Viewpoint: Mosh pits and lessons for life

Person surfing the crowd in a mosh pit Many regard crowd-surfing as anti-social and potentially dangerous

At a sweaty gig, a little mutual tolerance goes a long way. Joe Dunthorne explains why we ought to apply a little more mosh pit psychology to our day-to-day lives.

The first gig I went to was at the Brixton Academy. I was 13 and my escort for the night was my older sister's boyfriend Glyn.

He was more of an idol to me than the members of Green Day, the band on stage, and taught me how to crowd-surf.

Linking his hands together to make a step, he helped launch me on to the crowd. Since I was skinny and wore baggy clothes - maximum surface area, minimum weight - I was tossed easily around.

My parents had shown great faith in Glyn by giving him sole responsibility for my safety. As I flapped around, he fought through the crowd to guard me.

It's easy to see why I loved him. He must have known that if he returned from this concert with just a bloodied hoodie where a younger brother had been, his chances of ever seeing my sister again might take a dive.

The author

Joe Dunthorne

Hear more from Joe Dunthorne on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday, 22 August at 20:45 BST or download the Four Thought podcast

I was lobbed towards the stage and finally fell headfirst into the densest part of the crowd. What a shame to die under the feet of strangers whose heads I have recently kicked before Green Day have even played their new single.

And yet, moments later, I found the same strangers held back the crowd to give me space, others were pulling me upright, dusting me down, and one man was encouraging me to join him in some righteous air-drumming. For the next hour, I was part of a community.

It was not all friendly, or all painless, but it was underpinned by a spirit of mutual tolerance. When I stepped from the venue and had another human being's blood on my T-shirt, I understood that person's sacrifice had been for something worthwhile.

It is my belief that we ought to apply a little more mosh pit psychology to our day-to-day lives.

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Welcome to the quiet carriage - words that transform me into a hypersensitive pedant with no basic social skills”

End Quote

In my experience of punk crowds, it is considered absolutely standard procedure to push someone away when they are annoying. If you are ska-dancing in steel-toecap boots with your elbows like scythes, then it's a given you'll get shoved. If you go on someone's shoulders, expect abuse from those whose view you're blocking.

If you faint, however, then those around you will lift you above their heads and pass your limp body forward to the security guys. These are self-policing zones - and the social lubricant is a kind of anti-sensitivity.

Nobody gets too upset by things that are annoying, and nobody gets too angry when they're told to shut the hell up.

By contrast, look what happens when I allow my sense of entitlement to become inflated.

"Welcome to the quiet carriage" - words that transform me into a restless, noise-hypersensitive pedant with no basic social skills. I glance at someone typing too loudly then I glance, really hard, at the tiny sign that says they should be considerate.

I seethe but I never communicate.

This happens in shared houses too. I quietly hate the housemate who leaves their Marmite knife stuck to the kitchen counter. Or worse, I leave a passive aggressive but non-specific note: "Please leave this space as you would like to find it."

But in the psychology of the rock crowd, when someone stamps on my toes, I say: "Woah, mate, you are standing on my feet."

Mosh pit Adept communicators - but beware bottles of urine

It's simple. I don't know why I find this kind of communication so difficult in day-to-day life.

My neighbours wake me playing party hip-hop at 3am. Either I say something or I stay up all night staring furiously at the wall, preparing the putdowns I will never use, carrying that resentment for years to come.

The flipside is that if I am loudly playing my Rocket from the Crypt records I can't help but imagine my neighbours - like me - silently fuming, and that spoils my fun. If only we had an understanding that we were both willing to complain, when necessary.

It would be better for everyone. I could listen to my music loudly, without guilt, because I'd know that if I was upsetting someone they'd let me know.

Start Quote

Pauline Pearce

Why are you burning people's shops that they have worked hard to build up? And for what, just to say you are warring and a badman?”

End Quote Pauline Pearce to rioters in Hackney

To be a positive part of a quiet carriage or a shared house or a mosh pit or any other community, we need to make our feelings known in a way that is not invested with years of frustration. We should be publicly discontented more, in small ways, every day.

Some people just don't realise how annoying they are - you can't hate them for that. One person's quiet is another's noisy. One person's air-drumming is another's fistfight.

By the same token, we need to practise being told off. The older we get, the less capable we are of taking criticism. Think of all the great writers who have gradually lost it as they've become more touchy about having their work critiqued, and think of all the great editors who have become more and more scared of suggesting corrections.

Social friction takes practice. One of the iconic images of the London riots was of a woman berating the rioters - in a likeable, motherly way - as they looted all around her.

I can vividly remember the first time I asked a boy to put his ice-cream wrapper in the bin. He was not a physical threat, being probably seven years old. But little did he know he represented a lifetime of grievances.

As my body flooded with adrenalin, he cheerfully put the wrapper in the bin. It felt good. But that euphoria is not a helpful emotion. I should not feel victorious. And if he had turned to me and said "get a grip, grandad", then I should have been able to take that on board too.

To return to the mosh pit, a little shove in the back to let the guy in front know that you've got a mouthful of hair from his headbanging - it's nothing. But it takes practice to take the emotion out of it, for it not to be about winning or losing.

Previously in the Magazine

Sharing a fridge, a kitchen sink, a television remote and a bathroom with others who have a different perspective on life is destined to be a tense experience.

The book I Lick My Cheese is based on notes left by flatmates. They include barbed missives such as "I pay the rent, what do you do?"

Writing a note can be cathartic, says author Oonagh O'Hagan, but usually only makes things worse. "It can be aggressive because you've crossed out the intimacy of talking to people."

Read full article from 2007

I hope, in the fullness of time, to be able to ask a teenager to stop playing music on their phone without having heart palpitations. I hope to receive complaints about my cycling style with humility and good humour.

Finally, on a more practical note, if you have complained and found a problem still unresolved, there is a practical solution which may help. A way to stem rage before it becomes debilitating.

The following cheap, plastic item is a solution to many problems.

Earplugs.

The quiet carriage, neighbours playing dubstep, housemates having sex, morons yapping about nothing on their mobiles, all are solved by cheap bits of rubbery goo. Proof, if any were needed, that we should look to rock concerts for our social values - they hand out free earplugs at the bar.

This piece is based on an edited version of Joe Dunthorne's Four Thought

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