. Rejecting the child’s gesture in this way was plain cruel and would, I imagine leave a lasting impression, if not an emotional scar.
Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to the issue because of my own, very different, experience. Around 8 years ago I was walking along the river bank in Richmond with my wife and our niece Anna who was then around seven – the same Anna who would later take to wearing ripped jeans [A Difficult Teenager, 28th Aug, 2011]. Usually Rohan and I walked together and Anna would be on Rohan’s far side. Unannounced Anna was between us and her hand slipped its way into mine. With this, her little voice said, “I love you uncle Joe”. My heart melted. Could there be better example of warmth? Certainly to reject Anna’s initiative would have been unthinkable.
But acceptance or rejection is not just a thing of childhood, touching like this is also important in adult life. I well remember holding Rohan’s hand for the first time. We were standing in Trafalgar Square welcoming in the new year – 1965 to be precise. She was a Parisienne over from France for the winter break and we had only recently met. What great pleasure that first touch gave me. And conversely, how very different things might have been had my advance been rejected. I dread to think.
Photo credit: Martin Addison (Creative Commons)