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This article was written on 29 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Losing social spaces

When a society starts losing social spaces, that society loses coherence and starts to die. Just look at how this government views them. Libraries are closing and librarians are being made redundant. The Telegraph, which exists to give the middle classes a justification for selfishness, tells you not to mourn for these libraries because, queasily, we now have the internet. A loophole in the planning regulations means that developers can take pubs and turn them into supermarkets without telling people that the usage is changing, which the Telegraph has no formal opinion on, but probably thinks is the spirit of free enterprise. In contrast to the newspaper, I think this is trouble.

Not having places to come together communally in the same way that pubs and libraries once offered means that, in time, people will stop conceiving of themselves to belonging to a wider community in any way at all, in which their actions affect the other members for good or ill. The sainted Thatcher once told ‘Woman’s Own’ that there was no such thing as society, which was clearly wrong, but in time, she’ll be proved right.

In the library or the pub, you can’t behave as you might want. Talking loudly or eating smelly food in a library would attract censure and may get you thrown out. Boorish behaviour in a pub would have the same result. Your own appetites, then, have to be subordinated in the collective interest.  They are social spaces in the truest sense of the word. Take away pubs or libraries, the two places where, it seems to me, this is at its strongest, and the idea of there being anything that you need to compass other than your own desires starts looking quaintly old fashioned.

The consequences of this state mandated selfishness can be seen if you think about a bus queue. At the moment, the expectations are that people will line up so that the people who were there first can get on the bus first. This seems fair. Forget the rules of queuing and the people who are the most arrogantly insistent will get on first and letting on the old or disabled entirely at their discretion. If they’re having a good day, they met let one or two through. If not, then they can take their chances. Selfishness, then, destroys what makes us function together.

We’re already becoming a nation who are, at best, indifferent to each other’s presence or, at worst, actively truculent. You doubt this? Move out of the way for someone, and you’ll be lucky to be acknowledged at all, let alone be greeted with a ‘thank you.’ If you thank them, sarcastically, they’ll not hear you or turn around, failing to comprehend what point it is that you’re trying to make or even, hilariously, square up to you, as though you’ve taken something from them.

The end of pubs need not be a bad thing. Drinking is bad for your health and your wallet. Seeing addicts outside pubs, tragically sucking on the fags that are killing them, is one of the saddest sights you’ll ever see. But they’re not being replaced with social spaces. They’re being boarded up or turned into convenience stores. Me, I like convenience stores because I like to buy things, but I should be more organised when I shop, because we need social spaces more than I need to be able to buy a pint of milk at unsocial hours.

Losing libraries is a straightforwardly bad thing. Right now, I’m dividing my time between Nottingham and West Sussex, where my closest large town is Crawley. Not only does my partner teach an art class in Crawley library, but it’s also home to a coffee shop, is always packed with a huge cross-section of people and also has computers where people can get on the Telegraph’s lovely internet, when they might not otherwise afford to do so. Oh, and there’s even a coffee shop. The place is a social hub that is a community in its own right, in many cases offering services that people may not get access to.

But we have the internet. Well, those of us who can afford to pay. And the internet has lots of synthetic communities but no real ones. You access it by yourself, alone. You don’t call over a friend to move the mouse while you read the words and then talk about books. In this world, you are sovereign, everything is at a remove and how you want to behave and want to act, are the most vital things. More, in fact. They’re the only rules. This is fine, provided there are times when we live in community with other people and understand what social behaviour is and how we should act around others. Without these checks, we become monsters of self-will, roaring and shouting when our ‘freedom of choice’ is thwarted and we are denied out heart’s desires.

Nothing, incidentally, will stop this process now it has started. But here’s a prediction. English society is getting less and less tenable and is being destroyed by a kind of rampant individualism. In about twenty years, it’ll be unrecognisable and irredeemably hard-faced and nasty. I hope I’ve been able to get out by then, because it won’t be a nice place to live.

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