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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The gaze of strangers

I have a dilemma. I want to write a post about how creepy it is to take a photo of a stranger and put it on social media with a deniably mocking comment. The easiest way to illustrate this would be to post the tweet that caused me to write the post. But if I do that, I am guilty of the same behaviour. Then again, to have any hope of turning public opinion against this trend, people like me who object to it have to demonstrate that it actually happens.

I will compromise by linking to this tweet but not in a way that makes a picture of it show up on the page. The tweet’s already viral; any extra clicks I send its way will make little difference. The tweet says,


this guy reading the wetherspoons menu for 15mins on the train yesterday

The accompanying photo taken from a few feet away shows a unremarkable-looking old man. Like it says, he is sitting on a train, minding his own business and reading a Wetherspoons menu.

The picture itself doesn’t make him look stupid or anything. The thing that makes me begin to dislike Joe Shabadu, whoever they are, is that caption about the old guy reading the menu for fifteen minutes.

It being a Wetherspoons menu is relevant. For the benefit of readers overseas, Wetherspoons is a chain of pubs operating in the UK and Ireland. As Wikipedia says, “Wetherspoon targets a mass-market offering of low-price food and drink.” Though I have always found them to be pretty good for the price, your local “Spoons” is not where the cognoscenti go. Some people boycott Wetherspoons because the chain’s founder, Tim Martin, was loud in his support for Brexit.

So we have it pointed out to the world that this old chap was reading a pub menu for fifteen minutes, and the pub concerned was one associated with the proletariat. I think the tweet was meant to make us laugh at the old man for being a bad reader, or for going to Wetherspoons, or both. The person who wrote the tweet tries to claim otherwise, but I was not convinced.

The general tone of the replies was heartening. A typical one was, “Let the man be. Why take a photo and post it? Doing no harm.” Another said, “Maybe he struggles to read and doesn’t want to be embarrassed when he gets there? Shame on you.” Other replies were more light-hearted. Someone speculated that he could be one of those “mystery shoppers” paid to sample the pub’s fare anonymously before reporting back to the management. I related to this one: “You’re acting like you don’t read shampoo instructions when you run out of battery on the toilet.” When I used to commute on the Victoria Line I always had a book or a newspaper with me. Mostly this was because I find it hard to go an hour without reading. Partly it was so that I could escape in spirit when a stranger’s gaze rested on me for too long.

18 comments to The gaze of strangers

  • Mark

    Or maybe he was an employee of the company that printed it and he was on his way to a meeting to discuss? (yes, smart arses, I know he could have done it on teams, but maybe both sides preferred to actually meet – he looks old enough to have been raised with a proper work ethic and idea of customer service).

    I’m guessing that the twatterati in question is towards the Oscar Wilde end of the spectrum – by twatter standards!

  • William H. Stoddard

    When I travelled by bus I always had one or two things with me to read. Or a calculator and a pad of graph paper, if I was working on something numerical.

  • MC

    Most likely, if it’s an older chap, is that he’s on a tight budget and looking for the best value option which he can order without embarrassment. To take a photo and mock is twattishness of the worst sort.

  • bobby b

    “You’re acting like you don’t read shampoo instructions when you run out of battery on the toilet.”

    This. I have pulled my pants back up and gone looking when I realized I had no reading material by the throne. Few things are as bad as getting on a flight and realizing your book is in checked baggage.

    That tweet outed the tweeter as a non-inveterate-reader for certain. Imagine boasting about your lack of reading – which is what this attempted drive-by ridiculing accomplished.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I enjoyed eating at Wetherspoons in the late 1990s. (Even though i could not spell it in this comment without looking it up.)

    I always take with me some light reading material when i expect to have to sit and wait, on a train, a bus, a plane, or even when going to the dentist.
    I have a fond memory of reading a book of John Cleese skits on a plane. People sitting close to me seemed to be amused in sympathy with my own amusement — but maybe they were laughing at me, not with me.

  • Steven R

    I had someone ask me once “what are you reading for?” Not “what are you reading?” “What are you reading for?”

    I have never forgotten that.

  • decnine

    Maybe the menu was hiding a volume of Jeremy Corbin’s political thought.

  • llamas

    I once went to the courthouse (no phones, no tablets, no Kindles ☹☹☹) with a 50-year-old paperback book in my jacket pocket. The recently-hired ex-Explorer Scout who turned out my pockets looked at it like it was an Egyptian papyrus, infested with snakes. I think he changed his gloves after handling it. We may be the last generation that uses actual books. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.



  • Van_Patten

    Steven R

    The late Bill Hicks had a comedy sketch to that effect:

    A waitress came up to me in the diner and asked me ‘What are you reading for?’ – not ‘What are you reading?’ but ‘What are you reading for?’

    I answered: ‘Because I don’t want to be a F$%^&&g waitress’

    Most of his skits were memorable but that one I can still recall…

  • Van_Patten


    There’s actually been a resurgence believe it or not in the wake of the Nazi like ‘sensitivity readers’ messing with the likes of Roald Dahl – people want something tangible that can’t be amended (unlike the digital version)

  • Stonyground

    My daughter (26) loves real books despite being a child of the electronic age, so all is not lost. We always had lots of books in the house, the spare bedroom is used as a library.

  • I’ve been careful about buying books on paper ever since our last move. E-readers can have a lot more reading in them than bookcases! Nobody looks twice at somebody reading a smartphone in public, and most of the waiting rooms I’ve been in lately have little but People magazine. But books with tables, diagrams and illustrations are best on paper. We have a lot of those. I make and bind books on paper, myself, though they go through an electronic stage in the process.

    Yes, I still read cereal boxes at breakfast.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    I suppose I could carry out an experiment of reading books with controversial authors on the cover and read them on trains, the Tube, etc. I once sat opposite a chap reading Orwell’s 1984, and he was clearly engrossed.

    The person who put up this tweet sounds like a jerk. Nothing more to say, really.

  • Kirk

    Most of what you’re seeing is performative ego-boosting: “Oh, see what a good person am I; I mock the despised…”

    You get right down to it, this is all of a piece with the rest of the usual “Monkey see; Monkey do” human behavioral patterns. The weak-minded among us use these signals to mark the “out”, and preen their own status. It’s like the chickens in a chicken coop; you can always tell the one chicken that the rest pick on by their condition, and if you remove that chicken from the flock, isolate it, the flock will almost instantly pick another one.

    I don’t like chickens, and I don’t like people. Predominantly because of this; there’s zero need for it, yet we give into our animalistic natures and do it, all the damn time.

    Only difference between the chicken coop and modern society? You can broadcast your BS worldwide via the internet. Not it’s highest use, I’d say.

  • Paul Marks.

    I have reached the stage where I struggle to read in artificial light – so perhaps someone will take a photograph of me struggling with a menu.

    “Can he not read?”

    “He is so fat, he must have eaten already”.

    “Having a problem baldy?”

    If people are cruel and petty launch personal attacks on other people – it says a lot more about them than it does about their targets.

    As for photographs – no I do not like them, even taken by friends. I know I am fat and bald I do not need photographic evidence to prove it.

  • john in cheshire

    We are having to take it as factual that Mr/Mrs Shabadu actually timed the man. Or is the contention hyperbole?
    On a good note, it would appear that there are still some kind people left in our country, who can see through the mockery and cynicism of those like Mr/Mrs Shabadu.

  • Van_Patten

    On the subject of Tim Martin – I can recall when I worked in the drinks trade, on one occasion when accompanying the crew delivering to a Wetherspoons in Fareham (The Lord Arthur Lee) he was actually in the pub early on when the breakfast was being served and he actually insisted all three of us get a free breakfast and coffee as a thank you for the delivery. While you sometimes got that from individual landlords it was by no means an everyday occurrence. Always stuck in my mind…

  • DP


    this guy watching another guy for 15mins reading the wetherspoons menu on the train yesterday