I’ve been thinking a lot about common decency in recent days, prompted, I suppose, by the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of policemen.
That’s not to say that I mean to write about events of Minneapolis last week. I think it’s right to tread carefully around the subject of Black Lives Matter in the same way I’ve always tried to steer clear of #MeToo except when it addresses what’s known as “the male experience”. It’s not that I don’t support their goals but, really, what does a white guy know about either without being accused of displaying my privilege or trying to assuage some guilt? I do not know the black life like I don’t know what women go through in the workplace. The only thing I can speak about is me.
I listened to Al Sharpton’s speech yesterday and it was powerful in the way it addressed the invisible hand of power across cultures. Power is the ability to make things happen and it’s certainly unequally distributed. I’ve certainly seen little of it in my life being northern and working class. In terms of social hierarchies, I’ve generally been one of those people sitting at the bottom. That’s partly down to my own choices. I’ve never wanted a job that involves promotion or, for that matter, a job. I’ve always tried to do my own thing, even if I’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. Yet failure does come with some benefits. I think I’m naturally empathetic to the people around me. I’m hypersensitive to manners. I rarely go for dinner anywhere but, when I do, I’m stupidly polite to the staff serving me. Perhaps it’s a working-class thing. A friend’s mother will often clean the table for the waiters before she leaves because she’s worked as a school dinner lady. Clearing tables is the reality she knows.
I suppose “the reality you know” is the important bit in all of this. I don’t understand the life of people at the top. I do recognise the lives of those at the bottom because I’ve always been a dogsbody, an “assistant to” rather than the person at the top. As a consequence, I often worry about bothering people. A simple example. Back when I was mixing in the real world, I’d often go to Tesco, do my shopping, and get to the checkout where the assistant would find something wrong with a product I’d picked up. They’d move to get somebody to go replace it, but I’d always intervene. I would go and replace it; not simply because it was quicker but because I figured it was my fault for picking up a faulty item. I hated putting people to any trouble. I hated that people behind me in the queue would have to wait. I’ve never properly understood why. My own psychology puzzles me. It’s the same in any shop where they call me “sir”. I hate to be called “sir”. I’m always tempted to look over my shoulder in order to figure out who they might be referring to.
Another consequence of this is that I’m sometimes taken for a bit of a sap. For example, I travelled down to London
some (Jesus!) many years ago to sign my first book deal. It meant taking the underground out to Clapham North. At some point in the journey, I had to pass through an old station with manual doors, which I instinctively held open for the person behind me. They didn’t look at me but rushed through. Then came the next person. And then the next person. And then the next. I was stuck. I couldn’t let go of the door without it swinging into the face of the next passenger but every one of them naturally treated me like I was holding the door for them. I realised it must be a London state of mind. I had to stand there so that instead of being first out of the station, I was the last.
It’s an odd thing to experience. Another example. Occasionally I’ve had parcels delivered that should have gone to a somebody else a street away. It meant that the people living there didn’t know who I was when I turned up to deliver it. I’d ring their bell, they’d open the door, I’d pass them the parcel and start to explain how it came to the wrong house, only before I could do that, they’d close the door in my face. That, I guess, is how all delivery people feel. Hence the reason I always thank them too much when I can.
I don’t know if any of this has to do with common decency but I hope it does. Especially in cities, life plays out at such a speed that nobody has the time or inclination to look on another person as a human being. I imagine it becomes habitual and utterly alienating. I often notice it when dealing (or I should say, “trying” to deal) with agents, publishers, or other publications in London. People are remote and cold, their replies often brusque to the point of rudeness. For a long time, Private Eye would reject the cartoons you’d send with an email that said: “sorry not to use”. That was it. Always struck me either hugely efficient or a little too blunt. Later they softened it, so it now reads “Ed says sorry not to use”. So much better.
London is like that. New York too in the tiny ways I’ve ever had to deal with it. They rarely view you as a person but as another of the multitude. You’ve spent a year writing/drawing a book, let me dismiss you or ignore you completely. And it’s perfectly natural that they do. They don’t owe you anything, not even common decency. Until, of course, they want something from you.
Again, it’s rare that I’ve experienced this, but I’ve seen it enough times to recognise it. The guardians who protect those magical portals to “success” are so different when you have something they need. Then they melt into the shape that perhaps was once human. They say “please” and “thank you” for as long as it takes for them to get what they want. And then it’s back to the coldness. Just business, ma’am.
I’ve never wanted to live in that world, but I suspect it’s too late. It is now everywhere. There was once a time when I’d know my neighbours. These days when I speak to them it’s a dry forced conversation. I don’t think it’s even common decency. It’s a grimace with the edges turned up. They are obliging me with politeness and, what’s worse, I know it’s forced. Nobody wants to be friendly. Nobody remembers what it’s like to be polite. I think it’s one of the lingering products of the Thatcher revolution. Everybody is a customer and the customer is always right and never ever polite.