I took a different bus route though Oxford today, 9/6/15, up towards the Churchill Hospital and the Wood Farm council estate. For once the bus was packed and among those standing, next to me, was a tiny frail old lady. All around us ethnically diverse young people, possibly students, they were all tattoos and nose rings, were sitting down. There were also some very large men occupying the seats.
I was really shocked and asked the woman out loud whether she wanted a seat. She shook her head but if she’d said yes I would have forced one of the young or the hulking men to stand up for her. On London buses the words ‘excuse me’ are now unknown and never used but, particularly amongst the Poles, old women get to sit down. On this bus no one stirred at my words.
After two more rattling, lurching stops the old lady got off and a seat became available beside a white haired pensioner. I asked her if she’d seen what I’d just seen and she said she had. I said I was surprised as even in London the very aged usually get seats.
‘Why should they?’ said the woman abrasively. ‘There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her. There’s no reason why young people should stand for older people.’
I was non-plussed again, although since I’ve been in east Oxford I have found that most people are very left-wing and women seem to disagree with everything I say.
‘Do you think they should stand up for a handicapped person,’ I asked her, correcting myself. ‘I mean the disabled.’
‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘but we don’t use that term, ‘the disabled.’. Those seats over there,’ she pointed to no less than six seats, ‘are designated for disabled people. They’d have to stand up for them, it’s the law.’
Fortunately the wretched old commie got off before I could ask her if she thought anyone would stand up if it wasn’t for the law, and I wondered how we got to this point, of acting not out of compassion, kindness or courtesy, but only from fear of codified strictures.
I can only think that in the 1960s, when I was growing up, and dined with delight on a regular diet of BBC2 plays showing the degraded, rude and coarse as heroic, we threw out courtesy, consideration and of course chivalry from men. A little later, particularly as state schools fell apart and school children, ironically renamed ‘students’ became too unruly to be educated, it was realised that we just couldn’t live as a group in that way.
There followed a protracted and confused struggle which still goes on, largely between warring interest groups, to stick things society together again with generally accepted forms of behaviour, although these have to vary according to ‘cultural sensitivities.’
In the absence of authority figures or a strong religious or ethical code this was a difficult task. Finding there was no individual way to do it without appearing authoritarian, we increasingly opted for state control by passing numerous laws compelling everyone to behave in a way that previously had been the norm. It made life more complicated and annoying, people were taken to court for increasingly strange crimes, such as saying the wrong thing, but at least it meant no one was demeaned by being asked to stand up when they preferred to sit down.