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Mind the civility gap

September 2, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

A few pleasant days in London entertaining small grandsons—chasing pigeons in the park, stamping in puddles, riding on trains and buses—are marred only by occasional incivility, which first surfaces at the London Transport Museum.

It’s a good museum: not much stuff, but well done. Children get in free, and are offered free safety lessons by community volunteers. Omar gets to sit behind the wheel of a bus while the nice lady talks to the children.

“Now what do you do if, when you’re getting on the bus, you can see on the screen that someone is misbehaving on the upper deck: say, standing on the seats or etching the glass?” (Interesting use of “etching”: a nod to the artistic dimensions of vandalism?)

“Tell the driver?” offers a young chap.

No, unfortunately. If they spot you grassing them up the thugs might get off at your stop and kick the shit out of you. So it’s best to say nothing, just sit quietly downstairs, and don’t worry, because the bus is full of cameras and the London Transport Police will catch the bad guys in the end.

Omar is far too young to travel alone, but his eyes are wide and round as he takes this in. Sensible advice, no doubt, yet also sickening. That this is what has happened to public space, that we are being taught fear it and to believe that our only security lies in citizen surveillance.

Oh well. On day two we take a tram to Croydon and stand in a light drizzle watching workmen mend the tracks, as cosy as a Shirley Hughes picture book. Day three is the Docklands Light Rail to Canary Wharf, where the old grime of empire has been cleared out for something shiny and modern like downtown Asia.

On the last day I pop out to Streatham High Street to buy a pair of shoes. Outside Fones 4 U a lean, livid, white man is standing on the pavement, right arm stretched out, finger quivering in the face of a woman who has two small girls in tow. “Do you know how long I’ve been going up and down this fucking street looking for you?” he screams. I duck into a couple of shops to avoid this misbehaviour, and the dread sense of complicity through non-intervention. The only shoes I can find are cheapo plastic crap destined for poorer feet than mine.

Going back to the bus stop I re-encounter the little quartet of misery, the man now ranting “You fucking cunt, you’re trying to get me nicked again!” If that’s true I hope she succeeds, though I know many abused women keep coming back for more. I’m glad to be going home.

Getting off the train at Victoria, on the long haul to Heathrow, I peer over the shoulder of a 20-something man and see that he’s reading Philip Larkin’s Selected Poems. I am so pleased I strike up a conversation. He is Italian.

Kampala, September 2, 2010