Can you move down a bit, please? Commuters on a packed London Tube train. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Standing packed together on trains but studiously ignoring each other is nothing new

A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, the unnamed narrator chances upon a strange old man in a London tavern. Following him through the streets after closing time and then throughout the night, the narrator realises, with mounting horror, that his quarry is compelled to seek out his fellow men – the waifs and strays of the urban night – simply so he may continue to be part of the generality rather than a singular individual. The poor fellow cannot otherwise exist: he is the man of the crowd.

Written in the late 1830s and set in London – at that time the largest city in the world – Poe’s story is a seminal work registering the creation of modern urban life and our psychological response to it. Translated into French by Baudelaire, it became a foundational document for his conception of the flâneur; but what I find most suggestive about the story is the narrator’s description of the old man’s face – which he says is shockingly grotesque, to a degree unprecedented in his experience.

In common with most city-dwellers I inhabit the urban mill-race much as a fish does a shoal: regarding my fellow men and women of the crowd but little, so long as they are swimming in the same direction. A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible for us to exist bum-cheek-by-wincing-jowl with myriads with whom we have no connection: we don’t speak to them; we appear purposive and goal-driven; the advent of modern technologies – particularly personal sound systems – has been incorporated, so that now we can stride through the streets, or stand packed together on public transport, each occupying our own parallel world of reclusion.

Actually, this is nothing all that new: the emergent technology of the mass-produced newspaper and the book were factored in to the crowd dynamics of the late 19th century. Ambulatory City commuters of this time – the clerks and computers, Eliot’s undead who streamed across London Bridge – spontaneously formed into contraflow lanes so they might read as they walked, thereby snatching a few reclusive moments apart from the mass tyranny of the clock. But perhaps the most essential attribute required to be an urban survivor is a strange visual impairment: a concerted ability not to look anyone in the face.

It’s said of those on the autistic spectrum that because they have no intuition of other minds – what George Eliot typified as understanding that other people possess “an equivalent [and separate] centre of self” – they display little interest in facial expressions. By that analysis, everyone sitting in the train carriage with you right now is functionally autistic.

We do look at other visages in the crowd – but these are only brief, probing glances, the aim of which is to establish the likelihood of threat or the remoter possibility of sexual attraction leading to lifetime love and security. What we don’t do – what, in fact, we daren’t do – is examine strangers’ faces for prolonged periods, bringing to bear on them all our imaginative and empathetic capabilities.

Over the past week or so, having previously enjoyed a period of intense solitude while working on a book, I’ve been savouring my regained freedom and exposure to humankind by doing just this: instead of walling myself up behind book or screen, I have been surreptitiously scrutinising faces wherever I go. Several things have struck me while undertaking this field research on our species. The first is quite how difficult it is to describe faces. Of course, as a writer, I knew this already – although it’s an axiom of fictional characterisation that in respect of physical appearance less is usually more: the reader needs to have something for his or her own imagination to do, and so cherishes being given a free hand on these immaterial countenances.

We might say that a mouth is generous, or eyes deep-set, or cheeks acne-scarred, but when set beside the living, breathing, infinitely subtle interplay of inner thought, outward reaction and the nexus of superimposed cultural conventions, it tells us next to nothing about what a person really looks like. We often experience this disjunction between appearance and reality most acutely in representational art; in painting, for instance, we readily grasp the distinction between artists who can portray the fleshly form of the psyche, and those who merely produce likenesses. Not for nothing did Baudelaire entitle his essay about the flâneur “The Painter of Modern Life”.

The flâneur stands apart from the crowd and is unafraid to see the individual rather than the functional stereotype imposed by mass urbanism – but it is a deeply uncomfortable perspective to adopt. Once you begin to analyse a stranger’s face she ceases to be a stranger: you feel the living oppression of her illnesses and neuroses, her joys and her sadness – she becomes part of a tightly knit community that takes up residence in your mind alone. And this explains why it is that Poe’s man of the crowd is so very physically repugnant; because he can only exist in a condition of anonymity, he has absorbed all of the alienation and lack of feeling such a state necessarily implies. To employ a favoured idiom in my part of the world: he looks like the back of a bus.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496