One thing you can be sure of in London, and that’s that no-one will be interested in you. Being apathetic isn’t unique to Londoners. Apathy for other people is a universal characteristic deployed by all human beings, no matter how caring they might be, one person simply does not have the resources to care about everyone else, apathy and disinterest is the only answer to avoid you feeling completely desperate, hopeless and helpless. Its what we call keeping a boundary. The difference between a psychopath and a normal person, is that a psychopathy can only ever be apathetic, whereas a normal person chooses his moments, and most importantly, allows him or herself to be affected by certain chosen people and groups in his or her life. In a village, this commonly involves allowing oneself to be affected, to differing degrees by family members, neighbours and people who live locally. In London however with the esception of family members and friends who may live all over the place, one is often quite irrelevant to those who live next door and nearby.
A man is walking along Orpington High Street and comes to rest by the side of the pavement, yards from the market stalls. He touches the ground, curls up, and at some point he just drifts off and drifts away. Soon after market traders arrive, noticing the man, setting up their stalls, see the man again, and get on with selling their wares. People start to walk up and down the High Street, walking to work, some noticing the man out of the corner of their eyes, and then eight hours later walking back again, noticing that the man is still there, hoping that if he is dead, he will like the detritus left by the market, be cleared up and just left to rot on the High Street.
Two years later, one winter’s evening in early 2009 the CCTV cameras on an N36 night bus running through Queens Park, were picking up images of Pawel Modzelewski, a Polishman of no fixed address. Pawel got on the bus, went upstairs and found himself a seat. Pawel, who had consumed alcohol that night, got out a syringe and injected himself with heroin, laid back, and eased into what he most likely thought was going to be an ecstatic top deck experience. However within ten minutes he was reaching for the seat in front, most likely gripped by a severe agony caused by an overdose of drink and drugs. Throughout these torturous minutes and long after, the N36 trundled onwards, to the end of its route, and then slowly into the bus garage. The engines stopped and Pawel, who lent motionless against the seat, was either stone dead, or as the bus driver who was inspecting the top deck had thought, sleeping. The bus driver, with only the still of the night, the empty bus and what must have been a thousand and one things on his mind, went home ‘forgetting’ about the motionless Pawel. The next morning, the bus coughed up its guts in preparation for another day’s work, rolled out of the bus station and made its way back on to the roads. Pawel still seated was heading in the direction he had spent his final moments traveling from.
Four years on and a man takes the DLR to Limehouse station every evening, arriving at about seven in the evening, and through rain or sun, darkness and light, whether freezing or hot, sees a lady, sat cross-legged, with puppy dog eyes, dressed in trousers, fleece and a wooly hat with stringy bits, looking up at the commuters, passively, but with the slightest hint of expectation and hope that someone might giver her something. The man makes a point of deliberately avoiding eye contact, focussing on his life and his family, whilst a tiny sense of wonder, attaches itself around his soul, heart and lungs, about how it could be that someone like this could want to spend their life sat at the bottom of Limehouse DLR stairs, if anything could be done to help her out, and if he might be able to make that difference, and feeling haunted by the fact that he walks past her everyday as if she doesn’t exist, he doesn’t want her to exist.
That boundary is such a strong boundary in Londoners, the idea that I cannot care for you, whatever problems you have, and you may be dying who knows, but I cannot get involved in them, I can barely hold it together keeping the life that I have. I will induce a kind of forgetfulness, I’ll bury it in my sub-concious, and there it will fester, and control me, for I have denied its existence, but it will allow me to go home and sleep. It has been said that we choose to block out bad things in case they get in the way of our every day lives”. That’s so true, we feel we can hardly hold on to all those things that make our own life up, we find it so hard so to hold our own lives together, that doing something for a stranger feels like a slippery slope to oblivion, it just doesn’t make sense.
Some people, some Londoners are disgusted by this apathy for strangers, and especially for those who are down and out. This apathy for strangers, for those who are down and out has been called chilling. Stories of people dying alone can scare the shit out of you. One person commenting on the man who had died in Orpington High Street said, “I worry about this kind of thing happening to me. I’ve never had a stable home, moved around a lot. Don’t speak to my brother, don’t have children, don’t have a stable job, don’t have any really close friends that live near me. I have mental health problems and I isolate myself a lot…I have a partner for now, but if we split up, I wonder who would notice that I was gone.” This fear resonates for a lot of Londoners, for a lot of Londoners have escaped abuse, bullying, torture, a feeling of not fitting in, to come to London. London provides them with space, sanctuary and anonymity but the other side of the coin is that it provides them with apathy, disinterest and emptiness.
Londoners defend their attitude. One person comments, “I’ve often seen homeless people asleep on the street and wondered if they are dead. But the truth is, if you go over and touch them to check, then not only have you just touched a tramp (yuk), they are now going to expect some money from you.” Another notes, “The problem is …that people like the author of this post assumes that we’re surrounded by bastards.”
But its not just strangers and down and outs that Londoners show apathy to. They show apathy to their associates and their friends. It is as easy to drift out of company as it is to drift into it in London. London is the kind of place where you find people, who seem to have a different set of friends every month, they are fantastically skilled in getting to know new people, but they seem to have no permanent enduring relationships with anyone. One person has commented, “I think it’s very easy to disappear in London. All my friends live in different corners of the city, everyone works crazy hours, everyone has different groups of friends. If someone doesn’t turn up to your party, you tend to think they had something better to do. If you don’t see someone for 6 months, it’s not a huge deal. People move all the time, and it’s not like you’d just pop round to someone’s flat to see them without calling first. There are some close friends that I would maybe check up on if I hadn’t seen them, but to be honest, there are a lot of people that if I didn’t see them for a bit, I’d just think that they’d moved on.”
I think this comment if interesting, “there are a lot of people that if I didn’t see them for a bit, I’d just think that they’d moved on.” There is in London a laissez-fairism in the attitude of the people, an optimism that other people are alright, which bolsters and justifies attitudes of apathy towards even those people with whom one is associated, that one sees, and that one might even call a friend. Perhaps you can see this optimism in place best, in situations when Londoners ask for help. The interesting thing about Londoners, is that whilst they can be distanced, apathetic and at times rude, they are often helpful. You may if you are a mother struggling with a push chair, or a delicate lady wearing stilletos and two large suitcases, be asked if you would like a help. Sometimes this is a matter of convenience as much as anything else. But don’t expect for people to stop and help, just by looking inconvenienced, often people expect you to ask, and wont offer otherwise, partly because they feel that it is an interference, and partly because, they’ve got other things they ‘d rather do. London people don’t mean you any harm by ignoring you; they just assume you have your own world, and that you’d probably prefer to be left to it. That is fine if you have your own life.
The modus operandi is not so much fuck you. Londers are not so much ‘fuck you’ rather than, sorry. Sorry for invading your personal world. Sorry for touching you. Sorry for disturbing you from the internal mental and emotional world in which you were buried, which I rudely awakened you from when I stood on your toe, bringing your senses into the dirty, uncertain, sweaty and dusty world of the tube train, the industrial noise. London is full of worlds, which pass but barely touch each other.
Some people experience the pace of life of London with the apathy that most people have for each other, as rude. Probably one of the rudest mannerism of Londoners is when they use sorry in a passive aggressive way, quite subconsciously, to forgive themselves on your behalf for their aggression towards you. It can be quite easily picked up by people of a foreign extraction, one day a particularly feisty Polish girl, blonde, was fighting her way through a crowd of people heading in the opposite direction in Finsbury Park tube station, as she ran, she kept shoulder barging people, clipping them with her shoulder, causing them to loose balance, and stop in their tracks, all the time saying sorry. Given her acknowledgement that she was in the wrong, he thought she wouldn’t mind at all, if he might stand his ground, and as she headed towards him to shove him out the way, he stood firm and even produce a little momentum to edge her out of his way. She met a resistance that her own momentum could not budge, and then aggressively pushed past, finally overcoming the resistance, stumbling forward, and turning to see who this was, said, ‘Oh yeah! Watch your back, asshole!” It was just another way of saying sorry.
Others who like their space, experience it as being welcoming, friendly and tolerant. A New Yorker commented that, “Upon arrival in London, a few years back, I experienced one of those “bad attitudes” many complain of. Being from New York City, I found it quite comforting.”Another thing to be said about this culture of apathy in London, is that there are many people, who would want you to back off, if you were thinking or attempting to get too involved in their life.
Displays of apathy as displays of strength
You see the display of apathy is not just a technique to avoid being overwhelmed by the demands and stresses of the world. It is also a display of strength, to be apathetic, to be in your own world is to suggest that you have a world worth being in, which trumps anything that your immediate physical and social environment might have to offer you. London just always assumed you’ve got something to do, somewhere to go. London is always telling you about its plans, and never asking you about yours.
London is scared, London knows it a competition. London wants to prove to you that it has friends, that it has plans, and schemes, and arrangements and dates, but it never wants to know about yours, and it never ever wants to say, ‘I’m lonely’ or ‘I don’t know what to do with myself’. London fears you will walk away. London knows that no-one plays that game here. London knows that you do or die. But London will never wait to listen to your answer once it has asked you ‘how are you today?’ London is narcissistic, it is a great big juicy ready to explode narcissist. There is some support for this idea that Londoner’s experience a real pressure to affect a faux contentment. In 1989 a 32 year old partner in a chain of London wine bars commented “London’s so big and intimidating that I think most people don’t think they’ll succeed by presenting themselves as themselves. They prefer to fit an image which says, ‘I’m like this’ when what they mean is ‘I’d like to be like this but deep down I don’t like what I really am’. London is about faking an ideal, being an all powerful persona, no vulnerabilities, no social and emotional nedes, no chinks in the armour, no fears, yin, an explosion of energy, an attempt to mean something to someone, a fire fuelled by a need for recognition and acceptance. The fact is that the denizens of London are, invariably, à la Dick Whittington, drawn to the Big Smoke by ambition, desire and avarice. The city is like a magnet, pulling all the energy of the ambitious towards its center, rendering it a black hole. The insatiable desire for attention, status and wealth means that Londoners struggle to maintain a dignified social spirit in their business and dealings.
Social interaction in London is often understood, implicitly, as an attempt to mutually self-promote, to impress the other, to inspire some kind of longing in the other. This is the antithesis of commitment, which is an agreement that the competition has stopped, that a mate or a friend has finally been chosen, that the game has come to an end, and that for better or worse, the interaction now is about enjoying the benefits of the safety that comes with commitment. It is as if Londoners find it very difficult to commit, and that this creates a kind of critical mass, a kind of blindness to the possibility of commitment, so no one does commit, or at least it becomes very difficult. Perhaps this is because committing, also means, letting your guard down, and people think that they are going to be taken advantage of. It’s a bit like a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The question is, is what Londoners experience any different to anywhere else? I would say it probably is. There is a need in London, to be seen as interesting, whereas in othe laces, towns and cities, boring is fine thank-you very much, boring means you are happy with yourself, you are happy with your partner, you aren’t looking for something you don’t have, you are content, and you can calm down sufficiently that you can feel your own heart beat, and that of your partner, and you can tune into the benefits and comfort, and life-sustaining presence of a person in your life, and appreciate that those benefits are worth whatever limitations might be perceived of your partner, yourself or your situation in life.
Talking in 1989, a 28 year old advertising executive said, “I want a man and a relationship but a career hardens you, particularly in London. Also, you’re so tired at the end of a day that it seems impossible you could cope with a job, children, domestic chores and a husband. It’s a vicious circle: the less dependent you become on relationships to keep you occupied, the more you find alternative ways of enjoying yourself. The fewer relationships you have, the fewer you want.”
However this laissez-fairism creates a pressure to appear as if you do have your own smug world to inhabit, or you own dynamic life, and those who don’t have that kind of life find themselves virtually imprisoned into their own isolation, through exercising a faux contentment with their life, which they feel obliged to demonstrate, for fear of their neediness being distasteful and off-putting those around them. Intersetingly Londoners will put on displays of apathy even when they are feeling lonely. Americans often seem to feel the need to show how good things are by bellowing at each other about how such and such an activity was such fun. Londoners achieve the same thing by saying nothing and looking smug.
Londoners are not keen to show vulnerability so they put on shows of apathy, even when they are isolated and lonely, which paradoxically hems them in, and ensures a continued isolation. New arrivals to London often complain, that open minded and open hearted, they find London an exclusive club, some of whom may actually be exclusive loners.
Arguably the apathy of Londoners, combined with a determination to create a smug self-centred zone or affect, contributes to another quality of Londoners, politeness. Londoners like to show that they are happily content within themselves, by demonstrating gracious manners and politeness. Londoners often say ‘sorry’ to a person who has bumpted into them, even when it is the other person’s fault. This act of politeness, is not simply about being good spirited, it also means the person is saying I can take this hit, I’ve got far more important things in my life than this to get involved with you. Londoners to some extent also obey the rule of the queue and of giving way to other motorists and pedestrians on the street, perhaps with the exception of East London.