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

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle