I refuse to be taken for a ride

'I am boycotting Alton Towers and don't try and talk me out of it. And it isn't a matter of aesthetics, either'
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Let me begin with a message to my kids. It is this: forget Alton Towers, children. While you are dependent upon me for money and transport, you will not be setting foot in that sink of iniquity. You can forget looping the loop upside down at 150mph on the Gutchurner or Attila Ten, surrendering to G-forces while suspended in a tank of chlorinated water, or (most risky of all) eating chicken-burgers and chips in the Schwarzenegger Drill Hall. Or whatever these rides and restaurants are called. Because we are boycotting Alton Towers, and don't try and talk me out of it.

Let me begin with a message to my kids. It is this: forget Alton Towers, children. While you are dependent upon me for money and transport, you will not be setting foot in that sink of iniquity. You can forget looping the loop upside down at 150mph on the Gutchurner or Attila Ten, surrendering to G-forces while suspended in a tank of chlorinated water, or (most risky of all) eating chicken-burgers and chips in the Schwarzenegger Drill Hall. Or whatever these rides and restaurants are called. Because we are boycotting Alton Towers, and don't try and talk me out of it.

Yes, you can ask why. And it isn't a matter of aesthetics. I have been to Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, Seaworld and Legoland, so I'm no snob. I have queued for two hours for Splash Mountain with a five-year-old; I have twice rounded the final bend on Thunder Mountain Railroad, only to be told that the train has stuck on the summit of Mount Deadwood, and to come back later. So I'm not impatient.

The management at Alton Towers has just introduced a new type of ticket - the X-Celerator - bookable only by advance and on the net. An X-Celerator for adults costs £65 (usual price, £21) and for kids £21 (£17). And what you get for your money is the right to jump the queue. No matter how many poor 21-quid dolts are in line ahead of you, or how long they've been waiting, your X-Celerator takes you past them all and on to the ride.

The theme park's PR people reckon that the average queues for rides are 30 minutes at summer weekends. The scuttlebut on the Net, however, tells of queues of up to two hours for the popular knicker-wetting attractions. You can easily buy a ticket for the day and spend nine hours waiting for four rides and 10 minutes actually on them. And now you can wait even longer, and watch the X-Celerators swan past you, and in. Thus Alton Towers has violated a sacred bond between theme parks and theme park goers, the agreement that suffering and pleasure are equal for all once they have entered the gates. It is hard to imagine a situation more liable to lead to violence.

Not that Liz Greenwood, the Alton Towers PR manager, appears to grasp this. "You can get privilege tickets for the cinema or the theatre, so why not for theme parks?" she asks innocently. "There is a cash-based class system on airliners and trains so where's the difference?" The difference, Liz, is that theme parks and attractions are covered by a quite different code of etiquette to that which attaches to air travel and theatre seats. There is, once the entrance has been paid, an egalitarianism that operates, and that creates a peculiar form of solidarity. A solidarity, it has to be said, which is a necessary part of making theme park visiting at all tolerable. And Alton Towers, unilaterally, has decided to violate that etiquette.

Not that etiquette is static. On Sunday evening I found my reserved seat on the train from Edinburgh to London. Opposite me were a young man and woman who had clearly been on the train since Aberdeen and had made themselves comfortable. The floor in front of my seat - where a man of my limbage might reasonably be expected to put his legs - was occupied by bags and pairs of shoes. As I wriggled my feet between the obstructions, the young woman made no attempt to shift them, intent as she was on her experiment to see whether you can indeed induce an orgasm in a man by attending only to his ear.

I got settled. Now the recipient of this aural sex - satiated, presumably - was engrossed in Wilbur Smith, and he stretched out for a long, unchallenging read. And, as he did so, he placed his stockinged feet (in odd socks) on the seat next to me. I looked at him and then at his slightly smelly feet. He looked at me, and then back at Wilbur Smith. As far as I was concerned he was violating one of the four basic tenets of etiquette: he was invading my olfactory space. For him - I am convinced - there simply wasn't a problem. He would not, I think, have cared a hoot, if I'd put my bare feet on the seat next to him. Even with his girl-friend sitting on it. Over the 20 years between us, the unwritten code had somehow altered.

But then, I'd done this too. One night recently, after a show at the Old Vic, the partner and I piled into a nearby fish restaurant. It was packed, and the tables were close together. As her mussels appeared, so did a man and two women, who occupied seats hardly two feet from ours. The man - a minor character actor - pulled out his fags and stuck one in his mouth. "Excuse me," I said to him, "I'm sorry to bother you, but would you mind awfully not smoking until after we have finished eating?"

The effect was dramatic. The man groaned loudly at the terrible political correctness of it all. The women expressed the view that this was a smoking restaurant. One muttered "damn cheek" under her breath. Nevertheless, for five interminable minutes he desisted, rolling his eyes and twitching. Then one of the women said, "Light up, Nicholas. She should have finished by now. She's just drawing it out on purpose." Nicholas lit up, and the smoke billowed over our food.

On this occasion it was we who were seeking to alter the etiquette of the moment. True, Nicholas and his ladies were not behaving very well, but they were within their historic rights. We were the ones who had broken the code: our invasion of their mental space was far more reprehensible than their blowing of stinking carcinogens into our physical space.

Space is one element in defining proper etiquette. Causing uncertainty to others is a second. Solidarity, as mentioned before, is a third. And social responsibility is a fourth. Proper queuing pertains to the first three. One or other of them is always in play when we try to decide how to deal with an emerging set of relationships. Like, how fast should you be able to ride one of those little, shiny scooters on the pavement? Phlegmatic youngsters may question why we frown on spitting in the street, while allowing smokers to drop fag ends. We seem to have reached some resolution of how loudly and where you may hold mobile phone conversations in public.

But sometimes you do just wonder whether what you are witnessing is more an absence of etiquette, rather than an evolution of it. The routine placing of muddy boots on train seats is an example, as is the (largely young female) habit of consuming food on the Underground, and then leaving the packaging behind your seat when you leave the train. And why is it that the new profession of dog-walker regards itself as absolved from the duty of clearing up after the pooches? Is the prevailing view that you don't have to pick up the faeces of dogs that are merely in your charge?

To connive at queue-jumping purely for the sake of selling higher-priced tickets strikes me as being an example of obliteration, not evolution. It makes life more uncertain for the majority, diminishes solidarity, and ends up making us feel less happy about our fellow human beings - not more. It is the corporate equivalent of barging in front of me, blowing smoke in my face, shouting at your stock-broker in my ear, ramming your rubbish down my neck, and allowing your dog to pee on my shoes. So they know where they can stick their X-Celerator.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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