Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Navigating crowds: a matter of nostalgia and bitter self-knowledge

As a general rule, I try not to get nostalgic about the way things were in my youth. As a general rule, I don’t think things were much better in my youth or anybody else’s. As a general rule, I think things tend to be much of a muchness, just more so, and older people always whinge about how much better they were.

Still, it was brought home to me this week, that in one little but annoying respect, things were indeed better back then. What made the discovery particularly galling was I that I learned that I was part of the overall decline in standards. That was an object lesson I was taught by the fine Spanish city of Valencia.

What I discovered there is that people have retained the ability to walk among others without causing them inconvenience. I remember it used happen in Britain too, when I was young. At busy London stations, for instance, people wove their routes around each other, no one ever walking in a dead-straight line, but constantly swerving so as to inconvenience each other as little as possible. The aim was always to avoid, if possible, making anyone else break their stride, far less have to stop to let you pass.

I once met a crowd coming out of a station in Hong Kong and was astonished to find that the human tide that seemed about to engulf me, in fact parted and let me through without so much as brushing against me. The individuals who created the crowd behaviour simply moved slightly aside, as did the people beyond them too, so that they could flow past me without my being troubled at all. They didn’t even seem to be conscious of what they were doing since no one made eye contact with me as they were taking their avoiding action.

Huge numbers, but extraordinarily well-behaved
On a smaller scale, the same was true in Britain. Not any more, though. This very day, a woman who’d been standing still contemplating who knows what – the chances of better weather? The way to find a happier path through life? The perils of the human condition? – suddenly took a decision to abandon meditation for action at the very moment I was walking past her, stepping straight into my path. As she was dragging not one but two wheeled suitcases behind her, it was only by good fortune that I avoided being brought down to the ground. I don’t know whether she would have apologised had she noticed what she’d done, because she never looked around or saw what had happened, leaving her entirely unaware that there was anything to apologise for.

In Valencia, on the other hand, it was clear that the old skills still survived. Three young men wandering down a pavement can seem threatening but, out there, one would inevitably slide behind the other two, opening enough space for someone coming the other way. People leaving shops somehow knew who was already on the pavement and avoided touching them or blocking their path, while they joined the flow without disrupting it. Even cyclists would stop to let you through on cycle lanes, a striking contrast to, say, Amsterdam where riding you down, or at least threatening to do so, seems to be a point of pride for them.

Just don't step into her cycling lane...
So good were the Valencians at navigating through crowds that they showed me up as completely inadequate to the task. Again and again I had to apologise for having stopped in someone else’s way, or walked across in front of them, or stepped out of a side street into their path. Bringing home to me the galling truth that it isn’t just other people who’ve lost the skill, I’ve somehow mislaid it too.

Ah, for the good old days. The days of my youth when we knew how to walk considerately. If only people could learn that ability again.

Starting, I must shamefacedly admit, with me.

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