Tag Archives: This Life

Keeping your distance

Back in my rock’n’roll days (now such a distant memory that they appear to be in black and white with no sound), I spent far too much time at aftershow parties for bands I didn’t like, with my good friend Mr MacBottom (don’t ask). One exception though was a post-gig party for Mansun, the band from my hometown of Chester who could only be described as “prog-rock”. I say could only be described as prog-rock, but to be honest some people might have called them “the poor man’s Pink Floyd”, “pop genius all too often punctuated by rambling guitar solos” or “tiresome indie rock”. But not me. I loved them.

I think the band were, in reality, vainglorious arts students who liked the sound of their own music a little bit too much, but that didn’t stop me going to their aftershow upstairs at London’s Kilburn National. After all, where there was free booze, you’d find this still-impoverished recent student. To be fair, nothing much has changed.

Excessive quantities of cheap cooking lager later, and this Brit Then In Water had to make the first of several pitstops at the toilet. Or ‘the facilities’, as I believe I have to call it here. I’ve spent all my life thinking that a facility is an ability to do something, or maybe a hospital. Move three and a half thousand miles and you suddenly discover that it’s something you take a leak in.

As is standard procedure in an empty toilet, I made for the urinal furthest from the door, and began the laborious Heineken-removal process. Within ten seconds, another man entered and – again following the textbook to the absolute letter – he positioned himself at the urinal furthest away from me. Eventually we both looked over at each other at the exact same point, grunted an ‘alright?’ in mutual recognition of the fact that thirteen gallons of beer takes a long time to get rid of, and then carried on as normal.

The fact that the other bloke was Andrew Lincoln (Mark from ‘Love Actually’ to my American readership, but inextricably Egg from ‘This Life’ to most Brits) is neither here nor there. The fact is that in Britain there are very clear unwritten guidelines on personal space that are carefully adhered to by most members of the population. Nobody gets too close to anyone else, a principle which probably explains the stiff upper lip if it’s applied equally to emotions.

I’d always thought that it was all different in the US, with everybody in each other’s face given even half a chance. But recently on the subway, I’ve seen that the same social norms apply even here.

I get on the L train in Manhattan at the end of the line, meaning the train is often empty when I board. This allows me to sit wedged up at the end of one of the rows of sets that run the length of my section of the carriage. Largely without fail, the next person to enter my section will sit on the opposite side of the carriage, and at the opposite end of the row of seats, so that we are diagonally separated by the greatest possible distance. Passenger 3 will sit on the same side as me but at the other end. And Passenger 4 will sit immediately opposite me. All four of us are perfectly spaced. If this had happened just once, I’d put it down to coincidence. But it’s happened so often, I’m starting to believe that I’ve missed a compulsory class on subway seat positioning. The author of ‘Urinal Etiquette: A Textbook Explanation’ couldn’t have organiszed it any better himself.

Ironically, most New York subway trains smell of urine. Maybe people are taking the philosophy a little too literally?