Friday, 24 August 2012

Civilisation for beginners

Late August in Edinburgh, when the frenetic madness of the past few weeks is touched by the slightest whiff of melancholy as the nights begin to perceptibly draw in and here and there trees show the first hints of bronze and russet pink.  Rowan berries glow preternaturally red in the soft evening light and there is a sense  of febrile exhaustion—of an entire city feeling tired and emotional, but determined to have a good time until the party is well and truly over.  In this overcharged atmosphere everything seems exaggerated—the crowds, the rain—and responses are often disproportionate.  We are all subject to this end of an epoch mood.
Riding the bus is different in August as well.  The drivers are remarkably even-tempered (to the extent that I wonder if they have been to special classes) with all the befuddled visitors asking questions and not listening to the answers or complaining vigorously about deviations from the routes shown on their maps.  There are people sleeping, fighting, or staring straight ahead in stony silence, pointedly ignoring their partners as punishment for some misdemeanour--a considerable advance on the frequently heard waspish exchanges:  "if you’d not left the tickets at the hotel..."  "Well, it’s your fault for making me go and see the play about a three-headed nun and a zebra...."  A few afternoons ago  a couple at the back of the bus were arguing with such grim concentration that neither of them noticed that their suitcase (one of those shiny, hard ones resembling a small refrigerator with a wheel on each corner—something you would keep nuclear grade weapons materials in) had broken  free and was sailing down the gangway picking up speed.   It took out two loved-up Spanish teenagers waiting to get off (the bus, I mean, though I have no doubt the other was on the cards as well).  
Passengers loll about with their legs or bags or theatrical props in the aisles, refusing to give up the front seats to the elderly and infirm, blocking the gangways, yelling down their phones or at each other.  When sudden heavy showers of rain come umbrellas turn into pikestaffs, tempers fray, traffic irretrievably tangles, buses are late and even the up to now sanguine drivers show the strain—honking, head-shaking, impatiently nudging -- the ‘I’m bigger than you, mate’ bus equivalent of sticking the elbows out in order to force their way through blockages.  The absent-minded pedestrians who have, with impunity, been ignoring traffic lights, wandering into the road unexpectedly and generally exhibiting the same sort of behaviour that did for Lord Cardigan’s cavalry in the charge of the light brigade, have now exhausted the  drivers’ patience--they are scattered like hens in a rainstorm as the buses try desperately to make the lights before they turn, losing more minutes on schedules already hopelessly out of touch with the putative timetable.  Puddles are parted like the Red Sea, though with considerably more splashing, leaving perfectly innocent bystanders looking like extras in ‘Waterworld’ rather than ‘The Ten Commandments’. 
I can’t help but think that it is a situation that calls for George Washington...or rather, the lines young George wrote as a schoolboy when he wasn’t not lying (if you see what I mean) about chopping down cherry trees.  Not unlike Bart Simpson’s efforts (‘I will not buy a presidential pardon’ or, ’poking a dead raccoon is not research’), young George’s homework was to copy out a list of 110 ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation’.  It is said these were compiled by an order of Jesuits for the young gentlemen they taught and were thought to have had a profound influence on the young  George Washington’s character. 
Some of these guidelines for how to behave in public may seem a bit puzzling in a modern context, nevertheless there are some that seem particularly apposite for Edinburgh buses in August.  I can’t help but feel they should be adopted into legislation as soon as possible:
1st. Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2d. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body not usually Discovered.
3d. Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.
4th. In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers or Feet.
5th. If you Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside.
6th. Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you should hold your Peace, walk not when others Stop
7th. Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out of your Chamber half Drest.
8th. At Play and at Fire its Good manners to give Place to the last Commer, and affect not to Speak Louder than ordenary.
10th. When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and Even, without putting one on the other or Crossing them
11th. Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.
12th. Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by appr[oaching too nea]r [when] you Speak.
If you think about it, the applications are obvious...  There is even a rule for me:
18th. Read  no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company ...
....or even on the bus


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