It was with relief I arrived at the guest house.  The last few miles had been exhausting.  It had started raining as I left the Manack cliff top theatre.  By the time I reached the depressing pleasure palace at Lands End, the rain was horizontal and relentless.  I put my head down and carried on.  Gortex can keep showers off, but in  persistent rain, it is porous.  My anorak and leggings clung cold and damp to my wet shirt and shorts.  As I neared my destination, I took a short cut through the fields, but the long grass soaked my socks and the water wicked into my boots.  Water has a way of finding its way everywhere.

 

I rang the bell.  I was shaking with cold and eager to be inside. After an anxious time, the door was opened by a large man wearing an unfortunate green pullover over a tired shirt and baggy dark flannel trousers.  His curly hair needed cutting and he hadn’t shaved.  His manner was  obsequious but slightly distracted.  He looked me up and down, and before I could speak, he said, ‘Please wait  a minute.  I just have to deal with my guests.’  A party of Dutch people was going out and he was giving over-elaborate instructions for getting a meal. When they’d gone, he turned to me.  I told him I had booked.  ‘Ah yes,  I’m Alan.’  He held out a rather floppy, damp hand.  It was like holding a warm fish. 

 

‘As I stood there gently steaming and dripping, wondering if he was going to let me in, he suddenly said with enthusiasm.  Just give me all your wet stuff and I’ll put it in the drying room.  I demurred – I was just going to do as I usually did – wash my socks in the sink in the room and dry them on the radiator or towel rack.  But Alan was having none of it.  ‘Just bring anything that’s got wet.  It’ll be dry by morning.’  I thought of the pleasure of putting on warm dry socks and boots in the morning and after a few minutes presented him with a pile of socks, a shirt and my sodden boots.   

 

Breakfast was delayed.  It had clearly been a mistake to order kipper.  I asked for the stuff he had put in the drying room.  He gave me back my soggy pile of socks wrapped up inside my equally damp shirt.  My boots were still wet!  

 

What a plonker, I thought.  If he hadn’t made such a fuss about his drying room, I wouldn’t have given him my stuff.  I could have put the socks on the towel rail and they would have dried.  The shirt would have dried on me.

  

 

So what is it about ‘helpful’ people?   Why, when they offer to help, do I feel this pricking at the back of my neck,  like my hairs are standing on end? 

 

I think it’s the intrusion; the idea that somebody assumes they can enter my life and offer an unsolicited service.  Surely, if I want help, I can ask for it. 

 

Am I making too much fuss?  Perhaps I am, but let me explain.  An unsolicited offer of help from a stranger puts me in a bind.  If I accept, the chances are they will want something from me.  If I refuse, then I feel that I am being ungracious; I have hurt their feelings.  Either way I am under an obligation.  I feel manipulated. 

 

But don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting we should always be suspicious of those who offer to help us.  Civilisation would disintegrate if we didn’t help each other.  If I collapsed in the street,  I would hope somebody would stop and help, just as I hope that I would always offer support to somebody who was clearly in distress.  No, what I am complaining about is those interfering souls who offer unsolicited help to those who clearly don’t need it.  That is an intrusion. 

 

 

Let me give you another example. I went into the bank the other day and was greeted loudly and with great enthusiasm by a rather overweight young man, clearly a bank employee.  

 

‘Good morning, sir. How can I be of help to you?’ 

 

Nobody calls me sir these days unless they want something.  To my knowledge, the only person who insists on being addressed as ‘sir’ these days is The Prince of Wales.  

 

I felt a strong urge to reply,  ‘You can’t!   Piss off.’   But I didn’t.  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. 

 

‘I need to pay some money in.’  I muttered. 

 

‘No problem, sir!  Debbie is waiting for you. 

 

Shit! It felt like he had booked me in for a ‘special massage’.  I only wanted to put some money in.   I was annoyed.  The fact was  that I didn’t want to announce my intentions to the rest of the bank.  Financial transactions are like sex.  I like to do it in private.

 

Of course, this is what is so annoying about ‘cold’ callers.  They behave as if they are doing you a big favour, but really they just want sell you that insurance policy, the double glazing, the special service contract.  The most pernicious are the ones that inform you have been selected out of millions for a special prize.  You know there’s a catch.  And they always introduce themselves with their Christian name, as if you were a long lost friend. 

 

‘Hello, how are you today. My name is Tracey.  I’m calling from British Gas …..’.  

 

My brother has one of the best techniques to deal with this nuisance.  He doesn’t get annoyed.  Instead, he interrupts her ever so gently.  ‘Hello Tracey. I’m Simon. And how are you feeling?  And what are you wearing?  Hmmm.  And what are you wearing under that?’  There is a sharp intake of breath at this point and Tracey hangs up.   

 

So why should complete strangers want to be your friend?   Someone who assumes that they can help you when you don’t need it is not your friend.  They are thinking about their agenda. Friends respect each others boundaries.  They do not intrude or manipulate.  If your friends truly love you, they will want to you to grow in confidence by managing situations yourself and that includes asking for help when you need it.  They will not compromise you by making you dependant. 

 

People who affect friendship for their own gain are confidence tricksters.  In the film, Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench plays the role of a lonely middle aged teacher who targets vulnerable young women for Lesbian relationships by gaining their confidence, compromising them and inducing a sense of obligation.  She is not confident that she can be loved for herself.  So she resorts to manipulation. When she discovers that a young teacher, played by Kate Blachett is having a sexual relationship with a pupil, she offers to help her, but the total loyalty she demands in return is, in the end, too high a price to pay and her young friend goes to prison anyway.   

 

Unless they are working for a large corporation, like American Express or The Royal Bank of Scotland, ‘helpful’ strangers are not mercenary; they are just lonely. They need to be liked, to be loved even.  They need to be needed.  We sense this.  It makes us feel responsible, even in some small way, for their happiness.  I guess I felt that about Alan.  I felt he might be deeply offended if I eschewed the offer of his drying room. But there was something else.  I should have taken more notice of the abundance of prohibitions posted in the hallway.  They indicated a need for control.  I would guess that Alan resented acting the servant to paying guests.  He had to demonstrate his power.  He was not concerned for my comfort.  He just didn’t want my wet socks drying in the bedroom.

 

 

But perhaps I shouldn’t be too precious about people who induce a dependency in others.  Lovers try to do it all the time.  It’s part of courtship, the process of transforming the insecurity of desire into the stability of enduring love. Marriage and long term partnership might be regarded as states of mature interdependency.  

 

Some mothers do it. They can’t bear for their children to grow up, leave home, become independent, – they fear the loss of role, of purpose.  So they make themselves indispensable.  They continue to do the washing, provide food, some even became their son’s or daughters confidante.  But in trying to be too helpful they fail in their role as parents.  They do not allow their children to grow up and separate.  I always cringe when I hear a young woman say ‘my mother is my best friend.  Surely, the best thing parents can give their children is the ability to take them for granted.    

 

And what about women who love too much, the wives who do all the cooking, all the housework without even negotiating it?  Do they feel so unloveable, that they have to induce dependancy by infantalising their partner?  Do they have to ssert control by regulating supplies of support, food and sex.  Help, like love, can be conditional.

 

But this is not necessarily a good strategy.  Most men don’t want their life partner to be a servant.  It makes them feel like a despot, a tyrant.  No man wants to be too dependant.  Helpful women never quite understand it when their partners suddenly leave them for somebody who is not so nice to them.  ‘But I did everything for him!’   Maybe a more confident woman allows a man to be more of a man.       

 

I don’t wish to be too gender specific.  I am really talking about roles, rather than genders.  We all know men, who gain power by inducing  dependency.  We have a prime minister who is an expert at it.  Others do it more quietly.  IT technicians can be so irritating.  They seem to enjoy being obscure.  They have a knowledge that you don’t and they are not going to let you find out.   

 

‘You see, it’s easy, they say as their fingers flick over the keys and screen after screen flashes up.’  Of course, if you are paying for their help, then it is in their interest to be obscure.  That way you will call them again.  And if you are not paying for it you have to be nice to them. 

 

And, don’t some doctors just love being in control?  And surely, there is no greater control than the control of life and death.  Indeed, the more officious medics, who practice preventive medicine according to the latest government guidelines, can seem to create, in their patients, a crisis of anxiety that only they can solve. It’s like selling an insurance policy that people don’t know they want – helping people who don’t need help.  It behoves every carer to examine their motives. 

  

 

So be a little wary of ‘helpful’ people.  Be mindful of that pricking sensation at the back of your neck.  Why should somebody you don’t know from a bar of soap, want to be so friendly, offer help when you don’t need it?   Ask yourself what they want?   Of course if we still lived in villages or tribes of some 20 to 40 souls, we would all know whom  we could trust.  It is another sad by product of our loss of community, that we can’t be so sure of this any more.    

 

 
 
 

 

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