BY PHILIP JOHNSTON
We live in an age of bans. We cannot smoke in a public place or drink alcohol on the London Underground. Some councils forbid boozing in public parks. Personally, I would ban eating cheeseburger and chips on the train, though that might be a little difficult to enforce since food is sold in the buffet car.
But another ban is looming and one that many will welcome yet which will be hard, if not impossible, to police. A by-law prohibiting spitting in public is to be introduced in the north London borough of Enfield after permission was granted by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary. Some 4,000 residents in the borough signed a petition calling for the ban. It is the first specific anti-spitting by-law in the country, though Waltham Forest has categorised spitting as a littering offence and hands out fixed penalty notices on the same basis.
Now there is talk of extending the ban across London and the rest of the country. The government said it was "working with a number of councils on their proposed by-laws against spitting". It would be an offence to spit in the street "without reasonable excuse", but not into a handkerchief or tissue. People caught spitting would be issued with a fixed penalty notice and anyone refusing to pay could face prosecution and a fine of up to £5,000.
In fact spitting used to be used to be a criminal offence that carried a fine of £5, but it was removed from the statute book in 1990. My parents told me of No Spitting signs on buses designed to reduce the spread of TB in the 1950s. Now that TB is at its highest levels since the 1960s as a result of immigration and tourism from areas where the disease remains rife there may be public health reason for reintroducing the ban. In Enfield there are 41 reported cases for every 100,000 people in 2009 – a 21 per cent increase on 2004.
But many object to spitting not so much on grounds of hygiene as of manners. There are definitely cultural issues here. In many parts of the world, especially China, spitting is not considered as anti-social as it is here. Indeed, in this country it was once perfectly acceptable behaviour – but then again, so was tipping the contents of the chamber pot into the street below.
Nor was spitting restricted to men, as this entry from Pepys’s diary for Jan 28, 1661 illustrates. “I went to Mr Crew’s and thence to the theatre, where I saw again “The Lost Lady,” which do now please me better than before; and here I sitting behind in a dark place, a lady spit backward upon me by a mistake, not seeing me, but after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all.”
The obvious problem with a by-law is that there are circumstances when spitting in the street may be understandable. How many joggers manage to complete a run on a hot day without spitting, encouraged to do so by athletes and sportsmen on their TV screens? Even golfers like Tiger Woods are seen spitting, though does not excuse similarly obnoxious behaviour in the streets. Will there be an exemption for joggers? And if so, why should you be allowed to spit if you are running, but not if you are walking?