I regularly walk past a bench at the junction of College Crescent and the Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, London. Invariably, either sitting on the bench or standing not far away, there are up to five or six characters with cans of either cider or strong lager in their hands from which they have been drinking. I am hesitant to use the word “alcoholic” to describe this motley crew as no doubt the term has medical connotations that I am not qualified to diagnose. Irrespective of this, I suspect that most, if not all, of these individuals consume a far greater quantity of alcohol than they should if their own health was their top priority.
For reasons no doubt related to their alcohol consumption, as the day wears on their voices can become louder and the discussions or bickering between the group members more pronounced. Despite this, I have never personally been offended by their behaviour; they are always happy to say hello as I walk past and never once has any of them ever asked me for money or made me feel scared or intimidated. That is not to say that I would be happy to give any of them character references or vouch for their integrity. I know little about them as any conversations have been restricted to pleasantries.
I recently discovered that some carry around a printed piece of paper, cut into the size of credit card and covered in clear sticky tape for protection and firmness.
On one side is typed “The Bench” and underneath the member’s first or nick name; their position, such as Vice President; and the words “Private Membership Only.” On the other side, the following is printed:
The Bench Rules
Thou shalt not act in an inebriated manner
Thou shalt not use unessecarry [sic] foul language
Thou shalt not litter or urinate in the street especially near the bench
Thou shalt not be racist to any minority, other race or religion
Thou shalt not be abusive to passing strangers or tourists
Thou shalt not shoplift
Decisions made by the bench shoult [sic] be democratically decided by votes (The President may have final say)
Strangers, especially inebriated, are not allowed to sit on the bench unless invited by a member of the bench
Members should always be kindful [sic] to give drinks to other members of the bench especially on birthdays
I think that these are, in the main, reasonable rules. It certainly can be argued that the wording of these rules suggests that the members believe that they own the bench and that they are entitled to control who may or may not sit there. This, they are obviously not entitled to do as the bench has been provided for the public. But is this a heinous crime? I would argue that it is not.
In the last few days I have been thinking about The Bench Rules and I have come to the conclusion that my best observation is the intuitive one: people like to belong to something. Whether it is the gentlemen’s clubs in the vicinity of Pall Mall, a local tennis club, or The Bench, the feeling of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals is a comforting one, a feeling that you are not alone. Perhaps, the members of The Bench need this feeling more than the rest of us.