John Bird: Less rage please, we’re British

Will Brexit undo all of those decades of politeness that seemed to be seen almost everywhere?

My nose has been my making. I could write a book about it.

It’s been banged about a bit. And it’s because of my nose that The Big Issue came about. The man who gave me the money to start our street magazine – a certain Gordon Roddick – noticed my nose before he noticed me. He, likewise, was nasally challenged. I’m not sure if Gordon’s wife-to-be, Anita, had any hesitation over Gordon’s nose, but he had what used to be called a ‘hooter’. And it was a discussion over noses that brought Gordon and me into friendship.

How I got my enlarging of the nose was due to being banged about by a brother when I was 12, being hit with a cricket bat in a juvenile delinquents’ secure remand home aged 14, and being punched in the middle of the night by Clive, who I shared a dormitory with in reformatory school, because I wouldn’t give him my counterpane as he had the shivers.

A counterpane was a bedspread and Clive, one of my greatest friends, expressed his disillusionment by whacking me in the dark; after which a fight commenced. The duty screw came in and, on turning on the light switch, was astonished to find that both the room, and Clive and I, were bathed in my blood. And my nose was spread across my face. Though the wonderful people at Surrey General Hospital put the bits back together again, my nose started to look craggy, bigger and more like John Lennon’s (before his nose job).

Often taken for Jewish, Albanian (I’m not quite sure why), or at one time Gibraltarian, my nose means I can fit in well on continental holidays and can, when need be, adopt a confused foreign accent to get out of the shit.

But one striking thing in all of the years of my ascendancy is how quick people were to take up arms, legs, heads, feet and blunt instruments against you to get their point over. To prove their point. And how different this seemed to be when, through the good offices of art and education, I climbed into the middle classes.

Up there, if you encountered a nose like mine, it was because someone had done battle in rugger, which was how Gordon got his enlargement. I much preferred this new world; a place where – if you got a smack – it was because you were muddy on a muddy field with other muddy people, and you were extracting a funny-shaped ball from their grip.

That seemed better than adding another bump on to my nose because I’d looked at what my social equals called “their bird”, a term long since denied social currency, or because you’d pushed into the queue at a bar and someone “took exception” to it.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

As I socially ascended, aside from the greater disposable incomes of my girlfriends, there seemed a greater emphasis on politeness. And on what they called ‘fair play’. I seemed to come from the ‘great impolite’ section of society and my nose’s odyssey seemed an indication of that. I am sure there are millions of people who were not surrounded by wife-beating, child-beating and each-other-beating poverty, but I was not one of those saved from violence.

Aggression recedes, and tends to keep receding, the further away you get from desperate need, it would seem. But all of this appears to be falling apart, as I notice most clearly over the Brexit debates. Middle-class reasonableness and social kindness seemed to evaporate on the days following the EU referendum in June 2016. It wasn’t so much punch-ups. It was in-your-face aggression.

Generalisations are often to be ignored, but I noticed that around the fallout from the poll, there’s been a steadily worsening problem of people keeping their tempers.

Middle-class reasonableness and social kindness seemed to evaporate on the days following the EU referendum in June 2016

Will Brexit undo all of those decades of politeness that seemed to be seen almost everywhere? Will we resort to in-your-face (and increasingly, live-streamed) rage?

I see it, and have seen it, and I expect to see more of it. Brexit is the big game changer, the like of which I haven’t seen in my seven decades. I do hope we can treat it all, and each other, a bit more civilly. I know there’s a cliff-edge necessity for the media to have us all feeling that life as we know it is about to end, along with all of our prosperity. I know that this is very serious stuff. But I’m also hopeful that we can do it a bit less angrily.

I suppose if I hadn’t ascended into civility, I might not treasure it so much. But I do. I love the calmness of disagreeing without aggression, of calmly agreeing to disagree. Perhaps it will come back. I love the idea that I’m a member of a society where I probably don’t agree with most people about most things, and that there seems to be, at the moment, room enough for all of the discordancy.

Where are you now, Voltaire? With your enlightenment stance that you’d defend to the last drop of your blood the right for other people to hold ideas you found abhorrent!

But “fear eats the soul” and that, alas, is the greatest driver.