Now we all know the rule about ignoring people in London. Most of the time as you’re making your way around the city, you treat the other people around you as though they were mobile pieces of street-furniture, to be manoeuvred around, but not acknowledged in any way unless you happen to step on their foot. This is mainly because there are around 7 million of us, not counting the tourists, and saying hello to everyone would get tiring. But I’ve always considered that under some circumstances – when you are a member of a recognisable sub-tribe, seeing another member for instance – that a brief acknowledgement is not just acceptable but welcome. Otherwise we start to feel like mobile pieces of street furniture ourselves, and that’s not pleasant.
Take running. If you run, your fellow runners become somehow acquaintances, to be noticed in a kind of ‘us against the world’ way. Or at least that’s what I thought when I lived in Hackney. Making my way round London Fields, any time I crossed paths with another runner, we’d exchange the barest of nods – nothing so extravagant as a greeting (that would require breath to spare) but a flicker of eye-contact and an ‘I share your pain’ expression. Different places have different conventions – on the tow path round Richmond, I’m told, a raised hand is the greeting of choice. But now that I run on the South Bank, I’m finding I cannot crack the code, if there is one. You can’t nod to someone who isn’t looking at you, who is determinedly locked into their own world, eyes straight ahead, staring at nothing. I’ve tried. I once ran the whole length of my run seeing if I could get anything – any recognition at all – out of my fellow runners. The tramps and the drinkers and the out-all-night tourists will acknowledge me in their drunken incomprehensible way. Sometimes the strollers and the passers-by will give me a smile of encouragement or even a glance of bemused contempt. But only one runner has returned my brief nod of greeting and he was American and didn’t count.
So this morning, when I saw a chap running towards me with his headphones on singing, and not just singing in that drone-y sort of way that people do unconsciously but belting it out like a torch singer – ‘I can’t liiiiiiive … if living is without yoooooou’ and waving his hands in the air at the emotional bits – I thought that, at least, deserved some recognition. I gave him my friendliest grin.
He blanked me.