I’m told that the new production of Dvorˇák’s Rusalka at the Royal Opera House is controversial. There were boos at the first night and reports of audience members walking out in disgust.
I too walked out in disgust. Mine, however, had nothing to do with what was happening on stage. It was prompted by the man sitting next to me, who arrived trailing BO the impact of which could alone knock out any Iranian nuclear bomb.
The odour was so powerful that I had to get out as soon as possible. No part of my mind could focus on the performance; I had to hold myself together until the first pause when I could flee.
When I mentioned this to friends the next morning, the floodgates opened. Almost everyone had had a similar experience. There is, it seems, a hidden menace in British cultural life: the curse of the BO neighbour. We may joke about continental standards of personal hygiene but, having worked in Brussels for nearly ten years, I never once encountered this very British hazard.
I wish the problem were merely BO. But noxious odours are just the most potent expression of a wider issue: we no longer know how to conduct ourselves in public. When was the last time you went to a film and didn’t see the flicker of a phone screen, as someone was busy texting? And it’s barely even worth mentioning the rustling of sweet wrappers or crisp bags, so normal is it now.
Go to the theatre and the likelihood is you will watch a play with a running commentary from an audience member behind you. At least that’s connected to the event in hand. There will just as likely be whispering on a phone — as if somehow it’s fine if you’re not speaking at full volume.
Years ago, a night at the theatre, and even the cinema, was a temporary admission into a different world. There were rules and standards that everyone knew had to be observed. You’d dress up. You’d arrive punctually. And, as an absolute, you’d sit quietly. Utter a word and you’d receive looks of disdain from those surrounding you.
It’s good that some of the starchiness of such rules of behaviour has gone. Dressing for the opera, for instance, was a stupid imposition which served no worthwhile purpose. But there is a downside to the laissez-faire attitude of today. Now that going out is as easy and as normal as staying in and watching TV on the sofa, we behave when we’re out as if we are watching TV on the sofa. And when you’ve paid for the ticket, then you treat your seat as your personal space. So you come as you please and behave as you please. It’s your right.
If you want to flick through your programme, fine. If you want to use your programme as a fan — a particular favourite during the Proms in the stiflingly hot Royal Albert Hall — just go ahead and do it. If you want to cough, cough. Unwrap sweets. Wander off to the loo. Have a chat.
A while ago I was at a now legendary performance of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, which passed over me completely because of the family in the row in front. The parents spent the entire time stroking and kissing their kids, mock conducting, stretching out their arms across the back of their seats and, just for good measure, bobbing their heads up and down in time with the music. As the concert wore on and the children started getting restless, the father didn’t whisper to them to sit still; he smiled at them and blew kisses. They were all cocooned in their own world, with not the slightest concern for anyone around.
We spend so much time now with eyes drooped, focused on smart phones, or with ears connected to iPods which shut out the aural world, that the whole idea of being in a public space has lost its meaning. And the rules which make life in those public spaces bearable — respect for others’ space, keeping our voices down, general politeness — have all but vanished. The theatre, cinema or concert hall are no different.
Couple this with our readily accessible pop-up culture — you wanna hear Beethoven’s 9th? Scroll through Spotify. Fancy the St Matthew Passion? Which version? — and you have a double whammy. If you don’t need to make any special effort to get at it, you don’t need to behave any differently when you’re taking it in.
Which is all very well, but still doesn’t explain why some people don’t take enough baths.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012