Train journeys – more often than we would care to mention – are potential tinderboxes. Packed in like sardines. Disreputable toilets. Unfathomable delays. At any point someone could fly off the handle, and you never know quite who will hop on next. I was once standing opposite a young chap who as the train was moving, albeit slowly, forced open the doors and jumped out. As he made good with his feet across open countryside, it was clear all was not well in his world. Quite sad, really.
So trains throw together an eclectic crew. Businessmen, students, ne'er do wells, the lot. So long as there's no-one glugging high-strength lager, badgering you into conversation, you can probably sit in silence with nobody bothering you, contentedly prodding a mobile phone or reading a paper. Unless, of course, someone is listening to loud music through cheap headphones. Tsst-ta-ta-tssst, tsst-ta-ta-tssst, tsst-ta-ta-tssst. Ad nauseam.
If there's one thing likely to unite commuters in outrage it's the scourge of cheap headphones, a low-frequency menace that quickly develops into Chinese water torture. Let me paint a picture. On a train to the countryside on Saturday morning, a couple are sat in the row next to me, cheerfully minding their own business. The man is reading a magazine. The woman listening to music on headphones. So far, so mundane. The problem only reveals itself as the journey continues. I like pop music. I don't like pop music that sounds like the singer is drowning, or so tinny that it's little more than a discordant squall. That's what I was getting from my train neighbour. Noise in its purest form. Unwanted sound. Annoyingly, I could pick out what the songs were supposed to sound like. So I knew the vocals should be bell-clear, and the bassline rhythmic. Yet, figuratively, I was stood in a field three miles away straining to hear the sounds. Except, on a train to the middle of nowhere, there was no escape.
Cheap headphones are a modern disease. On the way to work before writing this, I was witness to three episodes, each time the culprit was blithely unaware of the suffering they were causing others. They say ignorance is bliss, but not for those who have to put up with the ignorance. Of the litany of complaints about what other people do, oblivious to the reaction from those all around, cheap headphone overspill is near the top. But its near cousins are just as bad.
An increasingly annoying habit is for people to blast out music from their mobile phones while in public, without even having the grace to muffle the sound with headphones. The same principle – imposing tastes and choices on others without anything approaching consent – applies to music screaming from cars as they tear through town centres, and glorious summer days tarnished by the neighbourhood sound machine located in someone else's garden. Why do they not realise how unreasonable their behaviour is?
There is barely a scrap of the public square that is free from irritations that clearly do not register. If there is a more depressing sight than a young man with his hand shoved down his trousers in full view of women and children then I am yet to witness it. Rail passengers who place their bag on a seat must be aware that it prevents someone else from sitting down. Those who do not even offer a grunt when you hold a door for them must be related to 18th century French aristocrats. That can be the only explanation for their rudeness. And littering. Why anyone believes dropping litter is acceptable is beyond my ken. Of course, I'm as guilty of these crimes of social etiquette as anyone else, and I hope by highlighting the worst of other people's misdemeanours it might provide cover for my own.
I may have inflicted my dubious music tastes on others via cheap headphones. I would like to make a public apology. Worse still is a habit of incessantly sniffing, which I have been chastised for by family for years. I have no idea I'm doing it, although I'm waiting for the guy with the loud music on the train to punch me one day for ruining his listening pleasure. So nobody's perfect, but we could be better citizens.
One set of headphones at a time.