It’s all the rage to mistrust the powerful these days, to say politicians are scum, or all bankers are selfish. Journalists are considered particularly disgusting post-Corbyn, which encourages all manner of needling on Twitter: ‘I’m sorry, but if you’re a journalist you should get a better job.’ This from a Corbynite. ‘I’m sorry, but…’ — are there three more irritating words?
All this sticking it to The Man. All this talk of real, kindly people versus the shifty elite. I think it’s bogus. Not because the elite isn’t greedy but because the implication is that we the people have some sort of solidarity; that we’re let down only by our self-interested overlords, when the truth is we don’t trust each other much at all. In cities, where the vast majority of Britons live, in London in particular, trust between ordinary people is as fragile as faith in politicians. We’re cynical, and worse, our cynicism is justified.
Take last Sunday. The sun was out and my guard was down. As I pottered towards my local park a man, 30-odd, approached me looking worried. He said, ‘Excuse me, I need help. Can I ask you a favour?’ I looked at him hard, loth to be a sucker again, but he was reassuringly middle-class in a way that’s hard to fake: smooth skin, clothes, well-cut hair.
‘The thing is, I’ve locked myself out of my flat,’ he said, smiling in a charming, sheepish way, ‘and my keys and wallet are inside. My mate in Brixton has a spare key but I need to get to him somehow. Could you possibly lend me your Oyster card if I top it up and post it back? I could get it back to you this afternoon even?’
As I say, his hair was nice. So I fossicked about in my bag, scooped up every last cent and put it in his hand. ‘I don’t have an Oyster card,’ I said, ‘but here’s £4 — more actually. That should get you to Brixton on the Tube.’ Then I beamed at him, expecting this nice day to be enhanced by the warm glow of do-goodery. No dice. The man closed his fist around the change and sighed crossly. He turned on his heel and walked off without a word, leaving me first confused and then forlorn.
I wasn’t sad because I’d been had — though had I had been. With hindsight my £4 was chump change to that chap because an average Oyster is chock-full of cash. I even admired the cunning of the scam. Though the card’s worth more than any coins you’d give, it seems somehow unsuspicious to ask for it. Even registered Oysters full of commuting fares wouldn’t be reported until the next day, leaving time to extract the dosh.
What depressed me was that this seemed like the final straw. I’d decided to trust a man because he looked affluent, like he wasn’t in need. This in itself is weird. But then — what’s to do? You have a choice in London: be a sucker or a cynic. Neither is much fun.
Should you give to men with ‘hungry and homeless’ signs? If I do, it’s with a tight little smile which says ‘Yes, I know it’s drink you want.’ Outside every London station there’s a man or woman telling the same story: I just need £47 to get back to Liverpool or Manchester. ‘Sorry,’ I say, with that same horrid smile. I suppose it’s a healthy society in which men beg for smack not food, but I worry that the endless suppression of the urge to help takes its toll.
We’re told that this is a high-trust society, that people long to come here because trust means co-operation, and co-operation means prosperity. It’s said that we have social capital, which is what’s missing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet every day I actively mistrust almost constantly. ‘Congratulations!’ says the post. ‘Mary Wakefield, you have won!’ Bin job. ‘Alert: this text is from the fraud squad.’ No it isn’t. ‘This is your bank, just wanting to confirm your details…’ Nope. I’ve recently taken some pleasure deleting emails that begin: ‘Important, don’t delete this message!’
Even charities behave like scamsters. Three cold-calls in so many weeks saying they’re from Oxfam, three posh-sounding young voices designed to calm middle-class nerves. They say: ‘Mary, hey, we’ve totted up the money made from things you’ve donated and we just wanted to tell you the total. Is now a good time?’ How could they possibly have calculated the cost of anonymous donations? There’s a rabbit off somewhere, as they say in the North. Rabbits off everywhere.
Twenty years ago Robert Putnam published his famous article about the low levels of trust in civic America. ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, it was called. There’d been surveys done which showed trust for the Washington government had ebbed away and though most put it down to top dogs behaving badly — Vietnam, Watergate and all that — Putnam saw a cause in the grass roots.
There’d been a steep decline in Americans joining associations, he said, groups like the Scouts, choral societies and the bowling league. His point was that if you don’t engage with your area, if you don’t muck in, you don’t create the trust that makes for co-operation which leads to prosperity and democracy. Instead you become atomised and resentful. Support groups like AA and book clubs were on the rise, admitted Putnam, but ‘Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others.’
I wonder if this is true of London, of life in Britain’s cities today. I wonder if we’re bowling alone. Perhaps we never had 1950s America’s semi-demented love of clubs, but we’re certainly more detached from our neighbourhoods than ever before. We work, we go home, we watch TV. Yes, I’m speaking for myself. At weekends we see our friends. We try to spend our altruism on the street, and become jaded as a result.
Of course joining the Scouts or Meals on Wheels isn’t going to see off cold-callers. It won’t put an end to scams, but it might even the balance, and take the edge off all this fashionable hate. Mistrust is just as corrosive from the bottom up, says Putnam. Fish rot just as easily from the tail.