Monday, November 23, 2009

The Importance of Rules

As I stood on over-crowded platform this morning waiting for the late-running train, my attention was wrenched away from my Monday morning newspaper by the sight of a chap marching along the very edge of the platform, ignoring the Yellow Line we are implored not to cross, in order to get himself in front of all those other poor sods who had prudently turned up early to get a prime spot. Rude? Definitely? But that is hardly the point - after all, as had been observed many times before, commuters were not put on this Earth to be nice to each other. But surely we should respect and abide by the rules - it's not like we're French footballers.

On getting on the train, I discovered a full size bicycle taking up most of the vestibule, despite clear signage forbidding the carrying of non-folding bikes. Then when I arrived at the opposite extremity of my journey, dismounting the Tube at the designated station, I found myself buffeted by people pushing past me to head up the wrong side of the staircase (it quite clearly says "Right Side Up"). "Can't you read?" I felt like shouting. But I didn't, obviously. Instead, I made my way through the melee, pondering the importance of rules, and why we should follow them.

Bill Bryson once wrote that Americans treat rules with the kind of reverence British people reserve for queues. Now as anyone who has waited in line at a cash point recently will attest, this statement may not mean as much as it used to. But the point he was making was that his fellow Americans, when they see a sign like "This side up", would dutifully comply in using that particular side exclusively to travel in an upward direction, even though they may do so with much shouting, swearing and maybe even a bit of shoving. Whether this holds true for American commuters I could not say, but it definitely is not the case for their British counterparts. On encountering any sort of regulation with regard to where they can sit, stand, queue or jostle, the instinctive reaction of the British commuter is one of suspicion - born of the unshakable conviction that everybody else, and especially those in authority, is out to get them. "What" we wonder "is in it for the train company here? What are they really trying to pull on me? What lies behind this rule?"

And of course we know that what lies behind it is the conspiracy, in which all are complicit - men, women, children, animals, even ticket collectors - to ensure that everyone else gets a better seat, gets off the train and eventually gets to work, more quickly and comfortably than us.

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