To continue what may be an ongoing series about London, I am reflecting on how the people there have changed over the last 50 years. Since some time around 1980, or perhaps a bit before, there are certain things that you just don’t do, if you live in London. You never talk to strangers in the street. You may ask about buses, or trains, though only if at a bus stop, or on the platform of a station, and then, only if a suitable official is unavailable to answer your query. You should not approach children, whether they are on their own, or in groups. This applies to an age range from about 8 years old, through to late teens. Children in London are streetwise and opportunistic, whatever their background, and will cause you more problems than you can ever imagine.
Avoid going upstairs on a bus, unless it is very busy. Large groups may suddenly appear up there, intent on a spree of anti-social behaviour which will make you feel isolated and marginalised. Even if they are only schoolkids, or groups of tourists, they can still be very noisy, and annoying. There is also the modern curse of music played at incredible volume, through mobile phones, or other devices. This is generally done to provoke outrage, so is best ignored. Never offer to help anyone you see slumped in the road, or in a doorway, or on a tube train. In all probability, they will be drunk, or on drugs, and if neither of these, as crazy as a box of frogs. You may offer to help elderly people who have fallen over, but make sure that they are reasonably well-presented first. Interference in anything is generally resented, and can often result in accusations at best, or violence at worst.
When walking, portray a sense of purpose and direction. Never appear lost or confused, and on no account ever cross a street because a group of hoody-wearing youths are approaching you on the same side, as this will be seen as a sign of weakness, and make you a target.
If you own, or drive, a car in London, and park it on the street, don’t expect it to be respected, or to survive unscathed. Snapping off wing mirrors and radio antennas is considered normal behaviour, as is plastering your vehicle in unwanted fast food, or scraping something sharp along the side of it. If you are foolish enough to leave a satnav, on view, or even a bag of shopping where it can be seen, expect to return to a smashed window, and the car ransacked. And don’t think an alarm will help, as nobody cares about alarms in London. There are thousands of them going off, day and night, and all are ignored. You are better off with an old, boring car, preferably unwashed, and looking unloved. It may then escape the attention of vandals or thieves, but probably not.
If you are going somewhere unfamiliar, make sure you plan your route in advance, as asking directions is pointless. Unless you ask a black cab driver, it is highly unlikely that anyone else you approach, even a Police Officer, will have a clue about where you want to go. If people do try to help, they will invariably send you in completely the wrong direction, as few Londoners know the City well. If you decide to stop for coffee, or a snack, do not leave mobile phones, keys, wallets, or anything of the remotest value, on the table in front of you. Pickpockets that could show the Artful Dodger a trick or two, will have these things off you in the blink of an eye. Keep all bags and cases securely zipped and closed at all times, and think twice about using a rucksack. You can’t see it on your back, and petty criminals can have them undone, and the items inside gone, without you feeling a thing. If someone approaches you asking for a cigarette, or change for their fare home, never give them anything. Once they see that you have money, or are willing to hand over cigarettes, or other items, they will pester you with sob stories, and in some cases, follow you for some distance, asking for more and more. Don’t feel guilty about it, some of these ‘street people’ live in the suburbs, and make a comfortable living out of ‘respectable begging’.
So what has this rough guide to surviving the streets of London got to do with how people have changed? Everything really. Before this, people chatted. They would go out of their way to give directions, and probably knew the area where they lived or worked reasonably well. Children could ask for help from any passing stranger, knowing that they would do their best to get them to safety, locate their parents, or take them to a Police Station. You were unlikely to encounter aggressive groups of wandering youths, (save for a brief spell when Teddy Boys were fashionable) and young people on buses used to get up from their seat to offer it to women, or older people. There was rarely any trouble on a bus, as there used to be conductors in charge, and the tube trains were pretty safe too. Cars were occasionally stolen, but rarely vandalised for the sake of it. There were people living on the streets. They were called tramps, and were usually heavily bearded, dressed in little more than rags, and carrying all their possessions in a bundle. They never approached people, and did not beg for money, or food, or try to sell you something. Most Police Officers were on foot, covering small beats that they knew well, keeping their eye on local criminals, and able to give directions, tell off unruly children, and generally be of great help to the community. In most areas, the local population was from a small group of families, and they knew the area, and most of the people too. There were few high-rise developments, and nobody was isolated, unless they chose to be. Living in houses meant that people saw what was going on, spoke to their neighbours, and looked out for them, as many were from their own family anyway, and most of the others were either friends, or well known to them. The criminals that existed were of a different type. They may not have been very nice people, and may well have been bank robbers, extortionists, or safe crackers, but they did not rob old people, or take things from youngsters in the street. If you were unlucky enough to be burgled, it would be possessions that were taken; there would not be vandalism of your property as well. People really did leave their front doors open, or keys on strings in the letterbox, it is not a myth. Shopkeepers generally knew all their customers. They would let you off the odd change, if you didn’t have it, and you could drop it in next time. They could tell children off for being noisy or disrespectful in their shops, and it worked, as they knew your parents too. I admit, it was not Utopia. It was just a hell of a lot safer, and more pleasant, than it is today. Selfishness has replaced community involvement. Everyone is out for themselves, preying on the weak, exploiting the sick, old, or infirm. Nanny State laws, and Political Correctness, have tied the hands of the Police and Local Councils, making it harder than ever to deal with harassment from neighbours, noise, and petty crime. ‘Jeremy Kyle panellist’-style parenting has put small children on the streets at all hours, feral and vicious; the offspring of those who have never worked, and intend never to do so. Disrespect of Teachers, Police, Officials in all forms, not a totally bad thing to some degree, has reached such a level, that those authorities have just stopped trying to deal with anything. It can only get worse, possibly reverting back to the Victorian London of the haves and have-nots, with areas where certain people just did not dare to venture.
Obviously, this is only an issue for those old enough to remember when it was better. For the others, they know no different, so are unconcerned. It was one of the main reasons for my desire to leave the Capital though, and I am happier remembering it how it was, than living in what it is today.