Have you ever looked at a photo or footage from the ’40s and ’50s? When I do I’m always amazed at how nicely dressed everyone looked. Even low class people – butchers, tanners, seamstresses – wore jackets, hats and gloves. Women had immaculate hair. There is a sense that for our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents anything happening outside their houses was “public” and none of the rules of the “private” applied.
Cut to this morning on the Tube at Archway: a guy, legs stretched out and shoes off, is playing a game whilst listening to ridiculously loud music. A man next to him has a laptop open and is writing a presentation. Next, a woman is applying make up and brushing a hair whilst her companion is doing her nails. Go on a bus and people sharing private phone conversations talking at the top of their voices are the norm. As are people eating curry or chips or – not joking – gerkins straight from a jar. And it’s not just public transport to have turned into people’s front rooms. Every cafe in London sports babies crawling along the floor, children running around and students occupying two tables with their later project. Last time I went to a gallery, in the foyer there was a man with his daughter sitting on a chair. The daughter proceeded to take his shoes and socks off and when I looked at the man disapprovingly he sighed as if accusing me of being a child hater.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been late for work and forced to eat, write or apply mascara on the go. We’ve all had to manage unruly children in restaurants. But for the people I’m talking about – which is the great majority of people I see every day – such actions aren’t an exception. They’re just part of their daily routine, something utterly normal.
So when have the bounderies between public and private become so blurred? How can so many of us aren’t bothered if their music, their food, their children, their smelly feet, their spreadsheets annoy other people, interfere with their space? When did we not just stop caring about what our public image is or what the others think of us (that might actually be good) but selfishly began to treat public spaces as our own, as if they were merely an extension of our houses?
Technology is obviously to blame, partially. We can have our music with us, our tv, our office, so we go around immersed in the private world of our devices even when we are in fact in the public world. Real human interaction doesn’t interest us provided we have our smartphones to access interaction virtually on social media.
The deification of children is also a phonomenon that has turned most parents in providers of entertainment for their progenie wherever they are, because God forbid you should ask them to sit down and read a book for five minutes. Our frantic rhythm of life also doesn’t help, especially in big metropolis like London where the Tube can always be delayed, traffic on diversion, buses on strike, so every journey to work could potentially last over an hour, so let’s leave early and use the time to do all those things – make up, hair, breakfast, phone mum – that we would have normally done before setting off to work.
Okay, these changes in society can be the reason. But are we really 100% sure that as human beings, at least in Western societies, all our fabulous conquests – freedom of expression, sexual freedom, digital freedom, social freedom – haven’t actually made us much ruder and selfish than we used to be? Isn’t the speed at which we live turned us into selfish creatures who don’t queue, don’t say sorry, don’t show consideration for each other because we don’t have the time?
Is rudeness the price we pay for “progress”? Are we living such easy life we’re just lazy and selfish and in a hurry and convinced by the day we were born we’re the most special thing on earth and nobody can ever suggest otherwise?
I don’t know. I just know that sometimes when looking at the footage of those men and women in hats and gloves, who used to work stupid hours, have no social life and often no childhood either, I wonder whether we’ve gone too far.