If we all spit together, then we are all socially included

I am walking down the street and I pass a woman in a flowery dress, mouth stuck to an Evian water bottle. She bounces along, and some of the water spills down her chin. We stop at a pedestrian crossing and I spot a little saliva trickling out of the side of her mouth. How gross, I think, how embarrassing.

Now a man strolls past, mobile phone to his mouth. "Yeah, yeah, but then we got into bed and . . ." What follows is a blow-by-blow account of a romp the night before.

I have no time to recover from this exchange before I'm practically mowed down by a tattooed teenager who's wolfing down a hamburger, mouth open. His masticating is noisy and public, impossible for passers-by to ignore.

These days, as you walk the streets of London, you're bound to come up against someone's saliva or sex life or digestive juices. A new intimacy is stalking the land, and it's forcing you into communion with perfect strangers. On television, the Big Brother phenomenon lets you into other people's personal space - their bedrooms as well as their loos - but you can choose to switch off the experience. Hello! drags us into yet another celebrity's "lovely home" - but we can keep away from the newsagent's shelf. Our streets and other public spaces, however, have turned us into unwitting - and often unwilling - voyeurs.

This was once a society where everything went on behind closed doors. Unless you were taking part in the football ritual - drinking, singing, marching in the streets - reserve was a way of life, rooted in the British fear of censure. A woman who smoked as she walked or a man who ate fish and chips at a bus stop was immediately disqualified as loose and loutish. It didn't matter that fashion allowed you to expose your thighs and half your bosom - as long as you kept your personal habits under wraps, a bit of flesh couldn't betray the real you.

Given this attitude, travel made the British wary. Seeing Arabs spitting on the road during Ramadan (when, from sunrise to sunset, the faithful are not allowed to drink even their own spittle), or having your bottom pinched in a Latin country, filled the British tourist with unease. Quite frankly, wandering through these foreign countries meant you felt vulnerable, your shield of privacy rent by suspect others.

Today, the same happens at home. "Getting to know you" was once a process; now it's a given. But is it a bad thing? Perhaps not. The government can read into this new public intercourse a confirmation that we really do want an "inclusive" society. No one seems to know what the Social Exclusion Unit means, or what it can do for anybody; the poor look just as poor as before, and the disadvantaged just as needy. But marginalisation is more difficult when we are pulled into someone's nightlife or mealtime at every street corner and in every supermarket aisle. Forget boundaries and distinctions, we are all equal now: we all look the same with quarter-pounder crumbs all over our chins; and dirty talk sounds the same whether it is a millionaire toff or a working- class lad speaking. Once you know this much about anyone, you're bonded - whether you want to be or not.

This kind of familiarity doesn't breed contempt, but civic sense, reminding everyone that we share the same basic urges; the public Evian-guzzlers and mobile-phone callers are building a new community, forged with the complicity of intimate habits. No one seems to mind what he or she does in front of anyone any longer. In this in-your-face world, which has more in common with the openness of a Mediterranean piazza than with the net-curtained secrecy of an Anglo-Saxon town, we have had to ditch our fear of others, ignore self-consciousness, and take on instead an easy camaraderie. Soon, the habit of letting it all hang out will build a kind of trust. In the end, who knows, we may finally put into practice new Labour's "social inclusion".

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun