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Long life

The fraught business of seat surrender

Those who offer their seats to the old are often rather old themselves

I remember the first time that someone stood up and offered me a seat on the London Underground. It was in 2002, when I was 62 years old, and rather a pretty girl whom I had been quietly admiring through the crush on the Piccadilly Line suddenly rose to her feet and beckoned me to take her place. I was so shocked that I responded most ungraciously. I just shook my head in irritation and signalled to her to sit down again. For, notwithstanding the fact that my hair had long ago turned white, it was the first time I had realised that I actually looked old.

From then on, offers of seats on crowded Tube trains started to come my way occasionally, and they came with gradually increasing frequency, until now, 13 years later, I have almost come to expect them. At 75, I definitely can’t be looking young, and I certainly don’t feel it. So I tend now to accept these offers with effusive thanks and a warm smile. It is, after all, an unpleasant experience to travel standing up in the Tube in the rush hour, and I am grateful to be spared it. So my irritability is now directed not at those who offer me their seats but at those who I think ought to, but don’t.

First among the latter are young white men in rude health, who rush to fill all available seats, in which, once secured, they concentrate on their iPads and studiously avoid eye contact with any frail individual clinging to the ceiling near them. Second in this category come the boisterous young children whose mothers regard them as entitled to seats of their own to sprawl and wriggle on when they could easily have had them doing this on their laps. No, it is to women and to immigrants and to members of ethnic minorities that the old must look for deliverance.

When I was living in New York more than 20 years ago, working on the NewYorker magazine, I remember my late colleague Philip Hamburger, then around 80 years old but still going to the office every day, saying that the only people who ever stood up for him on the subway were black, and the situation is not all that different in London. A while ago, during one of those terrorism alerts, I was standing in front of a seated young Arab woman in a hijab whom I began to suspect of being a potential suicide bomber. But just as my paranoia reached its peak she stood up and generously offered me her seat. This time I refused to accept it out of guilt.

One rather embarrassing thing about this business of seat surrender is that those who engage in it are quite often rather old themselves. Maybe they are anticipating the time, not far ahead, when they hope that people will stand up for them, and they want to ensure that the practice survives in this mannerless age. Maybe they want to shame by example those callous white youths into greater consideration for their elders. Or maybe they just want to make the point that they are still in much better shape than one is and therefore a lot fitter to stand. Whatever their motive, it seems equally rude either to accept or reject their offer of a seat, especially as they are almost always women.

The other day a nice-looking woman, probably in her early fifties, offered me her seat, which might have seemed a perfectly reasonable thing for her to do, except that she was encumbered by three bulging bags and a violin case. She had great trouble inserting herself with all this gear into a tightly packed group of standing passengers, who looked much irked by her manoeuvring. I tapped her on the shoulder and said that she was very kind, but that I really thought that she needed the seat much more than I did. She wouldn’t hear of it. She was adamant that my need was greater than hers. Actually, even at my age I am perfectly capable of standing up on the Underground, and perhaps it would be fun to make a habit of offering one’s seat to the nearest young thug. He would probably accept without a word of thanks. The problem, however, is finding a seat in the first place.

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