On my final morning I called at the Capuchin monks’ mausoleum in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione on the busy Piazza Barberini. This I cannot recommend highly enough. In the sixteenth century some monk had the inspired idea of taking the bones of his fellow monks when they died and using them to decorate the palace. Is that rich enough for you? Half a dozen gloomy chambers along one side of the church were filled with such attractions such as an altar made of rib cages, shrines meticulously concocted from skulls and leg bones, ceilings trimmed with forearms, wall rosettes fashioned from vertebrae, chandeliers made from the bones of hand and feet. In the odd corner there stood a complete skeleton of a Capuchin monk dressed like the Grim Reaper in his hooded robe, and ranged along the other wall were signs in six languages with such cheery sentiments as WE WERE LIKE YOU. YOU WILL BE LIKE US, and a long poem engagingly called ‘My Mother Killed Me!!’. These guys must have been a barrel of laughs to be around. You can imagine every time you got the flu some guy coming along with a tape measure and a thoughtful expression.
Four thousand monks contributed to the display between 1528 and 1870 when the practice was stopped for being just too tacky for words. No one knows quite why or by whom the designs were made, but the inescapable impression you are left with is that the Capuchins once harboured in their midst a half-mad monk with time on his hands and a certain passion for tidiness.
Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
Which brings me to the bumping experiments. I spent several amusing afternoons in busy, crowded public places (train stations, tube stations, bus stations, shopping centres, street corners, etc.) accidentally-on-purpose bumping into people to see if they would say ‘sorry’. A number of my informants, both natives and visitors, had cited this ‘reflex apology’ as a particularly striking example of English courtesy, and I was fairly sure I had experienced it myself – but I felt obliged to do the proper scientific thing and actually test the theory in a field-experiment or two.
My bumping got off to a rather poor start. The first few bumps were technically successful, in that I managed to make them seem convincingly accidental, but I kept messing up the experiment by blurting out an apology before the other person had a chance to speak. As usual, this turned out to be a test of my own Englishness: I found that I could not bump into someone, however gently, without automatically saying ‘sorry’. After several of these false starts, I finally managed to control my knee-jerk apologies by biting my lip – firmly and rather painfully – as I did the bumps. Having perfected the technique, I tried to make my experiments as scientific as possible by bumping into a representative cross-section of the English population, in a representative sample of locations. Somewhat to my surprise, the English lived up to their reputation: about 80 per cent of my victims said ‘sorry’ when I lurched into them, even though the collisions were clearly my fault.
George Orwell said that the English are ‘inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes and use probably the foulest language in the world’, but he nevertheless concluded, without contradiction, that ‘The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.’ As evidence of this, along with the good-temperedness of bus-conductors and unarmed policemen, he cited the fact that ‘In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement’. Quite so, and if your shove appears to be genuinely accidental, they might even apologize as they stumble into the gutter.
Mother was slightly concerned when she discovered that, in Mahabalipuram, we would be staying in a hotel facing the beach. She likes the water just fine, but her major worry was I would spend our three days here just bumming on the beach and reading. She is not wrong to be concerned. What I’m reading:Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater