It’s a jungle out there – so we all need to treat each other better
THE SPRING can’t come fast enough. Out there in the January gloom, people are careering against each other, and they’re not in the best of shape.
Just over a fortnight into the New Year, it’s already obvious that they’re struggling: with money, with the post-Christmas Blues, with anger.
London’s a place where people are never very kind to one another but these three scenes from the last week or so demonstrate how close we all are to the edge sometimes…
Their behaviour is terrible, but I don’t want to inflame them. What if they have knives?“
SCENE ONE: I go to the corner shop to buy beers, arriving just as the customer at the counter has his debit card declined. By the time I join him, he’s accusing the shopkeeper of swindling him and warning: Watch it. Apparently, he was only £1.50 short. As the queue builds up behind us, the man’s friend comes in from where he was waiting outside, cuts in in front of me, puts down a twenty on the counter and orders tobacco. He tells the shopkeeper to hurry up. No, not that one, he says. What are you doing? Hurry up. Don’t keep me waiting. Behind me, people start to growl at the hold-up, but I don’t say anything. Their behaviour is terrible, but I don’t want to inflame it. Although I am much bigger than both men, what if they have knives? Eventually, an elderly man waiting to pay for his tonic water shames me and my timidity and spits: Be polite! at them. The men leave, warning the shopkeeper not to try and cheat them next time. Another guy behind me tries to push past with his stuff, even though I haven’t been served yet, and the man behind the counter is so flustered I have to remind him to charge me. I walk home, relieved that I’m unscathed, and describe what just happened to my wife. She says: I’ve seen that before. It’s a pride thing. They get embarrassed about not having the money and get aggy. So maybe they’re not the arseholes they seemed. They were just broke, and ashamed…
She says, You’re being quite aggressive.
I say, Actually, I’m disappointed and frustrated.“
SCENE TWO: I take two Christmas presents back to a jeweller at Camden Lock, for an exchange or a refund. I have to cycle about nine miles each way to get there, and I’ve been careful to take pictures of the receipts they emailed me when I bought the – unopened and unworn – stuff. I’m also well within the month that most shops allow for returns. When I politely explain why I’m here, the shop owner says she’s only doing exchanges within seven days of purchase, and no refunds. I explain that, to comply with this, I couldn’t have given the jewellery to my daughter for Christmas, as I bought the stuff on December 18. I ask if I need to call Trading Standards. We start to talk over each other and she says: You’re being quite aggressive and I say, Actually, I’m disappointed and frustrated. In the end, she agrees to an exchange, just this once, and I just about manage to thank her. She says she changed the policy because so many people were bringing Christmas stuff back and I think: Isn’t that what happens to any business? That’s why they offer gift receipts. She’s young and just starting out; disappointed that she’s not making as much as she thought. But I’ve still spent a lot in her shop, exchanges or not. I wonder whether I should advise her that – from a customer point of view – she’s not providing a good experience. But then I think: Fuck it. I’m tired out from arguing, and I don’t owe her anything…
It’s a London irony: getting threatened by a campaigner against knife crime.
SCENE THREE: My daughter arranges to meet some old school mates at The Tube. Outside, there’s a group of teenaged boys collecting money for an anti-knife crime charity. They ask her for a donation and says she doesn’t have change, maybe brushes them off a bit, as is the way round these ends. The boys get aggy, but she continues to blank them and, when her friend arrives, she steers her away from the boys, who are after her friend for a donation now, and towards the Tube. They get aggier. One of them calls her a white slag! and she asks Why are you bringing race into it? The row goes on and – perhaps feeling that it’s beneath his dignity to attack a woman – he promises: I’ll rob your man! It’s a London irony: getting threatened by a campaigner against knife crime….
What I think after these encounters is that we can all be nicer.
We know, after a decade of austerity, that people are floundering. We know that many are in crap, insecure and exhausting jobs. We see the ever-increasing numbers of rough sleepers and beggars, read the articles about food banks and catastrophic shortages in mental health funding.
And so we set up a Direct Debit to a food bank. we buy The Big Issue. And yet we often don’t make the connection between all the background, and why so many people are behaving badly all around us.
Most of the time, I bumble around, worrying about my own puny sorrows, and can’t really imagine how bad life is for my neighbours and the strangers I bump up against every day.
Maybe these days, it’s not enough to be concerned, to put our hands in our pockets from time to time.
We need to try and understand. Be nice.