Every morning on the way to work I pass a group of Polish builders waiting to start work on the new Design Museum. I know, it tells us a great deal about the availability of British youth for work in construction that every last one of them is Polish, so far as I can make out – and come to that, are the Irish nowadays too swanky to be navvies? – but what’s interesting is how well behaved they are. They smoke heroically, but when women walk by they register their existence but don’t utter a peep. Possibly it’s because their English isn’t good enough for Wotcher, darling, but they don’t wolf whistle either, which I assume is a lingua franca. It’s not just me, I may say; it’s the same with teenage girls.
In one way, this is a good thing. I remember when I was about 17, I would start to go red about a hundred paces from a building site and by the time I was actually in earshot, they could warm their hands from my face. Naturally the banter was good humoured; equally naturally I never quite felt up to responding. So I understand that not everyone gets a kick out of wolf whistles. But I took the view, and still take it, that this is one of the realities of being in a public space rather than some insulated private domain – a private car, say. You put up with a bit of give and take from your fellow citizens, and if you don’t like it, you toughen up.
What never crossed my mind was that a time would come when an attractive woman would need the police to sort out builders whose ‘disrespectful comments’ gave her grief. But Poppy Smart, a ‘digital marketing co-ordinator’ did what so many contemporary Brits do, and filmed the miscreants, then gave the footage to the police. On one occasion one of the builders stepped into her path, said ‘good morning, love’, then went away sniggering. Imagine!
As I write, there will be umpteen columnists on the usual papers saluting Miss Smart for not changing her route to work but confronting the problem; fair enough. And we can spare ourselves the usual remarks from the other end of the spectrum about how, when you pass forty, you’re grateful for the attention. For me, Miss Smart’s victory marks one more point in which communal life becomes less vigorous, less acerbic, more colourless. The Polish builders on my route are, no doubt, a model for their kind but getting the police to nip banter in the bud is a dispiriting move towards a society in which we’re scared of opening our traps lest we cause offence to someone. Come to think of it, we’re pretty well there already.