Would You Mind Turning It Down?

When I tried to confront anti-social behaviour, nobody dared to back me up. So what’s wrong with us?

Features Modern Life Social Affairs

The music coming from the mobile phones further up the carriage was loud and tinny. It was the middle of the day and the train, creaking and groaning on its way from south-east London to Charing Cross, was only a third full. I managed about three stations before walking the few steps to where they sat: two very tough-­looking girls in their late teens. The adrenalin pumped.

“Excuse me, but would you mind turning it down just a bit, please?” I asked with the most ingratiating smile I could muster. They carried on, seemingly oblivious. I tried again, and then again. Finally they looked up, shocked, and then, almost immediately, angry. “Not doin’ you any harm!” one of them blurted at me. “What’s it to do with you? No one else has said nothing. Oi, mister” – she got the attention of a young guy sitting a few seats away – “we ain’t bothering you are we? You don’t mind, do yer?”

The man looked vaguely in their direction, and then up at me standing, and smiled with what seemed like the hint of a derisive snort before turning his gaze back to the window. “See! He don’t care. Thanks mister. What’s your problem?”

I looked over at the man. Yes, mister, thanks a lot. I turned back to the two girls. “It’s a public place, I’m just asking you nicely to turn it down a bit.” But if I ever had them, I had lost them now. It was obvious that my use of the words “public place”, combined with the fact that I was wearing a suit that day, marked me out as a stiff who could be dismissed. And nobody else was backing me up. They duly carried on.

At least there was no violence on this occasion. Adult men have, after all, been kicked senseless for less. In February 2007, Roger Hare, a 62?year-old grandfather, was battered and knocked out of a train carriage and left in a coma on a life support system after asking a 20?year-old man to remove his feet from the seat. At the subsequent trial, the man denied causing grievous bodily harm. In August 2007, a London man died after being struck when he dared to remonstrate with two yobs who threw a half-eaten chocolate bar through his car window. Stan Dixon, 60, was attacked and seriously injured on a bus after asking a group of youths not to swear in front of his partner. And just last month, 58-year-old Linda Buchanan was pushed off a platform at Farningham Road station in Kent on to the railway line after she asked two young men to stop smoking.

I’ve been speaking up much more of late. It had become just too depressing to see how people now actively accommodate and work round those who impose themselves unthinkingly on public spaces, in effect taking them over and diminishing everyone else in the process.

Most of us, thankfully, still have relatively little direct experience of violent crime, but the fact is that everyone but the richest now suffers death by a thousand antisocial cuts: by the petty rudenesses, the incivilities and the transgressions that might not amount to crime but which manage to make us despair, fill us with fear and finally inspire more and more of us to call it a day, pick up sticks and flee in the name of what pollsters call “quality of life”.

Public transport is, I’ve found, a real flashpoint. For example, going around London, it becomes clear that the bus queue, that silent expression of collective social cohesion, is now virtually extinct. No one is happy about this, but it’s been accepted with a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Only in the commercial sector does queuing still seem to thrive – in shops, at cash machines and in supermarkets, where it is rigorously enforced anyway by roped-off areas. But in those areas of life that rely not on a sales transaction of some kind but on a sense of communal identity, consideration and fairness, it has disappeared.

A few weeks ago, I tested what might happen if I protested. There was a motley gathering at my local bus stop which had, I ­suppose, formed itself into some kind of order behind an old lady at the top. I was second in line. A man and then a woman came along and just stood, yards from the stop, seemingly oblivious to any kind of pecking order. When the number 53 arrived, they drifted towards the open doors. “Excuse me, but there’s a queue,” I called out. This was met with a look of bemusement from the woman and was totally ignored by theman. The old lady in front of me turned and said, with a kind of relief: “Don’t bother, mate. They don’t bother to queue anymore, so I don’t. I’m the same now, I go straight to the front when it comes along.” She was wrong, of course – old habits die hard.

Again, I suppose I was grateful not to be smacked in the face by someone who felt “disrespected” (that is, not adequately feared). And I’m sure that many of the others there simply didn’t understand me; at this one bus stop there was a mixture of Asian, eastern European and African voices. There can be little sense of communal spirit if you feel that you don’t know your neighbour, that you can take nothing for granted in common; if, in fact, you can no longer even be sure that you speak the same language. This way does peer pressure die.

That same week, back on the train, language reared its head. A well-dressed, well-built man in his thirties was standing in an averagely crowded carriage, booming into his mobile phone in a sub-­Saharan language. People caught each other’s eyes and looked away. I got up and approached him.

“Could you keep it down just a little please?” I asked, motioning a lowering effect with my hand. He glared straight at me as though weighing me up, but then did indeed bring the volume down a notch. But my action proved too much for one down-at-heel, middle-aged white man standing nearby. “Leave him alone,” he called to me. And then to the man on the phone: “You do what you want, mate.”

“He was being loud, and this is a public place, and I asked him politely,” I replied. “It’s the way they speak,” he shouted back. For this man, a borderline dosser, it was obviously a race issue. He began regaling me with all his multiculturalist credentials, telling me I should live and let live, etc. That had nothing to do with it, I said, and then tried to ignore him. In the context of a suburban train journey, the altercation had a surreal quality. A few hours later he could doubtless be dismissed as a nuisance wino, but right now he was articulate enough to make his points clearly, torment me and make everyone else feel uneasy.

Again, there was not a word of support from anyone. I was left to stew in my own juice. It’s this which I suppose is the most disheartening thing. There is a section of our society that remains awfully polite about such issues and prefers to see such non-­reaction as part of a British desire not to make a fuss or cause embarrassment. They simply don’t get the fact that now it’s all about fear.

Is there anyone who, if they are completely honest, would dare ask a couple of young men to turn down the booming thuds of music that emanate from their car as it waits alongside theirs at the traffic lights? I have been in this situation a number of times over the past month, my car vibrating with close-range noise pollution, but have to confess that I have failed in my remit. And I’ve had political sanction: Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, said recently that the best approach if one came across certain sorts of antisocial behaviour was not to get involved.

Alongside this fear is the sense that the order of things has become so inverted that one will be on shaky ground if one does indeed speak up. Most people, I’ve found, register some degree of outrage at being asked to desist, no matter how politely you do it. You are the rude trouble­maker in their eyes. For some kind of order to be restored, back-up is crucial. Formal authority has more or less left the scene, so what we need is pressure of the good, old-fashioned social sort. Speak up.

And it works. I will end on an optimistic note. My friend Anthony recently challenged a man talking on his mobile phone in the middle of his local library (yes, library). Enraged at being so humiliated, the man squared up to him, face contorted with anger. Anthony was girding his loins but then to his relief was joined by two other readers. “Really,” they said, “this is a library: the sign says Quiet Please.”

Confused by the opposition, the man didn’t quite know where to look. Eventually he just drifted away. There is safety in numbers.