The other day I had one of those moments when things, just for a moment, take on a different complexion. You could call it a moment of epiphany, but that sounds too grand for what happened on the 228 bus as it chugged up west London’s Ladbroke Grove from fashionable Holland Park towards less fashionable Kensal Rise.
I was coming back home from my tennis club and was struck by the extraordinary contrast between social relations inside our little walled enclosure and what passes for social relations outside. Inside the club, all is bonhomie (and “bonnefemmerie”, if I can coin a word); even if we secretly find so-and-so’s habit of interrupting what you’re saying and embarking on a monologue rather annoying, and whodyoumacallit’s idiosyncratic English somewhat hard to understand, we treat each other in friendly fashion.
On the bus everything is very different; much more guarded. I looked around and saw several interesting faces, full of humanity. But woe betide me if I tried to engage one of my fellow passengers, that is a stranger, in conversation; I would be regarded with suspicion – a potential or actual lunatic, or worse. We are habituated to regarding our fellow citizens with a kind of studied indifference – always watching out for some infringement of boundaries, never (or hardly ever) reaching out.
But what if, instead of regarding each other with indifference or suspicion, we were able to break through those “mind-forg’d manacles”, as William Blake called them in his poem “London” (1794); to think of these people with whom we share the city, even our neighbourhood, as friends, not potential enemies?
Might we not have more fun? There might be one or two bad nuts or rotten apples; but the overwhelming majority of people anywhere, or so I have found in many years of living and travelling, are decent and kindly.
Why then is our default mode set to suspicion?
As the American scientist Jared Diamond reminded us in The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (2012), for most of history human beings lived in small social groups, surrounded by people they had known all their lives. In his book Diamond wants to point out the many benefits of such social closeness and trust – though of course in the societies he studies, consisting of bands or tribes, there is the disadvantage that those outside the band or tribe are often regarded as fair game for killing.
Sitting on the bus, my mind turned to the manifold consequences that flow from our contemporary mistrust of strangers. These consequences are social, economic, environmental (not necessarily in that order) and all interconnected.
Take housing. There is a relentless trend towards single or at most double occupancy of residences in cities; or what you might call voluntary loneliness. People choose to live on their own or in tight nuclear relationships in small flats, rather than spreading themselves more loosely around larger houses.
I spent several happy years living as a lodger in a bohemian household consisting of two conjoined houses where an extended family lived with a number of lodgers. You could retreat to your room if you wanted to, but there was usually the option of socialising, and convivial dinners at the long kitchen table with a shifting cast of family, neighbours, lodgers, friends, and, on high days, house music afterwards.
I suppose living in a flat on your own maximises your control over your own comings and goings while minimising the need for contact with other human beings. There may be a time and a place, or stage of life, for that, when a young person needs to establish his or her independence, but its charms can pall.
The consequences of intensified individualism – which is perhaps the most important legacy of the Thatcher era – are of course not just social. Economically, they lead to an enhanced consumerism – everyone living on her or his own needs an individual boiler, washing machine, dishwasher, television, computer and car – which might at first glance appear to bring economic benefits. But they are benefits only when regarded from a strictly production-oriented perspective.
Environmentally, they are destructive. Increased car use without environmental controls leads to the terrible pollution and air quality problems of contemporary Chinese and Indian cities (not to mention London, where nitrogen dioxide levels are routinely “high”). Meanwhile landfill sites are choked with discarded consumer goods, sending noxious fumes into the air (check out the smell as you drive along the M40 near Beaconsfield, northwest of London) and poisoning the ground with leachate.
But perhaps you should remember that I was having these thoughts on a bus, and that Margaret Thatcher, in one of her most memorable sayings, remarked that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus, can count himself a failure”.
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