General Public? Off the bus]

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'THERE'S something like physical disgust at every person that one is not oneself.' Canetti, was it? Someone on the 22 bus would know - if not my new friend Lord Rawlinson, then one of the madwomen trumpeting generalised rage and pain. That's the joy of the 22 bus: there's an expert on board on any subject you care to mention.

Lord Devlin was much criticised when he argued, against Hart of Oxford, that the law should prohibit what the man on the 22 route from World's End to Sloane Square - more accurately, the man on the Clapham Omnibus - feels in his water to be wrong (The Enforcement Of Morals, OUP, 1965).

'What is shocking,' says Professor Ronald Dworkin (Taking Rights Seriously, 1976), 'is not Lord Devlin's idea that the community's morality counts, but his idea of what counts as the community's morality.'

Once was, I'd have lined up with Hart and Dworkin; now it seems possible that Lord Devlin had a better understanding of the sturdy good sense to be found on the 22 route than either of Oxford's distinguished professors of jurisprudence. Be that as it may, I've been pondering Canetti's remark since just before Christmas when my friend Craig Brown kept me waiting for a while in a brasserie-cum- wine bar in Covent Garden. The place was packed with what I suppose were personnel office types; odd-looking young men and still odder-looking women. And I thought, who on earth are these people?

It was like that first day at school when one was overwhelmed by how unrecognisably alien everyone was, and by the certainty that there was no one here with whom one would ever feel comfortable. One was wrong, of course. Quite soon everyone looked normal and it was boys from other schools - particularly Etonians, for some reason - who, shockingly encountered en masse, seemed obviously to have come from another planet.

'Who are these people?' I asked Brown when he at last pitched up.

'Members,' he said, 'of the General Public.'

That hadn't occurred to me. 'Good heavens,' I said.

'That's right,' he said. 'They're the people one never meets; the ones who watch Pa Larkin and Inspector Morse, who read Peter O'Toole's autobiography and find Ben Elton funny. Sometimes, and more usefully, they are used by journalists to flesh out the skeleton of some Powellian philosophical disaster.'

What was he on about? 'What philosophical disaster?'

'The habit,' he said, 'of attributing to a logical construction, such as the nation, predicates which properly can be ascribed only to the entities from which it is constructed. Thus, we are likely to read in the Sunday Telegraph that the nation is depressed, or in anguish over the fire at Windsor Castle, or that it believes crime has nothing to do with Mrs Thatcher's creation of an underclass. Have you ever met anyone who is depressed other than because his cat just died? Or who doesn't know that crime is caused by social deprivation?'

'Certainly not,' I said.

'Well there you are,' he said. This struck me as very deep for about 10 seconds and then as quite the opposite. It's a depressing fact that some people do think Ben Elton is funny, and may even believe that crime is caused by original sin. What was alarming about these brasserie types was their brute, first- day-at-school, unfamiliarity; their sudden arrival in one's life without a past.

And that brings me, of course, to dinner parties and their attendant horrors. Lady Leighton, whom I met last week, you may remember, on a number 22 bus, has asked me to one of these and I am greatly dreading it.

If, on a 22 bus, a member of the General Public suddenly expresses a monstrous view to do with law and order, or, worse, goes into a Ben Elton- type routine ('Why is it -

why is it - that station announcers always refer to the train standing at platform three? I mean, it's quite obvious that the train isn't standing. It's lying down. Why doesn't he say, the train now lounging at platform three in a rather attractive negligee? Why doesn't he . . .'), you can say: 'Get off the bus, madam, you've missed your stop.'

You cannot do that at a dinner party. If, at a dinner party, some overexcited youth suddenly says: 'Why is it - why is it . . .' you can't flat- hand him in the face and say: 'I'm out of here.' You're stuck, grinning wildly while your hostess endlessly stirs a salad which will, in any case, be disgusting.

Thank goodness for the 22 bus. On the 22 bus you can meet members of the General Public in a series of short, sharp shocks, and apart from that one has one's friends. A friend won't suddenly shock you by impertinence towards Americans, or drinking beer, or expressing a preference for Ben Elton over Bottom.

I rang up Mark Chapman this week and asked him what he thought of Bottom. 'Dreadful,' he said.

'What about Ben Elton?'

'I think he's very clever.'

Back to the drawing board, it seems - or the 22 bus.