Why the Rude Cell-Phone Users Have Won
Of all those minded to speak their brains in the aftermath of a Sainsbury's worker's refusal to serve someone who was on their mobile phone, a section of callers to Jeremy Vine's radio deserve a special berth in hell. "Wow," tweeted the presenter. "People calling saying they have every right to speak on mobile at supermarket checkout, 'because the staff work for me'."
Evidently, there really are people who imagine their mere presence in a supermarket elevates them to the position of CEO of ArseCorp, while the purchase of a pack of frozen peas and some bogroll licences them to deploy their full Princess Michael of Kent impression.
But then, I suppose that level of entitlement isn't the greatest surprise to those of us who frequent the badlands of urban chain retail. Only last week I was behind a woman at a till when the shop assistant was forced to ask her a question. It took quite a while to get madam's attention, what with her focus on relaying the inexplicable details of some gentleman "not showing me respect", but contact did finally penetrate – only for our heroine to apologise to the person to whom she was speaking, fix the checkout worker with a stunned expression, and hiss: "Er, excuse me? I'm on the PHONE?"
Come my afterlife revolution, she'd be spending eternity punching 50-character numbers into tills because Satan's barcode scanner was broken, while hell's most churlish extras played the role of people unable to tear themselves away from phone calls about their useless sales team or Kim Sears' hair.
In this life, alas, she seems to sail on regardless, her ilk having apparently inherited the Earth during one of those proverbial meetings I missed. It was years ago that I first saw someone answer their phone in a cinema during the film, but I now expect it as so routine that I suspect we have moved beyond the softly-softly approach to reforming public manners, and into the-only-language-they-understand territory.
In fact, I hereby move that the government immediately appoints a modern etiquette tsar, and that it is Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary. (Already, I can't help feeling Michael has missed a trick in not capitalising on the Sainsbury's business by declaring that anyone who approaches a Ryanair check-in desk on their mobile will be immediately banished to the back of one of his biblical queues, or be forced to surrender that phone and check it in as a separate item of hold baggage at a cost of £1,651.)
Failing the O'Leary appointment, the alternative is to cocoon oneself somewhere other people's phones can't get. The cliche dictates you'd need to go halfway up Everest – but of course there's now a mobile mast just by base camp, presumably to enable the tourist hordes to shout: "I'm halfway up Everest!" or "I'm having a ruck with some Sherpas!" into their icicle-festooned handsets. I suppose there's always my kitchen in central London, where you are without question less likely to be able to get reception than you are on the north face. Though not actually lead-lined, it appears so unreachable by all forms of modern technology that it would make an ideal Amish dwelling, or hideaway for Edward Snowden.
I once went to visit a Maasai village in Tanzania, where a tribesman delivered a speech to our tourist party on how the village was entirely untouched by the modern world. Halfway through – and apparently without irony – we were interrupted by a buzzing, and he broke off and fumbled in his shuka before producing a top-end BlackBerry that had hit the market mere weeks previously, and took a call on it. Obviously, I bought a ton of bracelets from him once he'd rung off – frankly, you had to doff your hat.
Elsewhere, though, the charm remains more elusive. I work in a public library, and during the writing of yesterday's column, four fellow users took phone calls in the actual library. Not answered them sotto voce before scurrying out to a less obviously unsuitable area, but conducted them in full and without shame, as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
Literally, as I am typing this, a man is on the phone at the desk facing mine, and while I won't offer you a running commentary on how many other calls we get to by the end, I will mention that one of my fellow regulars who always takes calls in the library last week told me off for "typing too loudly".
For some reason, such moments always remind me of that bit in The Big Lebowski when the Dude is banished from the Big Lebowski's study, as the old man thunders: "Your revolution is over … the bums lost!"
Whenever someone natters on the phone in the library – he's still on, by the way, and he got the new telly cable and they're going to meet up in the pub later and maybe get something to eat after – I can only reflect that I have lost. Whenever and whatever my so-called revolution was, it has been crushed by the side these guys were on. I have lost to the till phoners and the film interrupters. I have totally lost to the people whose voicemail commands you not to leave a message but to send a text. The theatrically resigned shrug – deployed thrice-hourly — is all I have left. And even that, for how long? Is shrugging too loudly a thing?