Curse this age of greed, speed and incivility

'Victor Meldrew was anactivist, whereas most of us look on and - ashamed - do nothing about all thiscasual yobbishness'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The point about Victor Meldrew, the recently deceased anti-hero of the TV series One Foot In The Grave, was not that he was bad-tempered. If Victor was irascible, it was usually because he had a right to be. Victor's true significance was that he was a rare warrior in the battle against growing incivility and modern egocentrism. And when people say (as many do) that they have some Victor Meldrew in them, I take them to mean that they too feel like shouting out loud against a world gone mad.

The point about Victor Meldrew, the recently deceased anti-hero of the TV series One Foot In The Grave, was not that he was bad-tempered. If Victor was irascible, it was usually because he had a right to be. Victor's true significance was that he was a rare warrior in the battle against growing incivility and modern egocentrism. And when people say (as many do) that they have some Victor Meldrew in them, I take them to mean that they too feel like shouting out loud against a world gone mad.

Take my contretemps with the driver of a silver car outside Golders Green Marks & Sparks last Wednesday afternoon. I turn right into the main road, to find myself hard up behind a BMW which - without signalling - begins to execute a three-point turn just where the roadway narrows. Unwittingly I have made life slightly more difficult for the driver, who begins to curse me. I glare back. This, for some these days, constitutes a casus belli. So, with his car blocking both lanes of traffic, the driver, a well-dressed man in his twenties, gets out and strides over to my window, yelling and waving his fist. It unnerves him that I don't freeze, lock the doors and stare straight ahead; instead, and as Victor would have done, I wind my window down and meet his threats with the firm suggestion that he get back in his car. Which, eventually, he does.

Silly, I know, but I just wasn't going to take it. Who did this man think he was? What gave him the right to abuse and threaten his fellow citizens in that way? In Monday night's Meldrew swan-song, the series writer, David Renwick, had the newly widowed Margaret make an embittered speech to a Catholic priest who sought to console her. It was all about the decline of civility. "No one does anything about it!" she said, vehemently. "It's a world of speed and greed."

The speed and greed in One Foot In The Grave consisted of casual yobbishness - such as men mooning from the windows of speeding cars - sloppy and mendacious service from workmen and receptionists, and semi-conscious anti-social acts, such as kids being encouraged to drop their rubbish in other people's front gardens. Victor Meldrew was an activist, where most of us (silver-car incidents excepted) look on and - ashamed - do nothing. We see sinewy young men and women sitting in priority seats on trains and buses, while arthritic great-grannies hang precariously from straps a foot or so away. We watch immaculate city girls depart the tube taking all their belongings with them, save for a banana skin, a half-eaten Pret A Manger low-calorie chicken-and-mayonnaise sandwich and several bits of screwed up, well-snotted Kleenex. And we cannot find the words.

I am not (and I'm sure you're not) some kind of fastidious public martinet. When I was younger, my friends and I took drugs, had sex in the open air and were occasionally Euan-sick. We went on Vietnam demos and shouted about police brutality. But we never put our feet on train seats and we always put our wrappers in the bin. We helped old ladies across the road whether they wanted us to or not. And it would simply never have occurred to me when I was 25 to offer violence to a man twenty years my senior because he glared at me. It would have been deeply uncool.

But incivility is "in". As Victor met his maker, the BBC's most talked-about hit-show has been the quiz show The Weakest Link. In the old days of community and cannabis, the weakest link was the person who everybody felt they should help; "You're only as strong as the weakest link", or "You judge a society by how it treats the less fortunate." But in this hypnotically tedious, mesmerisingly banal, brain-sedating programme, the social ideal is inverted, and the contestants are asked instead to gang up on the most vulnerable team member, and to assassinate them.

Apart from this psychological cannibalism, the only fun to be had is from seeing how rude a grotesquely overpaid, utterly expendable and charmless presenter can be to the nurses, teachers and lifeboat volunteers who appear on her set. How I would like David Renwick to bring Victor Meldrew back for a special edition of this revolting show. He'd give bloody Robinson a piece of his mind.

On this 10th anniversary of the political demise of Maggie, it seems appropriate to accord her some of the blame. Thatcherism - the free-market neo-revolution of the 1980s - was simultaneously a destroyer and a liberator. It smashed up many institutions, like the trade unions which (for all their faults) had given outlets for the organised and co-operative effort of working-class people. In fetishing the market, it excused the breaking-apart of old concentrations of social power, and the unmaking of much of what we might call civil society. But, ironically, the unforeseen consequence was that it also fatally undermined both deference and the arbitrary authority of oppressive institutions.

High rates of divorce, social and geographical mobility, even sexual toleration, are all part-consequences of these big changes. No wonder Ann Widdecombe is such an ambivalent, comically positioned figure in the modern Tory party. She wills an end for which - thanks partly to her - there are no longer any means.

The paradox here is that today, while there are fewer hard rules about behaviour, there is much greater room for individual conscience and morality. This doesn't necessarily mean less morality; it can mean a whole lot more. And there is a whole lot about this individual negotiation with society that I find attractive. After all, would I really rather find myself trussed up in a 1950s straitjacket of social conformism, hypocrisy, repression and enforced politesse?

All the same, it is maddening, this lack of concern for others. I said as much to a psychotherapist friend of mine the other day (no, he's not my analyst; no, I don't have an analyst; no, I have nothing against having an analyst). He said that the thing that surprised him was not that people behaved so badly, but that so many did not behave worse. "Look," he said, "at the restraint people show, when everything around them combines to make them crazy."

It's true. Like many others, I have acted to remove myself from the things about modern life that most enrage me. But when my insulation fails, I find myself inhaling the odours of others and wondering who, in London, could travel at the height of the rush-hour, day in, day out, without wanting to kill. Or who could sit, exhaust to exhaust, miles from home, without something in them dying. In the cities, at any rate, we cope somehow with the maddening proximity of others, the million trillion tiny irritations and uncertainties of even the simplest journey, and we hardly murder each other at all, and we rarely kill ourselves. Instead we watch Victor Meldrew on the television, and recognise ourselves.

Please don't misunderstand me. This is not a counsel of inaction. I think there is still a battle for civility to be fought. Teachers should be supported by parents when disciplining children, not undermined as they so often are. Dogs should be kept on leads. Bicycles should stay off pavements. Cars should stop at zebra crossings and not park on pavements. People who slap their kids in supermarkets should be admonished and possibly even prosecuted. I think we should look out for each other more. A lot more. And I think that the weakest links should, in the words of that great Hebrew leader, inherit at least some of the earth.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

Comments