There’s only one thing worse than being told what to do, and that’s being told what not to do. I mean, of course, when there’s no justification, though I have to admit that in quite reasonable circumstances, too, as, for example, when I was learning to drive, I don’t like being told what to do, and in 1987 when a man in Twickenham barked at me for four whole days and occasionally seized the steering wheel, it meant that I never got as far as taking the test.
When you’re on holiday, as I am now, in a quiet place on the south coast of Crete, being told you can’t do something when there’s no good reason at all, can make you very peevish indeed.
Consider this, posted at the top of the steps to the bar at a very modest three-star hotel in Loutro (70 EUR per night for two).
Two things annoyed me immediately. First, the spelling of ‘ambiance’, which I mistakenly took to be wrong. It turns out that ‘ambiance’ is an acceptable, though little used alternative to ‘ambience’ so it’s fortunate that I mounted no attack on the hotel’s management on that score. But second, the assault on liberty.
In general, we should be free to do what we want as long as we don’t harm others or infringe their rights, and whilst moralisers, blue-rinsed conservatives, and luddites might long for an age when quiet conversation was the only alternative to suicide, times have changed, and if we choose, as couples, individuals or families, to sit quietly with our eyes on our phones, and laptops, texting, totting up numbers in spreadsheets, emailing, blogging, talking quietly to our distant colleagues and loved ones, or snapping a pic or two, that is surely our business and no one else’s.
Obviously we mustn’t make too much noise, and we must switch off those pings and beeps. We must certainly prevent those tinny high-pitched tones to seep from our earphones into the calm quiet around us, but if we’re doing no harm, then let us do what we want in the bar.
‘Harming others’ of course, is something that is hard to define, but we should be very wary of allowing those who would curtail our liberty from citing what they might call ‘indirect’ harm. A man wearing the wrong kind of cricket gear might be said by some to ‘lower the tone’ but I would struggle to understand what this might mean.
And, for example, there were some who argued against same-sex marriage on the grounds that, whilst it didn’t in any obvious and direct way harm mixed-sex marriages, it nevertheless undermined the whole ‘concept of marriage’. Piffle. It would surely be hard to demonstrate exactly how, just as it is hard to explain quite how the use of mobile phones or laptops harms the ambience of a simple and unsophisticated bar at three-star hotel in a remote part of Europe.
Nevertheless rules and conventions are hard to ignore. A couple of months ago I went to see Der Meistersinger at Glyndebourne and I didn’t wear Black Tie, as most men do, rather a lounge suit, a little tight around the waist. I would have been much more comfortable, though even more ill at ease, in jeans and a polo shirt, and I can’t think that anyone in the audience would have been harmed in any way. But, convention is powerful and even if we don’t care about belonging to a particular tribe, we don’t want to be scorned.
At the Salzburg Festival, three weeks ago, believing that the rules would be more strictly enforced than in Sussex, I wore Black Tie, but, to my dismay, saw that most of the audience was quite casually dressed. I didn’t feel ill at ease, but I certainly felt uncomfortable. It was a very hot evening and the auditorium wasn’t air conditioned. Two rows in front of me, a man was wearing blue jeans and an open-necked shirt. I didn’t notice any scornful looks cast in his direction, and I cast none myself. There were only envious and admiring ones, but that might have been for other reasons.
Why do we lay down the law, when it doesn’t matter a jot?
At the hotel beach there’s this notice too, which I think equally silly. I go topless, myself, as it happens.