OPINION - Not wearing headphones on the Tube is a sign of the apocalypse


Never in my wildest, worst dreams did I ever believe a man eating an entire tub of roasted garlic hummus with a baguette could be trumped as the nadir of my experiences on public transport. That man, unafraid to unleash his chickpea Chernobyl on a packed rush-hour Victoria line carriage, at least had the benefit of being a rogue agent. It’s true other thoughtless travelling souls with peppery pasties and booze-induced Big Macs are common and quite annoying, but 2023 has been the year of something much worse on London’s transport network: the public phone broadcast.

Every day commuters on our trains and buses are subjected to the aural equivalent of roasted garlic hummus: passengers listening to music, watching TV and amplifying their private conversations to all and sundry. This is not a few lone wolves. This is a cultural phenomenon and it’s phenomenally rude.

My life has been enriched by the London Underground and it’s just part of the deal that you learn to tolerate others. It has, in that sense, been a force for good. You might have someone’s armpit in your face from time to time. On early mornings at the stations at the end of lines you’ll be sitting next to a tradesman honking weed, now that getting high before work has officially become a thing. Once I sat next to a man with a six-inch gash in a leg cut out by his angle grinder who lost so much blood on the carriage floor he fainted. But the new noise polluters cannot and must not be tolerated.

Listening to music — any music — on your phone without headphones is a plain act of aggression

There are many portents of our inexorable decline into barbarity: the collapse of trust in our institutions; increasing intolerance and extremism; the fact that a grab-bag of crisps is the size of a normal bag of crisps 10 years ago. The assumption that you are entitled to inflict the racket from your phone on your fellow commuters is the surest sign yet that we will soon be living in a post-apocalyptic cursed earth. Listening to music on your phone — any music, even the Carpenters — without headphones is an act of aggression. It could be Gabba House, Hard House, Death Metal or one of the thousands of painters and sparkies from eastern Europe enjoying the Tirana all-request drivetime show. Whatever the offence, it drowns out what you are politely listening to on the privacy of your own earbuds.

Sometimes it’s schoolboys salivating over something deeply unpleasant. Other times it will be a man with a ponytail watching his favourite box set, invariably involving a dragon. A few days ago I sat next to Romanian studying a cement-mixing masterclass on full volume. This morning I had to listen to a couple snuggled together over a video of a washing machine installation. Thanks for that.

TikTok or Instagram allow these noise criminals to offload a quickfire blast of unconnected babble, so a cacophony of lorries crashing on icy roads turns into a child’s birthday party turns into the Turkish version of Loose Women. It is the soundtrack of a society going insane.

But perhaps worst of all is the phone call “on speaker”. The public/private conversation is not only inconsiderate, it’s embarrassing. Most often these shameless performances are a mix of business banter — you catch references to “delivery times” and “presentations” — diffused with football platitudes over “the game last night”. I don’t want to hear about the urgent need to set up a meeting with Steve, let alone what you think about Arsenal’s goalkeeping options. I don’t want to hear the voice on the other end of your phone as if they were broadcasting their banalities directly into my brain.

Unfortunately I have the ears of a bat. I hate the noise of others. I can hear the steps of spider’s legs on a wall. I can hear the beat from the Drumshed nightclub 10 miles away. Once it becomes acceptable to make your private life public to a train packed with strangers, anarchy is only a few short years away. What this represents is the triumph of solipsism over community. It is the most vivid yet mundane sign that the number of people who think other people don’t matter is growing. That should worry us all, if only we had the time to worry about it.

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” said Steve Jobs, the man who did more than anyone else to unleash this terrible plague of incivility. Well, Steve, my inner voice is saying to you and the people on my train, “put your f***ing headphones on”. Most of London will thank you for it.

George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor