Friday, 15 April 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 15 April

Yobbish behaviour may have you crying ‘Bring back borstal!’ – but what should be done about it? Thomas Blaikie weighs in

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
When visiting a friend in the Midlands recently, I was appalled to hear him say, ‘There’s quite a nice public park down the road, but we can’t go there any more.’ ‘Why on earth not?’ I asked. ‘Oh, it’s been taken over by antisocial youths.’ It seems that nothing can be done – or that’s how my friend saw it. What do you think?
Lynne Castri, Colchester

Dear Lynne,
Huge issue: where to begin? Many people feel that standards of behaviour in public have declined to an intolerable degree. In 2014, in a big move little remarked upon, the government introduced Public Spaces Protection Orders. These enable local councils to criminalise activities such as swearing or jumping off bridges. Salford Council has imposed one at Salford Quays. But libertarian groups are unhappy, pointing out that it isn’t clear what constitutes swearing, etc. In short, there’s much controversy re what approach to take. It all boils down to the old dilemma: carrot or stick?

Certainly something can and should be done – even if it’s unclear exactly what. I don’t think it’s helpful to bemoan the state of society in general. It’s not a provable case that bad behaviour is rife in ways it never used to be, although in certain situations it clearly is. On buses, say, where the absence of any authority figure (ie, a conductor) has had a bad effect. So, best to be practical and focus on what is actually going on in particular places.

I don’t hold out much hope for Public Spaces Protection Orders, though it’s early days yet. Are there the resources to enforce these orders? Libertarians are right, I think, to question the ambiguity of some of the rules, and the rulesbased approach is likely to provoke resentment and possibly make things worse. Community action could take the form of peopling the park or public place with a majority of well-behaved people who also pick up litter. Antisocial elements often want to dominate and intimidate. If they can’t do those things, they’ll go away – eventually.

These problems aren’t solved overnight. In the past I’ve had direct experience of the effectiveness of community police – plain-clothes police who are able to penetrate gangs and solve problems by persuasion. Always find out if you’ve got a team in your area. Campaign to get one if none exists. Whatever you do, remember that stigmatising and vilifying malcontents, however awful their behaviour, will either be giving them what they want or just alienate them. There needs to be majority action and it needs to be gentle, subtle and consistent. Don’t give up at the first hurdle.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT… cold-callers

Felicite Gillham writes, ‘I am normally a mild-mannered woman, but I find myself enraged when, answering the telephone, a complete stranger says, “How are you today, Felicite?” The term ‘Mind your own business’ springs to mind. How dare they call me by my first name? And what has my health to do with an anonymous voice?’

Felicite wonders how to respond to such approaches and confesses she has occasionally sworn down the phone. But she’s not comfortable about that.

Cold-callers are intrusive and don’t mean a word of it. They’re just trying to sweet-talk you into entering a conversation with them. It’s not their fault, of course. They’re just employees, reading off a script. But the more they try to woo you with politeness, the more of your time they consume. If you cut through their palaver and say, ‘What are you calling about?’ they are usually just evasive. You can’t win. I’m afraid that if I sense a cold call (lots of hissing on the line, nobody there when you first pick up the receiver, then someone mispronouncing your name) I just replace the receiver without speaking. I don’t like doing this, but…

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