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OPINION 'It was as if I'd started a brawl'

Writer JAN WOOLF reflects on her experiences of confronting those who refuse to wear a mask in public

I’M OUT and about like a vole from its hole: big trains, little trains, Tubes and now buses, if not too crowded.

I note that most people wear masks. Some don’t and are usually younger — youths but not kids. As an ex-special needs teacher, with a fair amount of experience of being with youth in public — think Joyce Grenfell on speed — I’m psychologically equipped to ask: “Where is your mask?”  or do that zipped gesture across my own mouth area, with a hunch of my shoulders, while eyeballing.   

Some fumble for the mask in their pocket or raise the one hanging round their neck. A few don’t have one at all and either raise their T-shirt around their mouth or are sullenly silent, a classic reaction to shame as the antagonists in these wee public dramas.   

Social pressure is important and can restore some sense of society at a time when, paradoxically, other human beings can be a source of danger. Comforting, too, that we all feel connected for the common good.   

When I challenge the fully naked face, I sense gratitude from others in the moving cage, as if no- one else dare do it. Why? Inhibition?  Risking their own shame? Physical attack? Yet, when I do it, there are winks, wide-eyed nods, gentle squints or a thumbs-up from Josephine public.  

But all eyes are on me, not the transgressor. I’m normally shy and don’t like attention but, in my mask, feel brave and accountable. I am anonymous and unrecognisable, Someone Else, and, truth to tell, quite enjoying it.  The heroine of the Jubilee line between West Hampstead and Kilburn, the swashbuckler of the 16 bus at Brondesbury, the masked crusader of the Overground at Kensal Rise.   

I cut quite a dash in my punkish grey hair and green-framed specs atop my mask with a print of Kandinsky’s painting Cossacks — the Tate Modern shop didn’t have The Scream by Edvard Munch, or the Munch by Edward Scream, as Barry Humphries put it.

I admire myself for these actions. It is as if, masked, I’m someone else. But I don’t like myself. Yesterday’s incident gave pause. Two young men, one without a mask, the other with one slung around his neck, sitting together on the Tube.  I say down the length of the carriage, like some fucking vigilante: “Could you wear masks, please?”  

The maskless one tries to stare me down, his mouth grim. The rest of the carriage is clearly on my side, so he pulls his T-shirt around his mouth. His friend leaves his around his neck. I challenge him but it stays around his neck and his friend’s T-shirt slips back down.  

Back down. The state of backing down is such a common trope in trash culture that we don’t like to, in case of perceived wussery.  The men are hanging onto dignity through a glittering defiance. The others in the carriage shrug, some with a look in their eyes — at least you tried, dear. I’m cross and decide (decide, right? This is not spontaneous) to bang on their window when I get off at Kilburn. I do. They jump. And then I feel ashamed. Why?

The window thump was a gratuitous, aggressive, counterproductive action and less likely to change their behaviour. I think about this and, by the time I’ve reached the bottom of the escalator, realise that my aggression had come from a locked-down place, stored away like a squirrel stores nuts for the winter.  

It wasn’t for the public good but for me to vent further anger. I realised that, if not masked, I wouldn’t have done it and how aggression can be delivered from an emboldening uniform. That self-concealing garments can turn you into someone else, releasing the nasties — or the gods — like a genie rubbed up the wrong way.

Masks also liberate. Masks at the Venice carnival have turned on many an uptight tourist. Masks in Greek and Japanese culture ramp up mystery and intrigue.

Would I do that again? Less likely now that I’ve hauled it into consciousness. “Big deal,” I hear some of you think, “she only banged on a bleeding window and quite right too.” But amplify that useless action many times and you have war.  

We need to haul stuff out of our unconscious, like fishes on slabs in these difficult times. Those men were shamed enough and an overload might turn them into different people. It was as if I’d started a brawl but with a sheet of reinforced glass between us and a train about to move off. No contest.  

But I’ll still be the public transport protector of the tribe down Kilburn way, oh yes, and although mouth smiles are invisible, eyes are not and they have a language of their own. Will we feel face-nude and vulnerable when the masks are off? I expect so. Will I still be brave? I hope so.  

The eyes have it. Aye.

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