Saga, May 2013

Recently, when I was in America, there was a rather good story on the news. A woman identified by the media as “the cell-phone bandit” was holding up banks. She had acquired the name through her interesting modus operandi, which was to enter the bank with her mobile phone clamped to her ear, and continue to be on the phone all through the robbery. It was fascinating to watch on the CCTV, and it seemed to me that there were three possible explanations for her behaviour. First, she was a criminal mastermind, who had realised that being on the phone somehow removes you from the scene as far as potential eye-witnesses are concerned. Second, she was an idiot, who didn’t know how to rob banks, and was taking running instructions from her boyfriend (probably in prison). And third, she had just answered the phone because she was interested to find out who was calling her – even when she was doing a bank robbery at the time.

I must admit I was agog to learn the truth about the cell-phone bandit. Even when it emerged that she was, disappointingly, an idiot taking running instructions from her skanky boyfriend, I still kept dwelling on the scene. I mean, imagine it from the bank employee’s point of view. How depressing to discover that even when you are being held up at gunpoint, you don’t get the bank robber’s full attention. Even when you’re saying, shakily, “How would you like the money? Please don’t shoot me! I’ve got kids!” you have to wait for them to stop listening to someone else (not present) before acknowledging a word you’ve said. I heard recently of a doctor conducting a pelvic examination on a young woman who insisted on staying on the phone throughout. Half of me thinks this is shocking disrespect on the part of the examinee, but I must admit that the other half thinks, “How wise”. After all, if there is one mise-en-scene from which it would be good to remove oneself as far as possible, the pelvic examination is surely it.

I wonder if you saw the last production of Blithe Spirit – the one with Alison Steadman and Robert Bathurst. I bet there will shortly come a time when Coward’s great stage joke in that play doesn’t work at all – wife Ruth getting confused and annoyed because Charles is replying to things said by Elvira (whom Ruth can’t see or hear, because she is a ghost). Theatre audiences are now made up of people utterly accustomed (or inured) to tuning out remarks intended for someone who isn’t there. The convention is: if it’s not addressed to you, don’t listen. A friend of mine was on a train to Brighton, and sitting opposite was a criminal openly conducting his business on his mobile, arranging the transfer of counterfeit money. Intimidated passengers blocked their ears and stared fixedly at their newspapers while the bloke yelled, “I hope it’s better than the last lot! The last lot was like bog paper!”

The interesting thing to me is that it’s now the listening that is bad manners, rather than the yelling down the mobile phone. Public space has become the private space of anyone who claims it as such. I wish there was something we could do about it. An Australian friend was recently obliged to listen to some discomforting stuff while travelling on a bus in Melbourne. Sitting next to her, a female clinical psychologist was discussing a case with a colleague, evidently believing that on the bus, on the phone, was just the right place to air this incredibly confidential material. At the end of it, my friend decided to challenge her. “Your conversation made me very uncomfortable,” she said. To which the woman psychologist said that if she’d like to come and talk about these feelings, she happened to have some free appointment times on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

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