On the plane back on Tuesday, I read this Op-Ed piece by Michele Hanson in the Guardian newspaper. I had the copy ripped out of the paper laying around and finally early this morning managed to get time to find it online. It's here.
"I get into the lift at my local tube station and straight away I get bossed around. "Do not obstruct the doors," barks a loud disembodied voice. And then, even louder and stricter, "No smoking anywhere on the underground." But no one is obstructing the doors. We are all standing nicely in the lift, not smoking. I long to scream "Shut up!" but at whom? Then more shouting on the journey: "This station is blah. The next station is blah." We used to be able to read on the trains and buses - one consolation for a long journey. No chance nowadays, because of all the shouting: "Tomorrow this line will be closed for maintenance. Do not change at X for Y, or at M for N, change at blah. Mind the gap. Do not leave baggage unattended." My friend Clayden waited at midnight on a deserted platform. Spooky. No staff, no human in sight, just the loud, bossing voice. "Keep away from the track. A fast train is approaching."
We have instruction overload. Every day, every move, more instructions. Put out bins and recycling Monday night for Tuesday. No plastic milk bottles, no Yellow Pages, no open lids. In Clayden's block of flats, he is pelted with instructions. No doormats, no spider plants on hall window sills (health and safety), no pets, no noise, keep the door of the laundry shut at all times. Stay in, you get it, go out, you get it more.
Rosemary gets on the bus to her Spanish class and is shouted at all the way, at every single stop and between stops. "This is the 168 going to Tesco, Elephant and Castle." But why Tesco? She goes to Sainsbury's and gets more instruction on the escalator. "Please use the handrail." "You are now reaching the end of the escalator. Prepare to get off ..." Perhaps it's for blind people, but do they really need it? That loud and that often? On Clayden's bus a rather threatening male voice warns of frequent ticket inspectors. A hint of threat, a presumption of guilt, meanwhile a more pleasant female voice calls out the stops. Disembodied sexism. Men are nasty, woman are not.
And if it isn't bellowing voices, it's signs. Hundreds and thousands of signs. Put your dog on the lead here. Let it off here. Pick up its crap. Put the crap in here. Dog waste only. Keep your dog under control. No dogs. Yes dogs. Provide this or that documentation. Show your passport to move your money. Enter your pin. Remove your card. Seek assistance. Do not drive in this lane, do not stop in the box, do not stop on the lines, or in the spaces, on this side of the road between 7am and 10am, on the other side between 4pm and 7pm.
Rosemary fled to Cornwall to get away from it all, but then she tried to call me from a phone box (she still has no mobile), put her 40p in, lost it and was sent shed-loads of instructions from BT about how to get it back. Couldn't the operator have just put her through, like they used to in the darling old days? No. Instead, they would send her a voucher, then she must "Dial 0800 169 3089 ... wait for voice prompt ... dial account number ... followed by hash, wait for prompt ... dial the number you require, followed by hash ... account expires 01/02/2009 or 180 days after first usage - whichever is sooner." And all for 40p. The stamp cost them 20p. Mad? Or mad?
Can I offer a little advice to the persons in charge? It won't work. The obedient people are behaving themselves anyway. They only need to be told once or twice. The rebellious ones will become even more defiant, because it hacks them off being told what to do, over and over and over again. Even Rosemary, Clayden, Fielding and I are beginning to revolt. Still, at least we're under surveillance. The rule-makers can survey us all being bossed out of our minds. One day they may see a little group of broken people, sitting on the pavement somewhere howling, rending their garments and chewing at their bus passes. It will probably be us.
My point is, its not the actual instructions, orders and laws that are the problem. It's the type of society that it produces. Constantly being monitored, constantly under pressure to conform, no individual responsibility, no wonder it's hard to feel good about the place.