As an adult, being on the receiving end of a ‘good telling off’ is most unpleasant. I got one from government officials in my late 50s; it was for a minor breach of some draconian secrecy regulations. The issue at hand was trivial – using privileged information to suggest to a consumer group a topic about which they might, at some future date, wish to lobby – but the event, with its drawn-out bullying and demeaning innuendo, was quite horrible.
Nevertheless there are times when firm words are needed despite the potential risk of conflict. So I will ask errant smokers to stop smoking or move along. And, somewhat less risky, earlier this year I scolded a couple of 12-year-olds who were throwing figs at our outside light for ‘target practice’.
The boys could have taken revenge, but actually nothing more has happened. However, the incident reminded me of a confrontation some years ago when there was real risk of physical harm. This happened in London and involved Greg who had recently spent time inside, more precisely in Dartmoor, for murder, and was now out and reformed. He was a big man – towering over me – and he was also strong. That year he had been key to our winning the inter-street tug-of-war competition at the local summer fair.
Greg also had a short fuse and one morning had lost his temper and had sworn at, and frightened, my wife. On hearing the story I went round to his house, knocked on his door and, standing at my full height, looked up into his eyes and firmly, unemotionally asked that he go and apologise to Rohan. After a moment’s silence, when I feared for my safety, he went strangely sheepish and nodded. As I went home he followed a few paces behind. It was moving to see this giant of a man saying ‘Sorry’, but he did, and then the episode was closed.
And last month, and in no way presenting the same physical threat, I confronted other neighbours, but this time in Paris. The day had been hot and humid and the night promised the same. Even with our windows wide open it was still so warm that getting to sleep was difficult. After three hours we were woken by the sound of drumming and shouting. The occupants of a flat opposite were having a party. Their windows were wide open, their lights were ablaze, and two tipsy men were joking loudly on the balcony. Normally at night the courtyard is quiet.
Closing our windows and shutters and burying our heads under the pillows made little difference and calling the police seemed excessive, so we were left with the direct approach. Put another way, we faced potential confrontation with the inevitable risk of unpleasantness and failure. Around thirty flats look on to the yard but no other lights went on, no one else seemed concerned, so in this confrontation I would be alone.
It wasn’t perhaps the most obvious approach but I decided to shout a long “shush..” across the courtyard. In theory, the strategy was doomed. Shush is not a French word so why should they understand; the perpetrators had been drinking, so why should they care; and finally being that shush is a word deigned to be said quietly (try shouting it for yourselves), why should my request be heard by noisy people across the yard.
But the shush did indeed reach its desired destination and in response a male voice boomed back in French – “What do you mean by ‘shush’ ?” “‘What exactly do you want us to do?” “What’s your problem anyway?” In reply to each question I simply repeated my “shush”. I didn’t want either to get involved in an argument or, by my accent, to reveal my nationality; being English would certainly have inflamed the situation.
In minutes the noise began to stop, first the music, then the conversation, and soon we were back asleep. For whatever reason they had responded to the shush approach with neither argument nor anger. How much better than the alternative!
By great good fortune, both confrontations were resolved as differences should be, with no fights, nothing emotional, nothing demeaning, just a quick resolution. That is what the ‘good’ in a truly ‘good telling off’ should be. Nothing like the ministerial wigging of yesteryear. And what a relief both outcomes were.