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

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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