12/08/2011 08:13 BST | Updated 11/10/2011 06:12 BST

The New Xenophobia

NECK sticking out time, but I shall be 61 next week and don't give a damn if nobody reading this doesn't agree with one single word of it. And that's not an excuse, incidentally; nor is it a justification, explanation or deep-seated psychological exoneration of what follows.

As far as I'm concerned, you can condemn or condone the following content to your heart's content. Sod the lot of you. After all, isn't that the attitude shared by both those who loot from shops and those who accept outrageous sums as bonuses? And if 'looking after number one' is a reasonable summary of the zeitgeist, then why shouldn't I have a slice of it?

Hang on a minute, though. This is perhaps more complicated than I imagine.

Where do the following fit in: speeding in a residential area? not using a condom? claiming expenses for a taxi when you walked? lying about your age? parking on the pavement? talking on your mobile on the bus? taking biros home from work?

There surely can't be anybody left to cast the first stone.

Like everybody else, I am trying to make sense of what's going on. I'm not suggesting I have any answers, but my gut feeling is that T S Eliot hit on something when he wrote:

There are three conditions which often look alike

Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:

Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment

From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference

Yesterday, in the local supermarket, I observed a quite ordinary - but, to me, unsettling - example of contemporary human behaviour.

Liz's check-out was free. She looked thoroughly bored. Meanwhile, ten people continued waiting for a self-service machine to become available. But, why? Liz is a polite, middle-aged woman with a ready wit.

"Have you scared them all off?" I asked her.

"Dunno. Maybe I'm using the wrong deodorant."

Young people particularly, she told me, would rather queue to serve themselves. Many hours can pass before she is spoken to by a teenager.


She held up, meaningfully, a chocolate bar I was purchasing. Apparently they all do it, even middle-class kids. Cheaper for the store to have a few items nicked than employ more staff.

But, how many of us, I wonder, can spend whole days not talking to people we don't already know. And how many of you will admit to avoiding, consciously or not, direct contact with strangers?

The quicker, safer, easier life. Jump in the car and head for home. Cash and ticket machines, social networking and shopping online, ear-pieces and emails. Bubble-wrapped, we live more and more in Eliot's world of detachment and indifference.

And woe betide the kindly old gentleman on the park bench who offers to share his crusts with children who've come to feed the ducks. He'd better stay at home, for his own sake. After all, the government has kindly given him a free television licence. Don't you just love the irony of that device called 'remote control'...?

Fear of the stranger is no longer confined to the beggar on the pavement, the loud-mouthed yob outside the chip shop, or the person whose skin is a different colour. It's everywhere.

Changes in the way we behave towards others do not happen overnight. They evolve. It's far too easy to point the finger at the traditional sins: greed, envy, wrath and co. Subtler forces are at work here that won't be countered by more robust policing or stronger padlocks.

We need to start looking into each other's eyes more, to acknowledge that differences need not be difficulties, and to stop telling ourselves that the only person who matters is me.

It ain't gonna be easy, folks. But, in order to begin to mend this so-called broken society of ours, we would do well to examine how best to break the chains that are strangling it.

Marcus's daily bog here.