The only thing you should be able to hear in Carriage A of the 14.00 from Paddington to Cardiff is the sound of silence. "We respectfully ask you to refrain from using a mobile phone," says the sign. In any other country, it would be ignored: in Britain, it is tantamount to the word of God.
"It really is peer pressure that enforces it. If you are in a Quiet Carriage and someone's phone does go off, people jump up and rush for the door looking extremely guilty," says a Great Western Trains spokeswoman. It was introduced - quietly - in one carriage per train a year ago, in second class, and the only complaints have been from jealous first-class passengers. Now Carriage G is phone-free as well.
Shhhh! Something is happening here. For years we have just put up with the nerdo shouting into his mobile, but the number of mobile phone users has reached critical mass. "It is just under seven million and we predict it will hit 12 million by the year 2000," says David Massey of Cellnet.
Someone had to do something. Parliament led the way, with its booklet Regulations on Photography, Filming, Sound Recordings, Painting, Sketching and Mobile Telephones. There may be zero tolerance on watercolours, but the dreaded ringing pocket is allowed outside the chamber, although only if an MP or peer is "discreet". Sadly, the rules are self-regulated, so we will never know the indiscreet truth.
Outside Westminster, things are not so fuzzy. Golf courses, theatres, hospitals and restaurants are clamping down (One-2-One has even published an Etiquette Guide to Golf). The mobile phone user is a borderline hate figure on most trains - the Quiet Carriage is here to stay - and the image cannot be helped by the news that another detestation, the taxi driver, is being paid to prattle on about them.
But why - other than the fact that they are being sold by taxi drivers - do we hate the mobile phone so much? Guy Fielding of Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, is a telephone expert and a self-confessed mobile phone user. "I do talk on railway carriages. I think that is legitimate. If I was saying the exact thing to somebody face-to-face, there would be no problem. My own view is that the reason it is irritating is that you cannot hear the other half of the conversation."
He suggests that a quieter word or two - evidently we talk twice as loudly on the phone as we do in normal conversation - might improve things, but it is probably too late for moderation to save the day. All over Britain you can see the result of the new intolerance.
"One of the most characteristic postures of modern times is the crouching mobile telephonist, slightly stooped with a hand over an ear, struggling to hear and be heard," says Mercury's Little Black Book.
Increasingly, the place you see these creatures is doorways, jockeying for space with that other pariah, the smoker. Here, the outcasts are in charge; and perhaps that is the attraction. If so, it would answer a modern- day puzzle: why, if the number of smokers is dropping, are there always the same number of people in doorways? Are they throwing away their Marlboros only to pick up a mobile? Perhaps they are simply addicted to doorways: it certainly gives them something to shout about.
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