Never embark on any act of protest the success of which depends on finding the end of a roll of sellotape in a hurry. It will not succeed; and it will be feeble anyway. The consequences of messing up protests involving dynamite or petrol bombs are more spectacularly fatal, but that is better than your magnificent gesture ending with you trying to pick bits of tangled sticky-tape off your thumbs like an idiot.
I had known it was futile and would most likely end badly, and suspected it fell into the category of things which one does in order to avoid writing, which are always, always punished; but one feels obliged to make the occasional futile gesture in order to be able to say to the great glowering ghosts of the past, Look, I tried.
The above is half a lie. With the rational part of my brain I knew it would end badly, and indeed feared it would end worse than it did. With the more excitable part I thought I was lighting a fuse. If every person, I thought, were to take it upon themselves to do something about one ugly or annoying thing, that would be a start. If we can fix this particular thing, if I can awaken my fellows to the fact that it is needlessly and gratuitously ugly and we shouldn't have to put up with it, if between us we can make them stop - then perhaps we can go on to the next ugly thing, and then the next, just as the enemy never rest contented but are always looking around for something new to spoil. Here we can draw a line, and then we can start to turn the tide of battle back in their direction. So it was almost with a sense of destiny, and certainly one of duty, that I set about putting up a petition in the bus station at the little town of_____, in the province of ______, twenty versts from the brooding metropolis of______, asking them to please stop playing the irritating automated loudspeaker announcements.
It was not merely a petition; it was a manifesto. It was a call to arms. I was proud of it. It was a petition people would remember; my fellow bus passengers would chuckle over it, and then be deeply moved, and would go home to tell their loved ones of the mysterious poet-agitator who lurked unsuspected among them and would lead them to freedom. Perhaps the local papers would reprint it and speculate as to the anonymous author's identity; perhaps it would find its way into anthologies one day. Probably it would become a historical document. I had reworked it endlessly into twelve concise lines filled with rhetoric, sarcasm, sweet reason, icy politeness, appeals to national and regional pride, and latent hysteria.
Really I suppose it was somewhat shrill and pompous in places, and I find I don't want to share it with you in its entirety. The words 'moronic, unpleasant and Orwellian' occur early on, and I stand by them. I went on to explain why. In the case of the first two of the three looped tannoy announcements my comments were terse and laconic. They were, are, 'To reduce the number of security alerts please keep your baggage with you at all times', regarding which I confined myself to noting that it was highly unlikely that without this instruction people would just dump their shopping while they went merrily skipping round the station, and 'This station is patrolled by the transport police', which I simply pointed out was a lie; neither I nor anyone else I had spoken to had ever seen one.
For the third of the taped announcements I really went to town. This was the one about not smoking. It goes: 'It is against the law to smoke anywhere in the bus station. Failure to comply is a criminal offence. It is against the law to smoke.'
About this I had written:
I managed to stop myself asking, 'Are we not men?' The original draft referred to 'spiritual pollution' as well as aural and mental. I stand by it. I cut that phrase only for reasons of space, and because I feared if any underclass youths read it while I was putting up the petitions they would kick my head in on general principles.
It is spiritual or mental pollution. It is Orwellian. It is a small and needless barbarism to add to all the others that are accumulating week after week. It is a source of nervous tension, and it is entirely pointless. There are already large and garish no-smoking posters and signs every couple of feet around the station. As far as I'm concerned the only point to it is to declare, 'WE ARE IN CHARGE. WE HAVE WON. AND YOU MUST DWELL ON THE FACT THAT WE HAVE WON. WE HAVE POWER OVER YOU AND YOU MAY NOT BE FREE OF US EVEN INSIDE YOUR OWN HEADS.' That is what I think every time I hear them.
I concluded the whole with, 'Please knock it off in the interests of making the bus station a more pleasant and human place. This is _____ - this is Britain - and we don't take kindly to faceless bureaucratic browbeating here, thank you very much.' And then, 'Please sign below if you agree!' Then in brackets, possibly having overestimated the convivial spirit of the average commuter, and with vague but hopeful visions of inspiring something akin to the scenes in Casablanca and La Grand Illusion where they all start singing the Marseillaise, I added, 'And maybe everyone could start booing every time the announcements play.'
Having regretfully cut more impassioned declarations of the rights of bus passengers from my text there was still half a page of A4 left for people to write their names on, and each sheet containing the screed was to be accompanied by a blank ruled one only headed with the words 'Petition to Stop the Annoying Taped Loudspeaker Announcements.' I had run off thirty copies of each, one for each stand of the bus station and a few left over. Altogether there were spaces for at least 2000 names; I intended to collect them after a week, photocopy them, and send them to the people in charge of the station, the local paper, the town council, and our Member of Parliament. And perhaps the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, just for good measure.
For weeks after writing the manifesto I kept putting off the execution of the plan on the flimsiest of excuses. Once I had run out of them and started to feel feeble for not acting on my great idea I settled on a day and planned the operation meticulously. The week before I recce'd the bus station making sure there was room on the metal notice boards by each stand to stick the petition. I bought a cardboard folder to carry the copies in, and a small roll of sellotape, carefully selected on the grounds that its packaging stated it would tear off the roll easily - I had been unable to find any of the ones that come in their own little plastic dispenser with its own little blade for cutting the sellotape, although I looked everywhere. Maybe they have been banned as offensive weapons, or maybe The Man suppressed them because they made it easier to tape up subversive petitions in a hurry.
Most importantly, in the privacy of my home I practised everything beforehand. I practised snapping off bits of sellotape to the requisite length, putting them on the petition and taping it in place, all of which had to be accomplished sort of one-and-a-half-handed, as not only would I be holding both sellotape and petition at once but I would have the cardboard folder full of more petitions tucked under one arm. I became quite good at it; the dextrous flick with which I snapped off the sellotape was a joy to behold; soon every vertical surface in my house was covered with petitions; I started timing myself to get the speed up, knowing a quick in-and-out was the key. I am still quite impressed with myself for having had the foresight to do this. This is how Nelson or Wellington would have gone about things if they had had a life as pissy and inconsequential as mine. However, all this preparation counted for nothing, and in reality the whole thing quickly turned to shit as you will hear now.
It was the wind that did me in. That was a factor that hadn't occurred to me and which would have been very difficult to duplicate at home anyway. The bus station comprises three long, very well-ventilated greenhouse-like erections placed parallel with roads in between. In an early draft of the diatribe against the no-smoking announcements, I had scathingly referred to the place as having the aerodynamics of a bleeding wind-tunnel. This was a slight exaggeration, but today at least it was very gusty inside, particularly around the open bits where people get on and off buses, where the notice-boards were.
So all my practising counted for nothing. Snapping off sellotape and taping up the petitions with one and a half hands was a very different matter with the papers flapping violently in a stiff breeze. A minor unforeseen problem was that in my preliminary survey of the place I had failed to properly observe or care how much of the notice boards were taken up with (a) no-smoking posters and other moronic warnings, instructions and boasts and (b) bus timetables and so on which I supposed people had some need to see. It was thus often a matter of some trouble and attention to stick the pairs of sheets somewhere they would not obscure anything else and give the authorities an excuse to take them down.
But mostly it was the wind that was the problem; the wind and the propensity of the end of the sellotape to disappear. This latter was actually a difficulty that I had foreseen and I had practiced to overcome it until I would have backed myself to find and prise up the end of any roll of sellotape you cared to hand me, within two seconds, blindfolded. But on the day, it vanished after every use. Perhaps it is more visible under electric light than daylight? When I could find it, it took me forever to scrape it loose. Again this was not like in the practise sessions. Part of my preparation for this had been to have a haircut, and dress slightly more smartly than usual, so that if I did in fact get in trouble with the authorities I would look more middle-class and respectable - I must have forgotten what year it is - but had I also trimmed my nails the night before? There are possible explanations and one must also factor for the effect of increasing tension, but I find it difficult not to ascribe an innate malice to the sellotape itself. When I did free the tape it would immediately entangle itself with me, itself, or the wrong bit of the paper, all while the wind was trying to blow the petition to bloody Oz.
And meanwhile the taped announcements were blaring at me over and over again. At this time of the morning they seemed louder than usual in the almost empty station. Surprisingly, given the nature of the petition, this was something else I had not thought of in advance, and it is possible if I had realised I would be exposing myself to multiple renditions I would not have gone through with it. Probably I am just more sensitive and beautiful than the rest of you, but they really, really make me poorly. I don't know how often they are played - every five minutes? two minutes? If you can time your arrival so you're not too early for your bus, and if the bus isn't late, it's possible to only hear each one once before boarding. Even then the preliminary click of the tannoy before each one sends a shudder down my spine. Exposed to it multiple times while wrestling with sellotape I was boiling with hate and rage.
I had started off nonchalantly humming some vague meandering happy tune to myself as I went about my work. This quite quickly turned into me viciously going, 'LA! LAA! LAA! LA!' like some cacophonic modern symphony. The bollocks about keeping the folder tucked under my arm soon went by the board; I dropped it to the floor every time I came to a new notice-board. I started preparing the sheets beforehand, sitting on benches and putting the sellotape on the corners in advance, gritting my teeth at its intransigence. 'You ____, you ____er,' I would mutter at the sellotape. '____ off, thumb,' I would whisper to my thumb when it became tangled up in sellotape. 'Shut UP, shut the ____ up,' I ended up snarling out loud at the loudspeaker announcements.
It was ten in the morning and there were very few people about, far less than I had foreseen, and at this point it seemed a good thing. As my usual angelic calm and patience evaporated, and the petitions slowly went up, I started to attract a few curious glances, but not too many. However the people that were there constituted a pain in the arse, in effect put a spoke in my plans, by their annoying tendency to queue up and wait for buses. Planning this I had intended to put as many of the petitions as possible on the outward-facing sides of the notice boards, where they had more chance of only being seen by queuing bus passengers rather than passing oberleutnants of the station. But I found myself unable to push through the queues to do so. At the planning stage I had envisaged I would handle this breezily, explaining what I was doing and cajoling everyone around into signing; they would say 'Thank God!' and pat me on the back, ask if I had ever thought of running for political office, enquire if I was married as they had an eligible daughter, etc. But in the event, tense and irritable thanks to the sellotape and the wind and the tannoy, I found I lacked the energy for this and simply hung around glowering at them until they fucked off onto a bus. In the case of a couple of particularly persistent queues I settled for taping the sheets on the other, inner side.
At all events I at length succeeded in putting the petitions up at every bus stand in the first glass shelter. As I headed to the zebra-crossing leading to the second I noticed a couple of people reading them. The first public exposure of a new work is always the occasion of uplift for a writer. 'Who is that mysterious swearing man, with sellotape on his thumbs, who has spoken out so eloquently on our behalf?' I imagined them thinking. I moved on more happily.
It was while I was part-way through covering the second barracks of bus-stops that I saw a sign of official attention. Over in the first a stocky man was reading some of my handiwork with a thunderous scowl. He was wearing one of those hideous piss-yellow visibility jackets that everyone from babysitters to police wear now to indicate authority. When the revolution comes, they will make excellent targets, as well as excellent identifiers of everyone who must be killed. I have no idea what his position was except that he wore this sacred yellow.
When he had finished reading my manifesto, he yelled, "JESUS!" and went stomping off. And this wasn't the sort of tutting, eye-rolling, get-a-grip-man 'Jesus' you probably did when you read 'Aural and mental pollution'. This was a big, proper, angry shout of "JESUS!" - audible to me in a different shelter on the other side of the roadway from him and certainly to all the passengers on his side - and the way it came out, I wish you could hear it, it sounded as though this was some intolerable, unendurable, final straw for him, personally, somehow. And he really did stomp away, hilariously, stomping is really the only word to describe what he did, he distinctly stamped his feet, like a child, as he walked, and swung his arms furiously. I imagined him stomping to a staff room somewhere and yelling, "You'll never guess what the bloody PASSENGERS have done NOW!"
Why, though, why? Why was he so angry? I didn't understand it then and I don't now. What was it to him if we didn't want to take our dose of tannoy medicine, three times every five minutes, like fractious children? I also felt a pang of disappointed authorship. All right, I thought, hurt, it was a bit shrill and pompous, but it wasn't that bad. At the same time by some spirit of contradiction his explosive and inexplicable rage and comic fit of irritability made me relax completely. And then again, while he hadn't seen me and showed no particular signs of looking for me, he was clearly stomping somewhere with determination and purpose. Prudently I gave up on the couple of stands I hadn't done in this aisle and moved on to the third and last.
This one was almost completely empty, and only had stops on one side, I had got into a rhythm now, and in a couple of minutes I had put petitions up at all of them. I had closed my folder and was sauntering happily to one of the two exits to the high street, conscious of a job well done, when the storm broke.
"ExCUSE me!" The voice was loud, irate, indignant, and belonged to a woman rather than the stompy man. It was also behind me. I kept moving, slowly and unconcernedly, towards the exit.
"ExCUSE me!" came again, louder and shriller, and there were little stamping-scurrying footsteps with it. I was a few feet from the exit but turned on my heel to confront her, doing my best to be blithe and smiling and innocent and quizzical-looking. I can't remember now whether I just couldn't face the possibility of her doing some undignified chasing and shouting scene in the little passage leading to the street while I ignored her, or whether I simply thought, 'What the hell did I do, anyway?' but I remember I rejected the option of moving more quickly to avoid her.
It was a woman a few years older than me, a small woman, a midget more or less, a little walking bollard wearing the same nauseating plastic piss-yellow surtout as the stompy man.
A word is required for the wearers of this ugly sign of officialdom. Pissbacks? Yellowbellies? My invention fails me. Anyone who can name some garish yellow creature that struts around self-importantly and nags at other animals shall have five pounds. We could start calling the items themselves Risibility Jackets. They should be jeered out of existence and anyone who wears one should be stoned from our towns.
I will resist the urge to dramatize her face, to say it was a face with pettiness and hideous motiveless evil written all over it, the sheer contrast with my own beatific visage making bystanders weep. I think I could have done five minutes on the stompy man's angry troll gob if I'd seen it up close, but really hers was just a face. Someone's mum, someone's wife; she might have been a human person I could have talked to if she had allowed herself to be. However she was happier shouting. I did think at the time that it was a face that was too conscious of the need to uphold the solemn dignity and awful responsibilities of the sacred yellow jacket she bore; the phrase 'insecure self-importance' wandered through my mind, although of course I may have been thinking of myself.
"This is private property," she yelled angrily, tearing down one of the petitions, scrumpling it and throwing it in a bin. "Would you just walk into someone's house and start putting things up everywhere?"
Again I ask: Why? Why? Why? Why was she so personally angry? How? How? How? How could anyone possibly come to identify with their crappy job that much? Why was she reacting as though I'd walked into her front room and pissed on the carpet just because I'd put up suggestions for making a public place nicer?
Now rehearsing it, in this situation I'd planned to be debonair, charming, calm and unflappable. Or disdainful and aloof. Or annoyingly Christ-like and compassionate. At all events to keep polite and smiling. But in the face of her anger and shoutiness I could see there was no point in any of them and instantly gave it up.
"I've got permission," I lied, starting to move past her.
"No you haven't," she said, trotting after me.
"Yes I have," I said, pausing. "I rang Tony at head office, he said it was okay." This was what I'd planned to say to anyone who asked, in order to confuse the situation long enough for me to get away and avoid any boring scenes. But in mental rehearsals it had succeeded by virtue of my being debonair etc. and smiling and forceful, but I really didn't have the energy now and I could already see this woman was completely immune to physical beauty and charm.
Positively quivering with anger, she took out a mobile phone and started to punch something into it. "What time did this alleged conversation take place?"
It was her use of the word 'alleged' that made me really give up. Also it occurred to me that she might not be ringing head office but someone like the stompy man, who was quite a beefy fucker and even angrier than her, and at this point I didn't trust myself not to shout at him and him not to shove and shout at me and me not to punch him. And that it would be just my luck if the Transport Police were, for once, really present here today, mob-handed, and she was calling them to come and arrest for me for, what, defacing the station with sellotape? More idiotic things happened in Britain every day. I started to move with more purpose towards the second, main exit to the high street.
"Come back, you're not leaving," she cried, scurrying after.
I carried on. As she trotted after me she was shouting the stupid ____ing thing about 'would I just walk into someone's house and put things up' again.
Now we were at the entrance to the covered walkway. I don't remember why I didn't leave at that point. Did she trot round on her little midget legs to try to block my exit? That rings a bell, and she again said I wasn't leaving, but in my visual memory of what follows we were positioned the other way, although we may have edged round like that in the course of the barney. Surely I wasn't stupid enough to stop to try to have it out with her? Perhaps I again couldn't face the ridiculous scene of walking out onto the high street with a dwarf chasing after me and shouting.
Anyway we were paused there at the entrance and she shouted something like, "What is this about, anyway? What is your problem?" in this angry and officious and back-putting-up voice, and it was unfortunate that at just that moment the tannoy announcements went off again.
"LISTEN TO IT!" I yelled. "I hate it! I hate it! Everyone hates it!"
I am not proud of having shouted at a woman; but I am rather proud of not having punched this one, and anyway she started it.
She was somewhat cowed by my tirade - you must remember I towered over her and could have pulled her arms off without breaking a sweat - and may have taken a step back. But:
"No they don't," she unbelievably replied.
"Yes they do!" I cried.
"Everyone!" It was only ten minutes later that it occurred to me that the clever and witty response would have been to say 'LET ME PUT THE ____ING PETITION UP AND WE'LL FIND OUT, WON'T WE, YOU COW?' and then to have bitten her throat out. "All the passengers! We all stand there complaining about it! Do you know? Do you queue up? Do you have to queue up and listen to it?" I asked this so vociferously that she backed away again and mutely shook her head.
Now here's a curious thing: beforehand, imagining all the things that might go wrong, in a queasy reverie I had envisaged exactly this scene, in exactly this place, exactly this kind of argument, right here in front of the exit. Only in my reverie it had been an intimidating figure like the beefy stompy bloke I had been confronted with; and I had been backed up by a big crowd of fellow bus passengers, specifically old women.
One of the unearned bonuses of my life is that old women seem to take to me. I am polite and attentive and reasonably well turned out, and the shambolic clumsiness that makes younger women roll their eyes or stare in disbelief probably reminds them pleasantly of the antics of the music-hall zanies and village idiots of their youth. If I ever start a revolution, old women will form the backbone of my army. At bus stops we bitch endlessly together about the bus service and the council and the government. In my reverie they had taken my side in the argument, shouting down my shadowy official nemesis, swarming around me protectively crying 'Leave the lad alone.'
But I had chosen the wrong time of day. There was no bugger there. Two people, zombies: a blank-eyed teenager to whom we were of no sexual interest and therefore no interest, and some distance away a decrepit old man, shuffling aimlessly around the station waiting to die, reading one of the petitions she hadn't yet ripped down with no visible sign of any human reaction whatsoever. In the little newsagents near the exit, the pleasant young shopkeeper was presumably also witness to our scene: I wouldn't be able to go in there again.
The dwarfish piss-back was momentarily nonplussed by my last sally. Also, I think, somewhat intimidated by me at this point. I think I give her points for not running away. But she made the mistake of falling back on repeating, loudly and self-righteously:
"This is private property!"
"NO IT ISN'T!" I rejoined furiously, to her evident surprise, yelling again, really quite loud indeed. "It's MY bus station!"
Which was magnificent, I think, and unquestionably true. The only thing better would be if I had said, 'It's Our bus station.' On the other hand I didn't see anyone else around trying to stop the announcements, so fuck 'em.
But then I blew it completely, in my own eyes; but in the process won the shouting match, if nothing else.
Like a ____, like a total and utter ____, to my eternal shame I heard myself cry:
"I'm your customer! I'm your customer!"
After Magna Carta, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, Churchill, it comes down to this: the querulous whine of the dissatisfied consumer. That is all we have left.
'I heard myself cry' implies a lack of volition. But there was a conscious if instinctive choice - no, more like an animal reflex which my sense of pride, dignity and disgust was unable to restrain in time. It was as if I could see the right button to press in my head. In fact I have a distinct memory, which was probably elaborated afterwards, of seeing a table of verbal options in my mind, and this was on top and I instinctively lunged at it thinking, Yes. That is the one that will work. That is the only one that will make this stop. That's the button that will make her shut up and go away.
And I could see it work, in her face. Fear flickered there, not physical fear of the yelling maniac but fear of having deviated from one part of her programming, the part which had taught her she must always pretend to give a fuck about the clientele or whatever we are called this week. It contradicted other parts about keeping us in our place, and I could see she was caught in some sort of logical loop, but essentially she was on the defensive now.
Mercilessly I followed it up. I scanned her puke-yellow vest, and she followed my gaze and knew what I was looking for, a non-existent name-tag as if she was a shop assistant.
"What's your name?" I demanded. "What's your name?" I think I even pointed at her.
She floundered for a second and tried to compose herself. Then she said, "I am not [something something] my name."
It was 'I am not telling you my name', except she didn't use those words, she used some kind of yellow-back android-seminar ____-speak for it. Only I can't remember what it was. At the time it struck me as hilarious, but, what with all the excitement, five minutes later it had vanished into a black hole. It was some ____ formulation like 'I am not privileging you with my name'. I don't think it was that exactly, but along those lines. Just 'divulging' or 'disclosing' my name? Possibly, but on the whole I think it was something stranger. Enabling you, empowering you with my name? Whatever it was, it cheered me up instantly and I really only stifled a giggle out of the remnants of politeness.
I turned my back on her and did a big Italianate arms-in-the-air shrug, indicative of, 'Well, then, we both know I've won', and walked off through the exit arcade.
I'm aware that Orwell or Peter Hitchens or someone, someone with more sense of civic duty, someone with any interest in experiencing and writing about this kind of thing, would have stayed and had it out and seen how far they went and found out exactly what the penalty is for trying to put up a petition asking for a more pleasant bus station. But they would have stayed calm and polite and dignified and in the face of her shouting I had already blown that. Also they would not have told lies. They would have said they were putting up a petition and asked what was the law against it, and said that that was private property and she was not to touch it. They would have headbutted her or something only as a last resort. Anyway, as a dilettante who was bored and disgusted with the whole thing I conceived it my duty to give up and go to a bookshop and then home to my little oasis of sanity.
When I was already going, when I was very nearly gone, she tried to save face by shouting after me:
"That's right, get out! And don't come back here again!"
At that I was struck with fellow-feeling, because that's normally my role, in any kind of tense confrontational situation, say a potential bar-fight or something, to bravely yell, 'Yeah, that's right, ____ off and don't come back!' when the enemy is already leaving. Between that and 'You are not cleared for access to my name' or whatever, I did burst out laughing as I reached the street.
To calm down further I deliberately visited one of those chain-stores where they pipe in soothing smells to sedate (and possibly deodorize) the shoppers. Then I went to the town library and put up a copy of the petition among the noticeboards in the lobby, scrawling a note on the bottom to the effect that I had tried to put it up in the bus station but some jobsworth had prevented me. (When I went back to the library a week later, some jobsworth had removed it from there too.)
I'm not sure when it occurred to me, whether during the row or soon after leaving, that I had actually noticed some time before that one of their moronic posters declared something like: 'This bus station is private property. We reserve the right to refuse access to any one at any time. Attempting to gain access without something something is trespass.' So presumably 'Don't come back here again' meant I was now persona non grata with the public transport system, barred from trespassing on the bus station.
(I also remembered signs saying 'Close-circuit TV cameras are filming at all times'. I had not noticed such cameras - maybe one has stopped noticing; maybe they were there but concealed the way the loudspeakers are - but if this was true and not another lie like the one about the Transport Police, maybe they would put posters of me up all around the station saying 'Not allowed on our property.' Or they could mount video screens everywhere and broadcast footage of me sitting on benches fumbling with sellotape like a retarded child, swearing viciously to myself and looking deranged. 'Beware of this man', and Christ yes everyone would. And after that, a prissy face in a yellow vest yelling, 'DO NOT SMOKE IN THE OPEN AIR. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE NOISE. LISTEN TO US. BOW DOWN TO US. WE HAVE WON. WE ARE IN CHARGE. DO NOT FIGHT. DO NOT REGRET SOME LOST WORLD' on an eternal loop for ever and ever.)
It wouldn't actually matter much to me, as it had turned out: at the bus stop on my way in that morning an old woman had told me they were stopping the buses from our end in a month anyway. It looked like I and more cruelly the old women would have to walk an extra mile to catch a train, even though the local post office has been closed down and there's no shop worth speaking of. This old woman said we should all stop paying our taxes as they couldn't put us all in prison. To impress her with my fighting spirit I had tried to tell her about the magnificent petition I was on my way to put up, but she was too deaf to hear me.
(I have, as it happens, since been back to the bus station and was not ejected. The tannoy was still playing on a recurring loop. After waiting quite a long time for a certain bus, upon boarding it I was informed that it wasn't, after all, going to the destination the timetable etc. had told me it did, because it only went there 'sometimes'. When I asked, quite politely, which 'sometimes', the driver shrugged and told me he could not explain 'because I do not do English'. I have stuck to the train since then.)
Anyway, going home after doing some shopping and browsing for books I weakly walked a small distance out of town to catch the bus from a stop there rather than go back to the station and risk another scene. I also didn't want to see all of my petitions already gone. Before I left, though, and in case I never came that way again, I went to look at the old manor house opposite one of the road entrances to the station. This is an improbable survival, in the middle of town, of a - Tudor? Elizabethan? I'm appallingly hazy on that kind of thing - house with a gorgeous walled garden which I once explored when the gate was left open (not realising that that, in fact, was genuinely and legitimately private property). Someone very holy once lived there, I am sure. At any rate there is an inexplicable peace and calm about the place, even when you're just looking at the house and trees from across the road. I suppose a fanatic rationalist would argue it is just the contrast, the sheer unexpectedness of hearing the sweet and echoing birdsong over the traffic noises and bustle; but having stood there I know better. You can't even hear the damn traffic within its ambit, only the bird in the woods. It is more than a symbol of, it is a living testament of the miraculous survival of the spiritual world, or perhaps just the Natural world, inside the modern one and in spite of it. I have promised myself that when They eventually bulldoze the place down - as they must, for it is beautiful and calming and gives the game away, just as they must one day destroy almost all of the books of the past because a single paragraph of any reveals they were the product of a healthier, happier civilisation - that when they do this it will be the time that I am permitted to finally make a stand, to smash things and hurt people in protest. But of course I won't; I will just watch it happen.
And that was the end of this small but annoying incident. Even by the standards of my uneventful life it was small. I am quite aware that the average person, say a big-city-dweller with a regular day job, probably puts up with half a dozen similarly annoying incidents of needless abrasiveness and gratuitous official pettiness every day before lunch, and is certainly exposed to a hundred things as irritating as pointless bus station announcements. And indeed even just waiting at the bus stop on my way back home I saw something that angered me even more than the tannoy loop. Really the only reason I started to write all this down was as an attempt to remember exactly what the hell the woman said about her name. ('I am monitored to admit no-one to knowledge of my name.' 'My designated cognomen is not a needful unit of information.' 'It is hardwired into me that I cannot know my name. Even if you knew it, and you told me, I still couldn't know.' Christ, I wish I could think of it.)
However for what it is worth these were some of my thoughts on the bus on the way home:
1. Why were they so angry? I'm the one who should have been angry. What did they have to be angry about?
2. I do not want the bus station, the hub of the public transport system, to be private property.
3. I must be a lefty again.
4. No, that's obviously silly. It is hectoring lefty attitudes that cause the tannoy. Free enterprise doesn't give a damn if I smoke or drop my handbag. But I do not want the bus station to be private property.
5. What I am then, as I've suspected for some time, is a Monarchist. What I am is a subject of the Queen and a free man of her realm. The bus station is part of the Queen's highway, open to one and all, and the tannoy constitutes a breach of the Queen's peace.
6. Why can't you buy the damn sellotape in the self-dispenser with the little guillotine any more?
7. I was rightly punished for trying this. It is not my place to do things like this. My place is to write. Any attempt to waste time and avoid that is always and rightly punished.
8. Why don't I just write to the MP, or the council, or the bus station management, without the signatures?
9. Because I don't speak mandarin. Because I don't speak yellow-jacket. Because I am not a party donor or showbiz figure. Because life's too short and I know the result in advance.
10. What a pissy little life. What a farty attempt at action.
11. This is MY bus station. That was ace. That must be how Spartacus felt.
12. I'm your customer. Ugh, Christ. I don't want to be anyone's customer, consumer, or client. I want to be a British subject again and a free man among free men.
13. The bastards conceal the loudspeakers in the walls or the ceiling somewhere because they know someone would come and smash them up. (That had been my plan B, before I realised I couldn't see them, to come there after hours and destroy them.) They already know how hateful they are.
14. What did that woman say she wouldn't do with her name?
15. There is something wrong with my brain. The part of it that evaluates what will work and what won't in reality, mine is underdeveloped. But a lot of great inventors and innovators and so on must have had the same thing, right? Also a lot of people who've died ignominiously.
16. What is it with the bloody yellow vests?
17. If some old women had been there they would have killed for me. They would have killed and eaten those ____s and shit out their yellow vests.
18. I think I will eat a sausage roll when I get home.
19. I am not enhancing your knowledge-base with my name? I should have winked and asked for her phone number.
20. Fighting these people, the people behind the yellow-vests, the ones giving them their orders, eats into our precious time for creating, for enjoying the beauty that still exists, for living our lives. And so they go on and on unopposed claiming more and more ground because that is all they have in their lives or they are being paid to do so. I think that I personally am excused trying to take any more practical steps for a while because I am clearly rubbish at it. But I do wish they would go away, and clear up all their toys after them.
The word 'tannoy' derives from the French, je t'annoy.
it is entirely pointless. There are already large and garish no-smoking posters and signs
Of course we no longer even notice the posters and signs of various sorts due to overkill and the fact that most of them are idiotic; just as eventually people will stop hearing the tannoy except as an annoying din, and they will then have an excuse to introduce something worse such as screeching video screens.
(This overfamiliarity breeding contempt is unhelpful, because occasionally, once in a long while, a sign will tell us something that might be useful to know. E.g. a week or so later on a bus I wasn't familiar with I sat on a seat reserved for cripples and the shagged-out, which I prized for its leg-room, because I failed to read, in fact automatically erased from my attention, the prominent sign in the window informing me of this reservation, on the well-learned assumption it would be something annoying, stupid or irrelevant to me; until an irate man with a stick pointed it out.)
But we know not to smoke because we remember what country and year we are living in and the kind of people who have power over us.
The bus drivers themselves have to stand in a gaggle on the corner like schoolchildren in order to smoke, even when it's wet, just as the shopgirls from the supermarket have to shiver outside in the pissing rain. Hooray for the party of the people.
As I write this I have just received an election leaflet from my Labour councillors. The local bus service has gone, the local post office has gone, and they spend half the leaflet boasting of having put up signs telling drivers to slow down.
It is curious to me that the politicians currently abandoning the cabinet keep speaking of monumental achievements in their resignation letters.
WE ARE IN CHARGE. WE HAVE WON. AND YOU MUST DWELL ON THE FACT THAT WE HAVE WON.
I do not say that the people who make the legislation and the people who enforce it and the people who dutifully made and play the tape think that way on any conscious level. They feel virtuous. But I honestly start to think there is a malevolence behind them or within them that gloats. Some things appear inexplicable to me otherwise.
[I have just cut several paragraphs more in this vein, in which I lengthily, but, you will have to take my word for it, quite lucidly and without hysteria, and playfully but semi-seriously, explored the possibilities that behind the tannoy at my bus station and most of the other bad things of modern life lies either (a) the devil, (b) 'some insane psychic gestalt created from the collective consciousness of mass misguided sanctimony, power-enjoyment, and indifference to aesthetic beauty and individual liberty' or (c) the manifestation of a subconscious death-wish afflicting the upper echelons of our society which reveals itself in many other ways; in this case as in others, Health and Safety mania issuing not out of any love of life but out of a desire to make life as flat and tasteless for the rest of us as it is for them.
This last is my favourite and at least has a plausible-sounding ring of pseudo-science to it. I really believe that behind almost all of our afflictions is some joyless grey-faced professor who thinks that human life is a pointless blight upon the earth and that we will never be happy or good. If we ever meet, buy me ten drinks and I will expound this at length, with examples; but this is not the place for it. However I will retain this bit:]
...I certainly believe that any deliberate and gratuitous increase in ugliness and any needless exercise of power is an absolute evil, and that much of what passes for progress or public service nowadays is just an excuse to make life less pleasant and push people around.
The people involved simply needing such exercises of power as a substitute for Viagra or hormone replacement is also an acceptable theory.
Even then the preliminary click of the tannoy before each one sends a shudder down my spine
I hope somehow to play my part in building a future world where one day people will read that sentence and think, not, 'What a fop', but, 'How barbaric they were in the past, blaring tannoy at each other just because they could.'
hung around scowling at them until they fucked off
I have a friend who once tried to go on some save-the-world anti-war demo, but only lasted five minutes because she 'couldn't stand all the bloody people around.' She didn't mean anti-war people in particular, she just meant people.
one of those hideous piss-yellow visibility jackets that everyone from babysitters to police wear now to indicate authority
It is clear now that the police were innocent victims of this. They were made to wear them (a) to destroy their lovely smart traditional uniforms as an act of pure cultural vandalism and satanic hatred of beauty and (b) so that when all the others were made to wear them they would benefit by association and derive spurious authority thereby. It is clear that some ____ somewhere at some time has had the bright idea to attempt to 'own' or 'brand' yellow as the colour of authority.
Even in the case of the police, though, all other members of the public upon seeing such attire should yell, "Take that off at once, you scruffy, ridiculous-looking bastard, what do you think you like look? Diddums, is he scared of being run over? Is he scared of being bumped into? Does he not have the force of personality to make himself visible on his own? Ow, my head, help, Mother, etc."
Actually the first people I remember wearing the wretched things were the crowd-control stewards at football matches. That's all it's about, crowd control.
he really did stomp away
Honesty compels me to say that I have seen him since and he always walks like that. There is something wrong with him I think. Or maybe he was angry then too. Maybe he exists in a state of perpetual rage at the public.
(Maybe everyone in authority does. The indignant squeals of the MPs when they saw we wouldn't let the expenses scandal drop! Maybe they hate us as much as we hate them.)
she was happier shouting
Although her anger was undoubtedly real, I think these kinds of people may actually be taught to shout us down, and to provoke us into being angry in return, in some seminar. They are also taught that treacly patronizing faux-polite euphemism-heavy way of speaking we've all come to know and hate, which is actually better at provoking us into being angry and thus wrong-footed, but this cow had forgotten how to do it.
How could anyone possibly come to identify with their crappy job that much?
You don't need your crappy job that much. Become a tramp. That is what I have decided to do, or at least it is inevitable I will end up like that. I will roam the fields and forests, bearded and naked, avoiding man and all his works, eating only what I can kill with an axe.
a curious thing: beforehand, imagining all the things that might go wrong, in a queasy reverie I had envisaged exactly this scene
Curious because even with the two big changes it's the closest I have personally come to contradicting the law laid down in that Borges story about the man about to be executed by firing squad, that things never happen in a way they have been envisaged.
Enabling you, empowering you with my name?
This was a small town provincial bus station, and she was a woman who a generation ago would have been an ordinary down-to-earth northern working woman. Someone did that to her. They did that to her on purpose to cut her off from the rest of us. They did it to prevent human communication. I want that person's tongue cutting out, the person who did that to her, and I want all of those people driven from my country.
a blank-eyed teenager
Probably too young to remember a time when we weren't bullied and browbeaten at every turn, when everything wasn't needlessly ugly and unfriendly. The tannoy at our bus station is only an innovation of the last few months but children growing up now will come to think of it as natural. They will not know any different. They will never know it is wrong. They will think it is natural to shout at people to get them to do what you want.
In the same way there are things I don't know I have lost because they were killed before I was born; not just in the world around me but in myself. Or I have grasped them slowly and imperfectly, at second-hand, out of books. Small graces of living, manners, fortifying habits of thought.
(NB that time when my dear friend ______ , product of a less decayed culture, jokingly described me as an 'educated yob' or something; the awful twinge of recognition and guilt.)
Cf. K. Amis in Russian Hide and Seek, 'No one thought, no one saw that the clothes the guests wore were badly cut from poor materials... that the glasses and plates they carried had not been properly washed, or that the pavement where the couples danced needed sweeping. No one thought, no one perceived with other senses that the wine was thin, the soft drinks full of preservative and the cakes stodgy, or that the orchestra's playing was ragged and lifeless. No one thought any of that because no one had ever known any different.'
the querulous whine of the dissatisfied consumer. That is all we have left.
Unless you are a member of a special interest lobby group, of course. I should have claimed that I had a religious objection to tannoy, or sensitive eardrums (both of which are poetically true) or, more plausibly and also with a grain of essential truth, that I suffered from Tourette's Syndrome and that it exacerbated the symptoms.
the old women would have to walk an extra mile to catch a train
This has now turned out to be slightly exaggerated: there's a bus of sorts they can still catch but it takes an hour for a half-hour journey, slightly less if they fart around changing somewhere.
at the bus stop on my way back home I saw something that angered me even more
I won't even get into what that one was. On the way I would also have seen the Morrison's till girls smoking outside in the wind, thanks to the people's party and their eagerness to embrace voodoo science, if it means forbidding something. I also get angrier every time I see the picture of the dying man on the side of a cigarette packet. That's someone's idea of improving the world, that is. That's for our own good, inflicting that obscenity on us every time we want to enjoy ourselves. Our masters felt virtuous the day they did that. They felt like they'd earned their day at the expenses trough, that day. Take my pure and undying hate, you unreflecting mounds of unremitting self-satisfaction. One hand in the till, the other wagging a finger at the rest of us. Leave my country, pigs, defilers, haters of beauty and freedom, you have never liked it anyway, you have hated it from the depths of your half-dead hearts because it was beautiful and free.
The bastards conceal the loudspeakers in the walls or the ceiling somewhere because they know someone would come and smash them up. (That had been my plan B
This sounds macho. It is also unlikely in me. I wish it were more likely. But I find myself daydreaming about things like that a lot nowadays and everyone has a snapping point. The thing is, while I revere, above all else, and aspire to emulate, the people who can still be the courteous, cheery, unflappable English gentleman, it starts to remind me of my friend Williams's theory that everyone should live as if the utopia they desire had already come about, and my cynical objection that you were putting yourself at a disadvantage unless everyone else was doing it too. What if I try to live in a Wodehouse Eden while other people behave as though they're living in Mordor?
The thing is, Britain was formed by the hardest tribes in Europe fighting for possession of this island for over a thousand years. We became civilised, gentle and mild-mannered thanks to the Christianity which is now on the decline; and a code of chivalry which I suppose some people still try to cling to but which included among its tenets not letting an insult pass; but mostly I think because we could afford to be, because we had created a land which was uniquely free and where no-one was allowed to push us around. It was always a two-way thing, the politeness; the consideration flowed down as well as up and to every side.
Within living memory the Greeks used to call us the Freedom-Lovers. If anything we may be too law-abiding and conformist now. Legislate all you like, French, Spaniards, Greeks would not stoop to enforcing some of the petty regulations we enforce on each other. Perhaps there has long been that strain among us, the little bureaucrats who enjoy their work too much; but now we have forgotten how to keep them in their place.
But beneath the veneer of civilisation... we did not conquer half the world by being apologetic and diffident. 'I'm awfully sorry to trouble you, but could we come in and take over your country? We can come back later if it's not convenient.' No. The British people were a tool forged by God or good fortune to spread freedom, science and manners over the whole globe at gun-point and not take no for an answer.
They should take care, our bosses; they really ought not to lord it over us the way they do. Especially female midgets whose arms I could pull off without breaking a sweat.
I am glad I wrote this now. It is largely boring but I realise it contains a perfect metaphor for the situation in Britain today: a noble, forbearing giant being pushed around by a nagging midget snapping at his heels, whom he could easily drop-kick halfway through the ceiling making the concealed speakers spark and explode and take her rotten head with them, only because the dwarf counts too much on his essential kindliness.
There is something wrong with my brain
Take the layout of the noticeboards, I thought - I reconnoitred beforehand but I was still surprised how crowded they were when it came time for action - unless they added more posters or bus information in the intervening days, I had seen them as I wanted to see them. Likewise my fellow passengers, my reverie of them rallying round me, I saw them as I wanted to see them, I thought dismally. Maybe no-one would even have signed the damn petitions. And the staff! Did you expect them to be amenable to sweet reason, or come to that breezy lies? Did you really think the petitions would have been allowed to remain there for a week?
But I decided that this too had its positive side, because if we always see the world as it is rather than as it should be, it will never be as it should be.
10th June 2009
Additional note, June 2015:
An improbable survival of a house with a gorgeous walled garden... an inexplicable peace and calm about the place... the sheer unexpectedness of hearing the sweet and echoing birdsong over the traffic noises...
I have promised myself that when They eventually bulldoze the place down it will be the time that I am permitted to finally make a stand
They have since sold that house to be a conference centre. They chopped the ancient and I am still sure holy trees down to make a car park, thereby evicting the birds.
When I heard this it was already a fait accompli, and I was already so flattened by a much bigger and more personal blow that my reaction was on the order of 'Ah! Why not?'
I do not know what I would have done anyway, or what any of us can do.