Space invaders

Sharing public space can be difficult. Yes, when there is plenty of it around, problems are less likely to occur. But for town dwellers, manoeuvring where space is limited, things are different and negotiation is often needed.

There are rules of conduct, such as “first-come-first-served” and the offer of “after you” when for example, approaching revolving doors. Despite such strategies, problems arise and resolving them can be particularly fraught when seen from opposing viewpoints.

Last week I got on a train to find just two seats unoccupied. I went for the one with its back to the engine and next to the window. Within seconds of my settling in, my new neighbour, a slight man in his early thirties, raised his eyes from his Kindle, stared at me hard and scowled. His elbow had been jogged and for him that was an intrusion too far. I pressed myself up against the carriage wall as best I could – shrinking is not an easy task for a man of my size – and started to read. Although I was well within my allotted space, as indicated by a line on the seat, his elbow started intruding into my space and inevitably it was jogged again. I got that same glare.

The second seat had remained free and I offered to move; the suggestion was accepted with a face of cold anger. He would, he said, be delighted if I sat elsewhere. At that moment the invasion went from being a matter of public space to that of personal space, which naturally made things more difficult, even giving it an emotional dimension. Indeed, with the change I had felt hurt, even intimidated.

His behaviour was altogether different from that of a young woman briefly encountered on a train by a friend of mine. The woman, together with her shopping, was occupying two seats. It was a busy train with seats at a premium and her bags were filling one of them. Despite several polite requests nothing happened until she was asked loudly and pointedly whether she had bought tickets for both. The bags were re-housed and she burst into tears. She sobbed for miles, and despite much sympathetic support from fellow passengers was inconsolable.

Curiously, sometimes the public space has a time slot. A month ago I got to the gym as it opened and went straight to my usual exercise bike. I have been using this same bike at the same time every weekday for at least a year save for holidays. On this occasion someone else had got there first. I asked if he would be prepared to move, but he declined saying this was the bike he always used. Well, while that might be the case, it would have to be at other times in the day, it was certainly not so first thing. By my reckoning, the space was mine during the 6.30-7.15 am slot. He was in no mood to compromise and I moved to a bike with slightly different settings and a poorer view of the TV. I felt cheated and next day with nimble footwork and much determination I got there first. It was mine again, and has been since. With a certain inner contentment I sometimes see him in the distance pedalling away on another bike.

I now recognise public space as something about which I am very aware and to which I believe I have some sort of a right. I don’t know to what extent my notion of public space is innate or learned, but whichever it is it is ever-present. If I am walking in the street the space in front of me is mine and I don’t want to be jostled or bowled over by a determined pedestrian walking nearby. Nor do I want to have to weave my way past a chatting group who have decamped mid pavement.

At one level, public space is needed simply for convenience. At another, there is also a strong cultural element. Negotiating for public space in the streets of London has a very different ring to it than it would in the shops of Paris, the trains of Tokyo, or for that matter, in the lanes of the countryside. In addition there is a gender element – men are seen by many as much the more invasive. Finally there is an emotional element, with upset or pleasure depending on how it pans out.  Whatever their origins, in a sensible world sharing rights to public space should be easy but all too often disagreements arise and if they are unresolved it can hurt.

2 comments on “Space invaders
  1. Rob Pigott says:

    It’s becoming clearer to me as I read the pieces that finding aspects of everyday life curious and interesting is a habit, and that drawing implications and lessons from quite ordinary experiences is a habit too. I’m finding reading these essays very rewarding and they prompt me to realise that it would be all the more rewarding if I had a go at writing essays myself. Thank you Joel

  2. Jack Humphrys says:

    Your account of the way we get possessive about public space reminds me of an ex-neighbour. Fifteen years ago we lived in a narrow road of narrow two up/two down cottages and parking space was always hard to find. The neighbour, an unpleasant man who also regarded the public highway immediately outside his house as his own, was constantly bullying neighbours to move their cars from his space on the grounds that he needed access to wash and polish his own car. Returning from a party on foot late one night (and quite possibly in a merry frame of mind) my wife and I came across an abandoned traffic cone and, for no particular reason, decided to carry it home. On reaching our door we spotted our neighbour’s overly-manicured BMW parked primly outside his house. What that really car needs, we concluded, is a battered and muddy old traffic cone on its roof. Several years on, we still chuckle about our childish prank. The joke rebounded on us when he used the cone to “reserve” his space (until it was repatriated after an anonymous complaint to the Council). So, Joe, should you find somebody has done something unspeakable to your exercise bike, don’t say you haven’t been warned!

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