Opening Lines: Generation vex

The column: It's one thing to be at war with the young, but to pick on one country's youth is something else. Howard Jacobson is dying to get things off his chest
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Readers of this column with long memories may recall the satisfaction with which I related my victory over women who breast-feed their babies in public libraries. Let no man call himself happy until he's dead. Library nuisances have attacked and undone my concentration again.

Not the breast this time. That's some consolation. But creatures who have only very recently left the breast. The young. The ravening young.

I am not to be trusted near the young. I respond violently to them. That was one of the reasons I decided to leave England for a while - I could feel the tell-tale rage welling up. I was starting to bump them with my trolley in Sainsbury's, catch their little heels while their mothers weren't looking. You know those inexplicable bursts of terrible screaming you suddenly hear in supermarkets? As though a lion has attacked? As though King Kong has stolen all their sweeties? Me, my doing. The old two tins of tuna trick, a quick surreptitious thunderclap as you spy one swinging on the delicatessen counter, one tin on one ear, one tin on the other. That's why I had to take off: if I'd stayed in London there wouldn't have been a toddler left unmarked; the entire species was in danger.

These are not toddlers I am currently engaged in battle with, however; these are young people.

That they happen not to be just any young people, but young people from the Pacific Rim - Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore - only adds to my vexation. It's one thing to be at war with a generation, a geographical region is something else. You have to be careful who you go to war with in this country. If I were to complain to the librarian that my life is being made a misery by yattering kids from the Pacific Rim, I'd be out on my neck. Receiving signed photographs of Pauline Hanson, before I knew it, in one of her short, bush-pig entrapment skirts.

(A million votes she collected in the recent elections - think of that! - a million votes of appreciation for those carnal bar-room pins. That's more than is left of the Australian electorate once you take away those she wanted to see expelled for being foreign.)

Not that I have any specific alien hostility to apologise for. I'm off all young people alike. If anything I prefer those from the Pacific Rim, because they at least are sitting in the library and not out skateboarding between the tram lines in back-to-front baseball caps like Aussie kids. They don't appear to want to pierce themselves either: they aren't walking colanders. With their fashionable haircuts and clever faces they remind me of what my own lot used to look like, annoying older people in the Central Library, Manchester, circa 1958. The crucial difference is, we weren't tooled-up. There were no mobile phones in 1958. And even had there been I suspect we would have known not to bring them into the library. We had too much respect for the book.

But these kids belong to an electronic culture. They wouldn't recognise a book if you chucked one at them, which is what I will very soon be reduced to doing. They sit in front of computer screens, laughing and shouting, sometimes kissing and canoodling, sometimes answering their phones, frequently doing all three, without any sense whatever that a library was once, and for a few of us still is, a place for quiet research and meditation, for sitting silently wondering where our own youth has gone. Where there is electronic equipment there is noise, that's my point. Where there is electronic equipment there is always somebody showing somebody else how to use it. A computer is an object that invites you to make a racket. See one and you shout.

Don't get me wrong. I don't object to the occasional eruption of mechanical frustration.

There is an old man in a dirty white beard who comes here every day, scrapes the floor with his chair, taps into the catalogue, and regularly as clockwork explodes into rage. "Bar codes?" he yells. "Bar codes! Bar codes!!"

After which he walks twice around the library and leaves. That I call an acceptable level of noise. But the Pacific Rim cacophony ...

Look, I'm tired of pussy-footing around this issue. I've just been re-reading Dostoevsky's The Gambler, enjoying the demented Basil Fawlty-like narrator's freedom to be as rude as he likes about the French, the English, the Germans, his own Russians, whoever. I know the author is not "endorsing" the gambler's conduct, as my students used to say; I know that shouting out "Ja - Wo- o-ohl" to every stiff-backed German you meet is not Dostoevsky's idea of normative behaviour; but it doesn't half get rid of a bit of tension. Things have happened in the world since Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler, I accept that. No one has yet given me a satisfactory answer, though, to the question of how we are to get rid of the tension now.

It would be altogether for the best if I could round up all these kids from the Pacific Rim - ring them on their mobiles if need be, e-mail the little buggers if I have to - and give them a seminar on how I feel. It would beat all the colonial glaring I'm having to go in for. It might help me to like them again if I could say, "Listen, kids, you come from civilisations which are good with chips and wires, and I come from a civilisation which is good with words and thoughts, and we need you and you need us, and we'll get along fine if you would just shut the fuck up when you're in my library!"

But I know that wouldn't solve anything. They're not the problem. I'm the problem. Yesterday I found a six inch white hair growing out of my chest. White! How can I not be the problem?.

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