‘The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure that anybody has, is his personal dignity.’ So said Jackie Robinson, incidentally the first Afro-American to play major league baseball.
All around me in this world I like to call home, leaders and influencers are seeking to disprove this theory, by shedding their dignity with the regularity, and completeness, of a cheap stripper shedding their clothes. I don’t want to name names, but then again I don’t really need to.
You and me, however, are not like that. Our dignity is generally intact because we seek not to do things that damage it. In fact, we work hard to maintain its integrity. Or, in my case, we did so until this evening.
Coming down from London on the crowded 5.30 train, I had the three blessed gifts of public transport- a seat of my own, a newspaper and a neighbour who just sat there being quiet, still and hygienic. Having got up at 4.30 a.m for a reason I still don’t quite understand, I was drowsy by Vauxhall, nodding by Queenstown Road and out for the count by Clapham Junction. Earlsfield, Wimbledon and New Malden passed in an unconscious blur, and by the time I got to Surbiton, I was dreaming about something sweet but instantly forgettable. I was woken briefly at West Byfleet by some idiot tripping over my foot, but snoring again by Woking.
The problem occurred half way between there and Guildford, when I fell victim to that involuntary spasm thing that a body seems to do when it is sleeping upright, and in public. My right arm shot out, narrowly missing the nose of my neighbour, and I blinked myself back into the here and now, wondering if anyone had noticed what I had just done.
In my crowded carriage, the answer was yes, they all had. Moreover, they were staring at me in a way that suggested that there was more to what had just happened than the mere spasm, maybe a shouting out of some deep secret, or some unfeasibly embarrassing opinion. Maybe something even worse than that.
The woman opposite me, who had been banging on on her phone about the event she had organized at the Barbican Centre before I went to sleep, was staring at my shirt, but staring with a morbid fascination. It was then that I felt the dampness on my chest, then that I first became aware of the dark blue stain on my otherwise light blue shirt. In my catatonic state, I had dribbled and dribbled copiously, and, in doing so, I had evidently been the evening’s entertainment for the carriage. I don’t see myself as a traditional dribbler, far from it in fact, but clearly age was starting to change things.
People started to look away in the way the British do when they don’t want to admit to having been prying, but I understood there and then that I had been the vaudeville act all the way from New Malden to Worplesden. I determined on a bold, open approach, one whereby I smiled conspiratorially at my fellow travellers as if to mitigate my humiliation by showing that I found it quite funny as well.
But to do so proved, alas, something that I had hitherto never completely understood, which is that you can’t share the joke when you actually arethe joke. To assume you can is unfair, and takes pleasure from people who have worked hard to deserve it.
Haslemere came as a blessed relief, (not something that can often be said of it), and I climbed into the dark anonymity of my car, well rested and with a fast drying cotton shirt.