Thirty-five years ago, freshly arrived in Moscow as a correspondent, I was astonished to report on a new book called How Not to Behave. It reminded Soviet Russians not to stare, hitch up their tights in the street, drip ice creams over other people, arrive unannounced, drunk and smoking on their friends’ doorsteps, or grunt and swear in the excitement of a game of dominoes. The book’s author thought bad behaviour was fomenting one of Russia’s major social problems: divorce. “Treat your wife as you would a stranger,” he said, quoting Bernard Shaw, “but ten times better.”
I wrote a piece wondering what kind of people these were who had to be told not to bang on their neighbours’ doors at 3am and be sick over them, eat smelly food in public and — well, you know. Was a rather rough society actually ahead of us, 40 years ago? Recent campaigns in Britain to improve public behaviour suggest that it has arrived, from New Labour’s Asbos — peculiarly ineffective, all the more so from a government that introduced 24-hour drinking — to Controlled Drinking Zones.
Most of us suffer on public transport. As a frequently satisfied train-user I don’t want to exaggerate. Kindness, respect and consideration are all abundantly present, especially in difficult situations. With a disrupted service the other day, travellers from London to Bristol were building their alternative journey piece by piece, and I wouldn’t have got there without their help. On other occasions, though, trains can be nasty, smelly, noisy places, and buses even worse, reeking with fast food and a-jangle with phone conversations that should never be taking place in public, let alone at high volume.
It’s the obliteration of the distinction between public and private that is to blame. Reality television hasn’t helped, turning intimate domestic events into eye-candy for mass audiences. As a result of big business realising how much money was to be made from removing the privacy from private lives, the woman alongside you is now doing her make-up and toying with a takeaway: hardly a sin or a crime, but really not attractive.
There’s the problem. You can have rules for alcohol-related offences. (Although rules have to be enforced: weekend revellers on the London Tube now often break the Mayor’s alcohol ban.) But for matters of taste all we get are feeble advertising campaigns, from London Transport’s “Love is . . .” cartoons to the now defunct First Capital Connect’s retro cartoons of Ed Tickett, anti-social lover of kebabs and amplified bass.
The Soviets recommended teaching etiquette in all schools, reinforcing it with their claim to have achieved “the highest stage in the ethical development of mankind”. But now that the authoritarian age is passed, certainly in this country, we can’t invoke old high cultural ghosts. Nor, increasingly global, can we rely on native tradition. I suspect therefore that not behaving as if you were in your own home when you’re out and about is just another burden we’ll have to pass on to our schools, always assuming there are teachers out there willing to teach the difference between public and private.