I learned a number of interesting and colourful words and phrases — some of which I can’t print in a family newspaper — while I lived in Great Britain. One of the phrases I can repeat is “curtain twitcher”, a reference to the type of person who makes a habit of peering through the net curtains of their front window to monitor what is going on in their neighbourhood. Obscured by the net curtains, the watcher can twitch them aside slightly to get a better view as circumstances dictate.
In some cases, these observations lead to confrontations with those involved, whether it be someone not picking up their dog’s leavings or a group of kids being too rowdy. So instantly recognizable is the curtain twitcher in Britain that the great Alan Bennett made one the central figure in his dramatic monologue “A Lady of Letters”, part of his celebrated Talking Heads series. Irene Ruddock is a curtain twitcher par excellence, and as a result is forever seeing social ills and situations that she feels need to be addressed and corrected.
Not content to tut-tut silently to herself, Irene sends a constant stream of letters to the police, politicians, and the people involved. When the family across the street — whom Irene suspects of abusing their child — becomes the target of some of Irene’s accusatory letters, it leads to a heartbreaking revelation that turns everything we think we know about the family and what’s happening on its head. With (she thought) right on her side, Irene did not bring about someone’s justified comeuppance; she misunderstood everything that was happening and caused only pain.
I’ve been reminded of Irene in recent days as we hear more stories about so-called “COVID cops”: members of the public who take it upon themselves to expose or upbraid people they suspect are contravening rules and restrictions surrounding COVID-19. A frequent target, it seems, is people driving vehicles with out-of-province licence plates, with drivers of such vehicles reporting angry confrontations, nasty notes left on their windshield, and in some cases vandalization, usually in the form of their vehicle being keyed.
This isn’t, I suspect, quite the warm B.C. welcome we like to think we give to visitors, even if the perpetrators were to thoughtfully attach a list of nearby body shops specializing in paint jobs. And in most cases that I’ve heard of, the vehicle owners aren’t even visitors: they live or work here, in some cases for months or years, and either don’t need to get B.C. plates for their vehicles, or haven’t been able to, what with this whole global pandemic thing having caused ICBC to slow the provision of many services to the speed of a geriatric tortoise with mobility issues. One man with out-of-province plates who has been resident in B.C. since early 2020, but hasn’t yet been able to licence his vehicle here because of the pandemic, has resorted to putting a note explaining the situation on his car, to stem the anger directed his way.
It goes without saying that he shouldn’t have to do this, and that people should mind their own business. When I hear about this sort of incident, I don’t think “Wow, there’s a conscientious citizen looking out for us all”, I think “There’s someone with anger management issues and way too much time on their hands. I understand that crocheting is a very calming activity.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying “Don’t judge.” We don’t know why that out-of-province vehicle is here, just as we don’t know why that large group has gathered at someone’s house (death in the family?), or the person ahead of us in line is buying what seems to be an excessive number of face masks (they’re part of a group that volunteers with vulnerable people?). In the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, be kind, be calm, and be safe. There’s probably a reason why she put “kind” first.