diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 05, 2023

News For Extroverts

Benches aim to ease the pain of loneliness

An exciting initiative in Sutton is making it easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and could literally save lives.

A simple plaque on a bench in Woodcote Road, Wallington, invites anyone 'happy to chat' to take a seat and receive a little boost to their day. 'Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello', it adds, in the hope that a kind passer-by will do just that. Any impromptu conversation is far more beneficial than drifting through life in silence, so this new project is a welcome step towards improving our collective wellbeing and self-worth.

Sitting alone on a public bench can be a dispiriting experience, especially when those passing by choose to ignore your presence. And yet the occupant may yearn to say nothing more than hello, or maybe to strike up conversation about the weather, or perhaps to share a little gossip to help the day go by. It's therefore hoped these special plaques will help those with something to say to connect more easily on a day to day basis, thereby helping to lubricate Sutton's social interface.

The inspiration for the 'Happy to Chat' project came from a depressing experience in a Cardiff park when Allison Owen-Jones, 53, spotted an elderly man sitting alone on a bench for 40 minutes. At the time she was too cautious to go over and interact, but she did wonder if the man was lonely and why nobody else seemed to care.

"Wouldn't it be nice if there was a simple way to let people know you're open to a chat," she thought, and so the idea of a notice tied to a bench came into being. The initiative proved remarkably successful, tapping into that innate desire we all have to reach out and connect, and soon spread around the country indeed around the world.

There's now no need for folk in Wallington to sit at home and stew, they can simply head out to their nearest bench and make clear their desire for company. We all need a regular injection of communal time to boost our mood, some even more frequently than others, because what is the human condition if not regularly shared? Just be careful not to sit in front of the sign because an invisible cry for help is no help at all!

News For Introverts

Chatty benches make it harder to get a seat

A thoughtless intervention in Sutton is making it tougher to find somewhere quiet to sit down, and could literally be damaging to your health.

A selfish plaque on a bench in Woodcote Road, Wallington, invites anyone 'happy to chat' to take a seat and await impromptu conversation. 'Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello', it adds, in the expectation that a misguided passer-by will do just that. But that's not why people take a break, they do it to seek solace and respite from their fellow humans, meaning this bench is now effectively out-of-bounds 24 hours a day.

Imagine the worst case scenario. A reclusive soul is sitting lost in their thoughts when some inconsiderate stranger makes themselves known and wrecks the moment with mindless smalltalk. Nobody needs a inane greeting, nobody's genuinely interested in the weather and nobody wants to hear random opinions on the world around them - these are all anathema to the simple act of sitting quietly.

The wording on the sign is borderline offensive and discriminates against those who would rather hide themselves away than interact with a stranger. Once again the establishment insists on insinuating that gregarious behaviour with regular social top-ups is the norm, whereas in fact only time separated from the masses recharges the soul.

Overnight a portfolio of benches across Sutton has become unusable, sadistically restricting opportunities for recuperation, relaxation and meditation. What's more no "non-chat" benches have been provided, despite the obvious benefits of somewhere peaceful to hide away in designated isolation, as once again the needs of the 'deviant' silent have been cruelly overlooked.

From the wording on the sign it almost sounds as if the bench is under observation from a patrol of well-meaning community do-gooders who intend to magically appear, impose their company and say hello. Sutton's not yet a no-go zone, indeed you can always thwart the chatty bench brigade by sitting in front of the sign so it can't be seen, but when will people finally realise that 'alone' doesn't always mean 'lonely'?

News For Sutton

Small plastic rectangles appear on benches

An intervention in Sutton is hoping to ease loneliness by adding 'Happy to chat' signs to a dozen benches in Beddington and Wallington.

The plaques were installed by the Beddington and Wallington Local Committee using funding from their Public Realm Revenue budget. The total cost to the council was £454. The selected locations for the benches were as follows.

Wallington North: Wallington Green (near the Dukes Head); Elm Pond; Manor Road (near the station)
Wallington South: Woodcote Road (outside Old Town Hall); Shotfield (on the new bench); outside Sainsburys on the steps down from Stafford Road
Beddington South: corner of Lindberg and Mollison Drive; near new Spitfire weathervane; outside the Phoenix Centre
Beddington North: Beddington Park by the Cricket Green; in the park on the left as you walk from the church; Bandon Hill cemetery

Funding for the plaques was agreed at a committee meeting on 10th March 2020, immediately before lockdown, which was pretty much the worst possible timing for a social scheme encouraging people to sit together. It took until the summer of 2021 before local councillors felt confident enough to recommend using the benches, pointing out that "many have missed those mini-conversations we took for granted... and some people have had almost no one to talk to for much of the pandemic."

The bench in the photo can be found alongside the Blenheim Gardens bus stop on Woodcote Road. This bench lies immediately underneath a big tree so its left-hand end is somewhat splattered, making sitting here for a chat somehow less enticing. Those seeking to sit in peace can always use the red benches in the bus shelter which are unsigned. Do pop down the next time you're feeling excessively solitary, but don't necessarily expect anyone else to stop and say hello.

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