Pissed-off Toff

Noise 3: In praise of penal colonies … and of Beau Brummell

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff reflects on the seemingly ineradicable problem of mobiles on public transport.

Is it possible, nowadays, to travel on public transport without being driven to distraction by the noise of the digital revolution? The loud hiss coming from someone’s earphones; the non-stop explosions and machine-gun fire produced by a child’s videogame; and, worst of all, the unavoidable yet unendurable imposition of other people’s mobile phone calls.

Only a few days ago I was on a two-and-a-half hour coach journey to Gloucestershire, and for much of the way sat gritting my teeth while some callow youth in a T-shirt blabbered on self-importantly to a series of interlocutors about how he wanted to grow his company’s exports to China, and thereby move his career forward (yes, this was the awful sort of language he used).

Since it is the policy of National Express that phone calls should be kept short, I could, I suppose, have asked him to pipe down. But I couldn’t face the conflict that would have ensued … because in my experience, asking someone to lay off the mobile or to turn down the volume on a child’s video game almost always leads to trouble, no matter how polite you try to be.

The following incident was enough to persuade me that, perversely, if you want a quiet life it is probably best to let people carry on disturbing the peace.

* * * * *

I recently took a train from King’s Cross to Nottingham, and I was in a good mood for two reasons. The more general reason was that I was going to Nottingham to do a job of work, and that meant money, which is always welcome. The more specific reason was that I was in an uncrowded ‘quiet coach’ and thus felt able to look forward to a couple of hours spent reading a book and gazing peacefully out of the window. Nor, I reflected, was it out of the question that I might purchase a small bottle of wine to complete my enjoyment of the experience.

But there was to be no enjoyment. No sooner had the train left London than I was troubled by a loud hissing sound, and looking around the coach, I saw a boy of oikish appearance wearing headphones that were producing a noise which was annoyingly audible to the rest of us. He was also sitting right by a pictogram bearing an image of headphones with a large red cross through them; and did I detect a look of defiance on his face?

Immediately all pleasure evaporated, and for a while I sat there fuming, weighing up the pros and cons of putting up with this deliberately anti-social behaviour, or doing something about it. Having made up my mind to act for once, I went over to the boy, asked him to please turn his music off, and went back to my seat.

But the noise continued, so I approached him again, explained that this was a ‘quiet coach’, pointed to the pictogram announcing that headphones were banned here (all this was entirely unnecessary: he knew), and asked him, once again and very politely, to turn off his music.

“Get away from me! Fuck off!!” he shouted, his features twisted into a portrait of hatred and rage.

By this stage everyone in the coach was aware of the altercation, though pretending not to be; and I now decided to follow it through to the end. Time, therefore, to up the stakes.

“Are you with me on this?” I said in a loud voice, addressing the coach in general. One woman nodded emphatically. Otherwise, nothing. I asked again, perhaps a little louder. Again, silence. And then a third attempt: “Is anyone here, any man, willing to help me?” Once more, silence; this despite the fact that there were several able-bodied men there, staring into their computer screens.

After which, I had to go right to the other end of the train, through perhaps six other coaches, before coming across a single member of staff – a nice woman whose badge announced that she was called Laura. She and I returned to my coach, where I pointed out the source of the trouble.

“Don’t you fucking point at me!” hissed the oik, before getting up and following her out obediently; but not without a parting shot in my direction. “I’ll fucking smash your face in!” he muttered to me as he walked past my seat.

As the presenter says on TV quiz shows: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” So it was with me. Leaving a minute or so to allow emotions to subside, I got up and searched out the helpful Laura again and reported this last threat to her (and being a threat of physical violence made in the public domain, it was a criminal offence). She assured me that the boy had been ticked off, that he had been forbidden to go anywhere near the ‘silent coach’, but that in the light of this development, she would warn him once more; oh, and by the way, the whole coach was right behind me.

Not that there was any evidence of this. I returned to my coach, where an uncomfortable silence reigned for the rest of the journey. When the passengers got off at various stops on the way, the men passed me by, staring ahead stonily. Perhaps they were ashamed, as well they might be. In the end, the only member of the public who showed any support for the idea of standing up to the deliberate provocation of a vicious little oik was not an able-bodied man, but a woman. As she passed my seat on her way out, the same woman who had signalled her agreement with my decision to confront the prole in the first place said two welcome words: “Thank you.”

My journey having been more or less ruined by this sorry episode, I sat there and ruminated. Had I achieved a victory, however small? I fear not. In the Pissed-off Toff fantasy world, the nasty little shit would have been clapped in irons then and there, hauled off the train at the next station, thrashed to within an inch of his life, and then shipped off to a penal colony, and good riddance. They didn’t get it all wrong in the eighteenth century.

As it was, however, he was given a ticking-off whose very mildness can only have served to increase his contempt for the society that not only allowed him to live a wasted life of idleness at public expense (because I do not doubt for one moment that this unemployable boy was living off benefits), but that went even further in its weakness and foolishness, and allowed him to deliberately and provocatively flout its own laws.

Indeed, I speculate that in some dim unarticulated way, this poor boy was aware that we ourselves had created the snarling little runt that he was, and I furthermore speculate that he hated and despised us for it. And can one really blame him?

* * * * *

But to return to my original question: What is to be done, on public transport, about the anti-social habit of people making prolonged calls on their mobile phones? To confront the offender is to risk a more or less nasty conflict; yet for all their protestations to the contrary, the train and coach operators want nothing to do with this problem. So the beleaguered passenger sits there ruminating on the general decline in civility in our society.

There is, perhaps, one consolation. In an environment in which selfish and even arrogant use of the mobile phone goes almost entirely unchecked, the way that someone uses a mobile in public is a telling indicator of style and character. A century ago, Beau Brummell propagated the idea that a gentleman should be impeccably but discreetly dressed. “To be truly elegant, one should not be noticed,” he said. Nowadays, a similar rule surely applies to the mobile telephone.