It is 7.50am. My face is forcibly pressed against the glass of the Tube train doors. I am being benignly frottaged by a paint-stained scaffolder-type who is doing everything possible to avoid eye contact.
I can feel the morning-after halitosis of the woman next to me creeping up my shirt and undoing my tie. And then, joy! King’s Cross arrives and the carriage empties. I place myself in a central seat, leaving a respectful space between me and my neighbour. All is well.
That’s when the horror really begins, when the hordes return at the next stop. Should I give up my seat to someone who needs it more? Apart from the offer-me-a-seat badge-wearers I am frankly terrified of inadvertently getting it wrong. The Tube offers a never-ending smorgasbord of diabolical faux-pas for all of us remotely interested in attempting a small act of kindness.
Just the other day I stood up for a woman who looked youthful enough but was hampered by a load of shopping. “Do I really look that old?” she snarled, shoving me back into my seat with the force of her tone alone.
I felt an instant wave of guilt and was utterly shamed. I did the only thing I could: I made the situation far worse by trying to explain my act of altruism. At one point, I recall that I even suggested that the lighting on the Victoria line might be particularly unsympathetic. It did not go down well.
To be honest, I had actually offered my seat more for the expensive-looking shopping bags, which seemed very delicate and defenceless, nestled as they were among the thoughtless feet of stompy commuters. The woman affronted by my offer could simply have said, ‘Thanks but no thanks’, yet instead I ended up feeling terrible, apologising and digging my way into a deeper hole.
Reactions such as this are all too common and they have a lot to answer for because they encourage a grim me-first mentality. They also conscript people into making — often malign — judgments about others.
Men and women on the receiving end of an offer of a seat have an obligation to respond graciously, even if they don’t want it. I could not care less if by offering my seat to a woman who looks like she’s had a challenging day I have somehow accidentally trampled on her gender politics. This is entirely her problem. I do care that discourteous reactions such as the one I experienced are far more likely to make the millions of London’s Tube passengers even more indifferent than they already are to those who really do need to sit down.
"By offering my seat to a woman who may have had a challenging day I trampled on her gender politics"
There is an old fable about manners in which Edward VII led an entire banquet table in sipping from their finger bowls simply to put a foreign dignitary at ease. The poor man had made the error himself and was looking somewhat embarrassed, and King Edward wanted to let him know that all was well.
I want to see communal spaces (especially crowded ones) where people can be relaxed enough about getting it wrong that they are able to at least try to get it right. It’s never going to be fun on the Tube in rush-hour, let’s face it, but some basic old-fashioned etiquette is never too much to ask for.
Another giant leap for Olympic hero Greg
A significant sporting moment went pretty much unnoticed last week. One of this country’s greatest athletes retired. Greg Rutherford’s adieu wasn’t announced with any razzmatazz. He said goodbye to the sport he loves with quiet dignity — a perfect reflection of the man I have come to know and admire.
He leaves the sport having won every accolade, including his triumph at the London Olympics. Yet despite having brought home gold in the long jump from every major championship, he is one of our most under-appreciated heroes.
For many ex-athletes a future of quiet obscurity awaits. This is happily not so in Greg’s case. Whether he is giving a speech at the Oxford Union or broadcasting for Eurosport, he is utterly compelling. I am certain that whatever Greg does he will be a great success. He is a true winner in every sense.
*Like nobody else, I can’t wait to see John Travolta’s mob film Gotti. One reviewer called it “a dismal mess”, while another said that it was “the worst mob movie of all time”. It has achieved the rare distinction of getting a zero per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I am a true devotee of terrible movies. From the 2004 “comedy” Sex Lives of the Potato Men to the hilariously awful Sex and the City 2, I delight in their awfulness. Any film can achieve averageness (most do) but there is something truly satisfying in sitting down in front of a real howler. You don’t have to take them seriously, you can often rewrite the entire script, and they are perfect for drinking games. They are so bad that they are — very often — truly brilliant. Bring on Gotti the sequel!