I was sitting in a train recently, wondering why everyone’s mobile telephone conversations, except my own, were so utterly banal, when a young black man sitting two rows behind me answered the irritating wail of his instrument of the devil. He began to speak, and I wished that I had learnt shorthand.
‘Hancock’s definitely put in a plea,’ he said. ‘Moran’s in the early stages. I’ve got to go back next week, but for the moment I’m on bail.’
As is often the case, his telephone rang non-stop.
‘There was a lot of negotiation going on while we worked out a plea bargain,’ he said.
He was quite well-spoken, more Nigerian swindler than Jamaican mugger, I should imagine; and since he seemed so little ashamed of whatever it was of which he stood accused, and had clearly done, I was half-inclined to ask him what it was. Since he had so pleasant a manner, I hoped it was something of which I could approve, or at least not disapprove.
It is a sign of the times, I suppose, that there are crimes of which I approve.
The train on which I was travelling was from a formerly prosperous and even rather grand industrial town whose centre had been comprehensively ruined, architecturally, by the construction of a strategically placed ring road, as so many English town centres have been so ruined; and ruined economically by failure to adapt to changing world circumstances. The smell of fast food hung over it like a pall: vinegar and stale fat that had launched a thousand chips.
A lot of men appeared to have nothing to do in the town, except prop up the walls of 1960s public buildings, including a College of Design so hideous that it reminded me of the psychological technique of paradoxical intention. In this technique, the therapist advises the patient to do exactly the opposite of the desired result, for example an insomniac is told to try to stay awake at all costs. Such is the perversity of Man that it often works; and so one must hope that those who study at the College of Design thereby sup full of the horrors of ugliness and produce only beauty.
No doubt the proppers-up of walls were deemed sick rather than unemployed: that is to say were in receipt of a sick note from their doctors though there was nothing whatever wrong with them. They were performing the invaluable work of keeping the unemployment rate low; and thus, by a single lie, is the population, the medical profession and the government corrupted.
In the midst of all this wretchedness was a series of advertisements, sponsored by the authorities, warning recipients of state aid that they risked prosecution and imprisonment if they worked on the side and earned a few quid extra.
Long familiarity with recipients of such aid has led me to rejoice whenever anyone cheats the system in the fashion warned against. These are the people who keep their dignity intact, despite the best efforts of the state to destroy it. The ones who don’t cheat are what the inhabitants of the camps used to call Muslims, the submissive ones, who turned their face to the wall and died.
When dignity requires illegality, there is something rotten in the state.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 16, 2007