Tuesday, April 1, 2008


My (grown up) son, Joshua, very much surprised me the other day because he seemed so unfazed by the idea of compulsory identity cards, ubiquitous close circuit tv and DNA tests for most or all of the population. I have always been very suspicious of the state in Britain and its overwhelming power and ruthlessness. I think we are nearly all horribly complacent about it and our complacency is very dangerous to individual liberty. Can it be right that we bang up more of our population than any other European country? That we have (many) more security cameras on every street corner? I thought a letter in the Guardian a few days ago was interesting. It suggested that we should try compulsory ID cards, iris recognition and centralised personal data stores on the MPs and all the senior civil servants before the rest of us have to endure this extraordinary level of intrusion! I love that idea! But I also remember the opinion of an eighteenth century judge, Lord Mansfield, who defended Britons' rights to think or even to intend anything - however horrible or wicked - without penalty. You shouldn't be sent to prison for having naughty thoughts. But Muslims now are being sent to prison merely because they talk about jihad, they talk about violent revolution and war against Western secularism and capitalism and they even go on the net and inform themselves about what they could do if they had the resources and the nerve. These are not (should not be) imprisonable offences and I find it very frightening to think that they are so. What it would do to any of our lives, to be held with out charge for 40 days or even more while the police rummaged our homes, dismantled our computers, frightened off our customers or suppliers, lost us our jobs and then took us to court and convicted us because of what we had chatted about, imagined or hoped. Or even - like that silly girl who worked at Heathrow - because we had written verses about glorious martyrs. Anyway, I have made my point. If you do not protest or object or even notice when the Muslims (like the Jews in pre-war Germany) are bullied by state authorities in your name, when are you going to protest or try to defend your remaining civil liberties? And when will the police come for you or yours instead of just for the people who have different colour skins and different habits and very different ideas?


I hate not liking London. I’ve lived here a lot, much of my life and although it never feels like home, it always feels that I belong; I never belonged in Paris or Milan, though I spent time in both; or Rome or New York, which I used to love to visit. I never belonged in Bristol, though I lived there. But London ....

Can be so frustrating and disappointing. It is not the big things that are disgusting. Litter, noise, traffic, complexity - these are the characteristics of all cities. But what happened to courtesy? What happened to common sense and competence?

Eight petty examples from one night out:

These all actually happened. All in one evening.

I was in a good mood, too. Before it all started ......

1) I alight from the tube at Waterloo and try to walk to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Exit to South Bank closed - there are always concerts at the Festival Hall and QEH on a Sunday night but Transport for London cannot be bothered to let people out of the tube station the proper way. The music lover has to go the wrong way, the long way, making an unnecessary detour through the mainline station and across a filthy bridge back over the main road. There are no notices to explain why this is necessary (or that ‘The South Bank’ includes the Queen Elizabeth Hall at all - are people from abroad supposed just to guess these things? Does anybody who writes sign posts and notices up ever read or check them?).

2) I go to collect my concert ticket. Three human beings sit at three desks waiting to attend to me. There is no queue, there is no crowd. I approach the nearest and explain my mission. ‘There’s a machine over there,’ she says, dismissively, ‘for pre-ordered tickets.’ I lie immediately. (It is an instinct for a Londoner). ‘I have no idea which credit card I used,’ I say, grandly. (I haven’t got that many.) Unwillingly, she looks me up on the computer. We sort out which credit card I used and I wave it at her and she hands me my ticket. It takes about 25 seconds. ‘So why,’ I ask her gently,’ did you try to direct me to a machine? I much prefer to deal with a person.’ She seems surprised at my question and even more surprised at my statement. ‘It’s so much quicker,’ she says, without a smile or any apparent irony ‘on the machines’.

3) The foyer is stifling as I wait for the concert to start. I park my coat in the cloakroom but it is still unpleasantly hot. The weather is warm tonight. Three days earlier, the weather had been cold, the foyer and the hall exceptionally cold and drafty. I really regretted disposing of my overcoat. What is so difficult about central heating, aka climate control? Isn’t it supposed to keep temperatures constant inside buildings? It seems to work in other countries. Why not in London?

4) The concert is folk music. Folk music stems from the oral tradition. Folk songs are songs you can sing with friends in the pub or round the dining table. Folk songs are songs that tell stories. At this concert, the musical accompaniments are so loud that few of the words come across. Even the huge Steinway concert grand piano is amplified, for no reason that I can possibly imagine. It could fill the hall with sound without tinny and obtrusive amplifiers between it and the public. I try to work out how loud it all really is - objectively but not in decibels. I play an acoustic (nylon string) guitar. It is a good one, with a concert instrument’s tone and volume. I often play it on my boat, which is a small space. I sometimes (very rarely) play it to visitors or to close, tolerant friends. I reckon that if I played my guitar as loudly as I could, really thrashing it, within two or three feet of my friends, in the confined space of the boat, the sound would still not be as loud or as piercing as the instruments reproduced at the QEH. And, remember, this is not a rock concert (I take ear plugs to rock concerts) this is folk music in a concert hall. And even amplifying the singers’ voices above the (overloud) musical accompaniments doesn’t make the words audible and comprehensible. I miss half the fun of the story telling songs and almost all the jokes whispered into the microphone and I am afraid I sit and think rather ruefully: “if I’d wanted to hear amplified music uncomfortably loud, I could have sat on my boat and put my head phones on and turned the CD player up to its maximum.”

5) I go to the artists’ party afterwards and reach Waterloo station to get the tube at 1145. ‘Closed, nothing going your way,’ says the man trying, quite rudely, to close the gates in my face - and succeeding. No apology, no explanation, nothing to discuss. I resign myself to buying a taxi. So much for the 24 hour city. But of course, it’s Sunday, isn’t it. Everything still stops on a Sunday in London. I wonder why.

6) I trudge upstairs again to find the station taxis, delighted that there is no queue. ‘Good,’ I think. ‘ Thank Heaven for that. At least there’s no problem here.’ But the first cab on the rank has its doors locked when I try to get in. ‘A mistake,’ I think. I try the door again. Still locked. I try again, assuming the driver will open the door when he sees what I am doing. (He isn’t asleep). Still locked. The front window purrs down, as if reluctantly. ‘Why isn’t your door opening?” I ask politely. ‘Where you going?’ he asks aggressively. ‘Lisson Grove,’ I say - resisting the temptation to remind him of his obligations under the Hackney Carriage Act. It is still five minutes before midnight and his duty is to take any fare that is offered, wherever the punter wants to go. ‘Why isn’t your door opening? And what ...’ ‘You’re supposed to ask the driver first,’ he says fiercely. ‘You got to ask the driver.’ I resist the temptation to spit in his eye and move to the second taxi in the rank. ‘Well, I never heard that one before.....’ I mutter emolliently and climb inside wearily. I do get fed up with all this London shit. It seems so unnecessary.

7) In the cab, I get a pen and a notebook to make a note of the cab number. I am still tempted to have a major row with him. I try to switch the light on. Nothing happens. ‘Can you switch this light on?’ I ask, still politely. ‘It’s broken,’ he says, without apology or explanation. 'It doesn't work.' I write his number down anyway, in my diary. 88410 - a driver to be avoided. I carry a small torch in my pocket, for just such an emergency.

8) But I skip the row, when we get there. I content myself with under-tipping. The fare is £18, I give him £20 and accept his offer of a receipt. It would be unpleasant not to tip him at all and I would normally give him at least all the change, probably a few pennies more (the route he followed was quite clever). Instead, I take one pound coin back for myself and dribble the other, reluctantly, into his outstretched hand. He sees it for what it is - an insult. A very deliberate insult. It makes me sad. We part without salutation, just another discontented, discourteous, ill-mannered and ultimately self-defeating couple of grumpy and frustrated Londoners on a typical night out in March 2008.

I am left asking myself some questions:

Why didn’t that taxi driver treat me as he would want to be treated himself? Why didn’t the girl issuing the ticket? Why do central heating engineers not go themselves to check their draught ridden atriums in changeable conditions? Why don’t sound engineers ask their audiences how they like to listen to music? I haven’t even touched on the muddle with my change when I bought a soft drink at the concert hall (I still don’t know if I was under- or over- charged but it certainly wasn’t right) or the tragi-comedy of asking for a receipt when I bought a book that was on offer that night.

The very sweet girl serving me gave me my change immediately and then started to radio for help. ‘We got nothing for receipts,’ she said, ‘we don’t know about receipts’. I stopped her and said I would manage without one. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, the most compassionate response I got out of anyone all night.

‘Oh dear, I hope it doesn’t bother.’

Why on earth do people not test and check the systems that they ‘design’ and the people that they ‘train’, I thought of a close friend who used to run the National Theatre. He checked everything himself; the cloakrooms and toilets, the restaurants and the book stalls. He tested everything and trained all the staff to pay the attention to detail which he does himself. Mark you, he got horribly tired after a few years not only cleaning the Augean stables but making sure they stayed clean. I was very relieved when he went on to help to run Channel Four.

I suppose the senior staff of the South Bank Centre are too grand to worry about the soap dispensers in the gents which are so remote from the basins that you cannot wash your hands properly after micturating? Or the choke point doorway to the gents where every one bumps into everyone else because it's far too narrow? I wonder what the last occasion was when one of the very senior staff had a look round the place behind the scenes or had a personal friend attend and play the part of a routine concert goer and test all the systems? I shall send copies of this petty diatribe to the directors of the South Bank - but I don’t suppose I will get any satisfaction. That's another hobby horse! People who don't reply to letters when they ought to. Not just in London.