When I was little, around eight or nine, Miss Webster asked the class what was the most important thing to remember when building a house. And I, in all sincerity when called upon, answered, "A door". Apparently the correct response was foundations, a point over which I feel I could argue to this day.
Miss Webster also disliked the word "nice". It lacked imagination. It was lazy, a bit like Jason Gadsby. Nice was not a nice word.
At the beginning of last month, I had the rare good fortune to interview one of my idols. Without keeping you in agonies of suspense, my interviewee was ... *drum roll* ... Alistair Appleton.
No, you shut up. Alistair. Alistair Appleton. You know, him off the telly. Have you never watched Escape to the Country? Cash in the Attic? House freakin Doctor? Alistair Appleton. Speaks beautifully, has dimples, enjoys a duffle coat.
Look, it's okay. I'm alive to the fact that my dream dinner party would be full of people nobody's ever heard of. And I get that Alistair's charms are perhaps not that obvious – duffle coat notwithstanding – to most people. However, apparently we're attracted to qualities in people that we don't possess or are lacking in some way ourselves, and the quality in Alistair that I most admire is his ... well, his niceness. He just seems a really nice bloke.
That's not to say I see myself devoid of niceness – all my pets are rescue after all – but I recognise this tendency to be drawn to people who seem thoroughly decent, which does suggest a recognition of my own merely adequate niceness, manifesting as a socially acceptable way of behaving that keeps me both out of prison and the Mail Online. Some people are drawn to the dark excitement that sparks around those of dubious moral standing, but I prefer those that you "could take anywhere". Those on whom you could depend in any social situation not to crack a joke at someone's expense or correct their pronunciation or leave them standing awkwardly on the edge of a conversation. I'm drawn to those for whom acting compassionately is second-nature rather than a conscious exercise of self-flattery. I feel – and I may be wrong, in which case my world view would entirely collapse and I would refuse to eat for, oh, at least an hour – that you could take Alistair Appleton absolutely anywhere, whether it's Buck Palace or Primark in the January sales.
How do I know Alistair's niceness quota exceeds my own allocation?
First off, he's trained in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists, by and large, don't tend to be self-absorbed arses. (Except for the ones that are, of course.There are always outliers.) I'm training in the Buddhist tradition but find my eyes glazing over at the endless number of lists. Seriously, so many lists. My study sessions invariably morph into binge-watching The Frankenstein Chronicles. It's fair to say enlightenment and I have yet to be introduced.
Secondly, our approach to participants on Escape to the Country is very, very, different:
Buyer Couple One: Hmmm, not sure about the beams.
Alistair: (smiling in understanding) Okay. So what is it you don't like about them?
Buyer Couple One: They're beams.
Me: (shouting at telly) So when you asked for a house with character, you confused it with a Barratt Home? Bugger off to Milton Keynes, you soulless fudge nuggets.
Alistair: Yes, they're not for everyone. Come and look at the Aga, it'a pretty duck-egg blue.
Alistair: So here we are at the mystery house. First impressions?
BC2: The swimming pool isn't as big as the one we have now.
Alistair: No. But if you look around the corner, there's a brand new hot-tub/sauna complex attached to a top-of-the-range gym.
Alistair: And this property has the seven bedrooms and separate garages you were looking for, the rustic open plan kitchen, wrap-around conservatory, and – I feel there should be some sort of fanfare here (dimpling with delight as he throws open the French doors onto the landscaped gardens extending to 1.5 acres) – there's the added bonus of this charming granny annexe. Completed only last year, the previous owners have had it done in the Arts & Crafts style with a Lutyens-inspired roof. It could also work as an extra source of income for your impending retirement.
BC2: (pause) Is there room to extend the swimming pool?
Me: (whispering) Say yes, Alistair, and let me hate them more.
Alistair: What are you looking for in your dream home?
BC3: For our friends to come in through the door and go green with envy.
Alistair: Ah yes, that ever elusive wow factor. I have a feeling you're going to just love the sparkly granite flooring and disco ceiling. Come this way ...
Me: Who are these people. Who ARE these people? I THOUGHT DARWIN HAD SORTED ALL THIS CRAP OUT!
(I swear to you in one episode a couple really did put their friends' envy at the top of their dream house wish-list, and this is the only occasion I can recall on which Alistair's general expression of benign bonhomie staggered a fraction before recovering.)
To be fair, I think if there were a Venn diagram representing the human relationship with niceness with Alistair as one set and, say, Paul Hollywood as another, most of us would fall in the intersection. A little bit nice and a little bit dick-ish.
My friend Liz and I have this thing whereby she drags on a cigarette while I inhale biscuits and we talk wisely for an hour or so on Adyashanti or Rupert Spira and the complexities of the non-dualist viewpoint, acting for all the world like the properly woke people we believe ourselves to be. Then after a while, we lapse into a companionable silence before one of us says, without fail, "Basically, it's about not being a dick, isn't it?" And the other, gazing thoughtfully into the middle distance, nods and says, "Yep. Just don't be a dick." And we feel better having condensed the exhortations of all world religions into one snappy phrase.
But, damn, it's tiring not being a dick. Exhausting. Some days it's simply easier to surrender to the impulse to judge, compare and criticize. Sometimes, roaring at someone on the telly who sees the lack of a utility room as heralding in the Four Horsemen feels good, morally justified, as we seek to maintain some firm sense of identity, of superiority, in what seems to be an increasingly individualistic world.
It's a hard fact, but the more you meditate and study, the full extent of your capacity to be a dick bobs to the surface, no longer weighed down by the concrete boots of deflection and suppression. And this is why I have such deep admiration for genuinely nice people – they've done the work. They've put in the time. They've found courage to look at the ugly side of their personality – the destructive patterns, the selfish drives, the ingrained habits. They've sat with them all, teasing out their own stories into the light for a full and frank look. From careful attention, a deep understanding has arisen and from there, forgiveness.
Yep, self-compassion is key to being nice, not being nice for niceness's sake. We have to able to experience it for ourselves before we can extend it to others, otherwise it remains a conditional exercise. There's a lovely Buddhist saying: "The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon." We need to feel compassion for ourselves before we can actualize it. When we cultivate self-compassion we fully realize our shared humanity – all of us are just trying to do our best to be free of suffering. We're the same; we're one.
This is wonderfully comforting, having the power to immediately neutralize any negative, ego-driven reaction to another. Even towards those struggling to find a property for £¾ million who could stretch if pushed.
Now, I wouldn't pretend to know Alistair any better than I did before our hour's chat. Yes, I can empirically say that you could take him anywhere. He's free from artifice and guile; he's sincere. He does that unnerving thing all psychotherapists (and Buddhist teachers) do – thinking before he speaks. But he makes no attempt to airbrush his failings – you just need to read his excellent blog to appreciate that he struggles like the rest of us.
And it's this recognition and acceptance of the difficulties of being human that makes him, and any of us, nice. Being nice is not boring; it's the opposite of lazy.
Nice is something to aspire to, despite what Miss Webster would have thought.