Long life

The fraught business of seat surrender

Those who offer their seats to the old are often rather old themselves

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

I remember the first time that someone stood up and offered me a seat on the London Underground. It was in 2002, when I was 62 years old, and rather a pretty girl whom I had been quietly admiring through the crush on the Piccadilly Line suddenly rose to her feet and beckoned me to take her place. I was so shocked that I responded most ungraciously. I just shook my head in irritation and signalled to her to sit down again. For, notwithstanding the fact that my hair had long ago turned white, it was the first time I had realised that I actually looked old.

From then on, offers of seats on crowded Tube trains started to come my way occasionally, and they came with gradually increasing frequency, until now, 13 years later, I have almost come to expect them. At 75, I definitely can’t be looking young, and I certainly don’t feel it. So I tend now to accept these offers with effusive thanks and a warm smile. It is, after all, an unpleasant experience to travel standing up in the Tube in the rush hour, and I am grateful to be spared it. So my irritability is now directed not at those who offer me their seats but at those who I think ought to, but don’t.


First among the latter are young white men in rude health, who rush to fill all available seats, in which, once secured, they concentrate on their iPads and studiously avoid eye contact with any frail individual clinging to the ceiling near them. Second in this category come the boisterous young children whose mothers regard them as entitled to seats of their own to sprawl and wriggle on when they could easily have had them doing this on their laps. No, it is to women and to immigrants and to members of ethnic minorities that the old must look for deliverance.

When I was living in New York more than 20 years ago, working on the NewYorker magazine, I remember my late colleague Philip Hamburger, then around 80 years old but still going to the office every day, saying that the only people who ever stood up for him on the subway were black, and the situation is not all that different in London. A while ago, during one of those terrorism alerts, I was standing in front of a seated young Arab woman in a hijab whom I began to suspect of being a potential suicide bomber. But just as my paranoia reached its peak she stood up and generously offered me her seat. This time I refused to accept it out of guilt.

One rather embarrassing thing about this business of seat surrender is that those who engage in it are quite often rather old themselves. Maybe they are anticipating the time, not far ahead, when they hope that people will stand up for them, and they want to ensure that the practice survives in this mannerless age. Maybe they want to shame by example those callous white youths into greater consideration for their elders. Or maybe they just want to make the point that they are still in much better shape than one is and therefore a lot fitter to stand. Whatever their motive, it seems equally rude either to accept or reject their offer of a seat, especially as they are almost always women.

The other day a nice-looking woman, probably in her early fifties, offered me her seat, which might have seemed a perfectly reasonable thing for her to do, except that she was encumbered by three bulging bags and a violin case. She had great trouble inserting herself with all this gear into a tightly packed group of standing passengers, who looked much irked by her manoeuvring. I tapped her on the shoulder and said that she was very kind, but that I really thought that she needed the seat much more than I did. She wouldn’t hear of it. She was adamant that my need was greater than hers. Actually, even at my age I am perfectly capable of standing up on the Underground, and perhaps it would be fun to make a habit of offering one’s seat to the nearest young thug. He would probably accept without a word of thanks. The problem, however, is finding a seat in the first place.

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  • davidshort10

    Another rite of passage when you get older is to decide whether you are older or younger than the old person standing. I came to this epiphany in my small home town a few years ago. I was about to give up my seat to an old fellow on the bus when I thought ‘he’s probably the same age or not much older than I’ (comforting myself with the thought I had weathered better) so I sat where I was. I am currently in Africa and here it is hard to fool oneself. Age is respected here so when I got into a taxi in Abidjan last night, I didn’t bridle so much when the driver asked me where I was going ‘Papa’. Same in South Africa. They will call you ‘Oom’ (Uncle). Better I suppose than being called an ‘old bastard’ or worse by the type of white yobbo that Alexander Chancellor describes here!

  • Peter

    I have to take the Tube on ‘diverse’ lines, and I can assure you that the self-obsessed occupation of the seats designated for surrendering to others less able is shared by all races.
    London has made me less polite and pushier than I used to be – I was raised to offer my seat to _any_ lady, let alone someone older than I. How do you manage, though, when you try to leave your train against a tide of feral, ill-behaved schoolchildren pushing their way in?
    I would certainly offer my seat to Alexander, but would request an autograph in return.

  • davidofkent

    I am occasionally offered a seat on a bus by a young person. I once refused the offer and realised too late how churlish I had been. I would accept it now and show proper gratitude for a kind deed.

  • SalmondFishing

    30 percent of the vote deserves 30 percent of the seats.
    The rest is a juvenile mockery of democracy.

  • grimm

    I have been commuting on London Underground and overground for over 20 years (Northern Line and DLR mainly) and I have NOT noticed that women, immigrants or the ethnic minorities are more ready to give up their seats to the elderly than anyone else. Quite the opposite in fact. However, the worst types in my experience are young professional looking men and women. In the morning commute you can see them leaving the trains in vast hordes at Bank and London Bridge.

    • davidshort10

      I’d say you are right on that one. The people who use the DLR and work in Canary Wharf are the most awful people I’ve ever come across. Total shits.

  • Dogsnob

    How do people of any age, travel in those things?

  • hdb

    My experience is similar. The only people who offer their seat are Turkish or Moroccan looking young men.

    • Osmund Bullock

      Often – though not exclusively – my experience too. I usually sport a full white beard, and sometimes wonder if this triggers some ancient cultural response that has been safely eliminated in our ‘modern’ society. But my god, I do find it difficult to accept sometimes – especially when the donor is an attractive woman I’d much rather be flirting with.

  • WJB

    Well, I’m a white, English, 36-year old man. I frequently give my seat to people who need it more than I do, and resent the implication that my white maleness means I don’t.

    I get very frustrated by people who don’t give up their seat to those more in need, and often observe Mr. Chancellor’s beloved “immigrants” and “ethnic minorities” not giving up their seats, just as much as everyone else.

    • Tim Gilling

      Why the “”s?

  • tb_kol

    Hi i’m from India. We’ve got underground metro trains in cities like Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai and many more are coming. The thing is in each coach some seats are reserved for Senior Citiznes, physically challenged persons and even for women.

    So I guess the transport authorities aught to do the same in UK as well. But I guess its always the best gesture when people get up and offer seats to those who need more to sit instead.

  • BoiledCabbage

    The first carriage should be reserved for seniors & less able.

  • boultonzz .

    Well I think the article answers the problem itself in some respect. As a young white man who commutes to London everyday, I will always give up my seat to those I feel are less able. But in this day and age, who do I consider less able? Will I be sued for being sexist if I give my seat up for a women, or ageist for giving it up for the elderly. I’m afraid you, the elite have made your bed and should lay in it, as labour, lobby groups etc etc, push for total equality, without the actual consideration that we are different.
    People also sometimes reject my offer for a seat, and the retorts can be rather rude.
    So to avoid being labelled a bigot/sexist/chauvinist or whatever you wish to call me for my simple kind gesture, I’ll think I keep myself to myself and let other people fight the good fight.

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