Monday, October 30, 2006

Curb your enthusiasm

When I have nothing constructive to do, which is worryingly often, I amuse myself by considering the concept of ‘acceptable behaviour’. This is a social construct so simple that ants can master it. There is very little misbehaviour in an ant colony. That’s not to say it’s a fair society but ants have yet to discover a need for bringing in ASBOs. Most ants it seems are able to do the right thing without television campaigns fronted by Ray Winstone.

An acceptable behaviour contract (ABC) is an agreement between you and the police that you will refrain from acting like a complete tosser in public. Whatever you choose to do in the privacy of your own home is, at present still up to you, but when out and about, you agree to maintain a standard of demeanour that does not constitute civil disorder. The police make no such reciprocal undertaking. This is only to be expected as they are there to diffuse public affray wherever it occurs and this can require quite a bit of violence in order for them to achieve full job satisfaction.

Some people need to have the boundaries of an ABC quite literally spelled out. There is a man at the moment going around smearing faeces all over the coaches of trains. Police are understandably quite anxious to discuss the parameters of acceptable behaviour with him as the bill for cleaning up his dissidence has already reached £60,000. This adds new meaning to the term ‘shit happens’. It is happening all over southern England. The great mystery of this phenomenon is that the vandal appears to find trains with empty carriages. Not that I would ever want to decorate a carriage with excrement, but I wouldn’t mind finding the occasional seat when I get on a train. British Transport police have described this behaviour as ‘exceptionally anti-social’, and advised, ‘If anyone sees this man travelling on the railway network, they should not approach him.’ Sounds like extremely sound advice to me.

I used to think that this is the sort of behaviour people start to display when they are hideously oppressed. I had the huge misfortune of being caught short in a railway station in Russia back in the days when it was still under soviet rule. The public toilets were like open drains except less hygienic. There were no cubicles and the walls were covered in faeces, all the way up to the top. It seemed like a lot of effort went into it. You'd have needed a ladder. They must have been quite pissed off. I doused my scarf in duty free Chanel No. 5 and tied it across my nose. It worked a treat but it was tricky keeping all that clothing clear of every surface.

I know someone who works in a public library in an upmarket seaside town in Australia. It’s a lovely modern building in a beautiful parkland setting with a high concentration of senior citizens. You would think it would be a doddle escorting irreproachable elderly ladies and gentlemen to the large print section and assisting them to select the latest Patricia Cornwell or John Grisham. Far from it. This week she reports that the cleaners have refused to clean the men’s toilet because patrons have been wanking in there. Yes. They grab themselves a copy of some seemingly innocuous health and fitness journal, retire to a cubicle and let rip. Charming. The cleaners are heartily sick of finding piles of clammy magazines piled up on the floor at the end of the day. It’s not as if you can just wipe it off and pop it back on the shelf now is it?

Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t an incident in this cathedral of genteel learning. If it’s not a punch up over whose turn it is to use the free internet terminals, it’s a brawl in the queue to reserve the latest Dan Brown. Librarians frequently have to break off from checking out books to request that a ragged reprobate cease gurgling from something in a brown paper bag/playing with himself/shooting up heroin on a bean chair adjacent to the children’s games area. Sadly libraries are one of the few places where vulnerable people who are relative strangers in their own headspace are reasonably safe from being tormented by groups of kids or harassed by the police. Libraries are also warm and dry and have nice comfortable chairs and are full of free things so it's not surprising that they've become hubs of anti-social behaviour.

Pubs, on the other hand, couldn’t be quieter these days as they’re now full of people drinking mineral water and double espressos and quietly reading books – by themselves.

Cartoon from

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