Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Crying baby at Matt Forde's show should weep over increasingly selfish attitudes that are eroding society – Alastair Stewart

Matt Forde was trending on social media this Edinburgh Festival, but maybe not for the reasons he had hoped.

Unacceptable behaviour like shouting on a mobile phone, once parodied by Dom Jolly, has become the norm, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Toby Melville/PA)
Unacceptable behaviour like shouting on a mobile phone, once parodied by Dom Jolly, has become the norm, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: Toby Melville/PA)

The satirist tweeted that a crying baby derailed large parts of his stand-up show, Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right. The parent did not do "the decent thing and just leave when it started crying. I get that it must be tough as a new parent but please, don't bring babies to adult shows. It's always a problem."

He said it was comparable to "someone’s phone continually ringing and them not turning it off. I’ve had so many messages from people who were there last night who were very polite about the fact it p***ed them off”.

The incident, Forde's response, and the subsequent debate and fallout has been a fascinating exercise in false memory and presumption. Forde never said the baby cried for the entire hour, but the reaction took it as such.

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I was in the audience, and the baby wailed once with a couple of gurgles throughout the show. It threw Forde in the first instance, and he recovered, but the anticipation of further disruption was a distraction for everyone.

Forde has every right to stipulate the circumstances of his show. He needs to concentrate. Nail-picking, pencil-tapping or certain kinds of music kill my attention – no one is immune to it.

The widespread coverage of Forde's comments gives it a controversial edge – but why?

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Festival Diary: Forde lets Pleasance boss off the hook with ‘whiny’ baby rant

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I lived in Almerimar, Spain, for several years. It could be an extraordinarily entitled community when it wanted to be. "My rights" trumped "your right not to be bothered" every time.

One neighbour who lived below us left her dogs outside every night and they barked until the wee hours. It is hard to describe her dead-eye intransigence. Everyone I knew loathed it, complained but resigned themselves to it as a fact of life. My neighbour said I should buy headphones and take a sleeping tablet.

Come rain or shine, a couple with a new-born in the same building would open their window. All apartments looked onto a middle segment where sound would crescendo. The baby would cry in the middle of the night. Most people would passively slam their windows shut in a heat wave, but no one complained.

Forde is nowhere close to the same degree of cognitive dissonance as dog-lady. The reactions have been overwhelmingly in his favour. Most verdicts believe it was unfair on the child to be out so late, uncomfortable, or in a place where it might be stressed.

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Other comments mirror Forde's point that it must have been distracting for him. He is a walking business and has as much right to specify terms of service as anyone else. He has an audience which has paid to see something – he wants and needs to deliver a show.

I cannot light up a cigarette on a train or, for that matter, listen to loud music on a plane without punitive measures. Paying customer or not, it's someone else's service, and you're not the only customer in the room.

There was outcry on the default ban on alcohol on trains as if late-night journeys were a joy with swilling drunks stuffing their faces with a smelly kebab. But it is perfectly fine if I scream down my phone on a bus.

There are annoying grey areas of what is socially unacceptable but not illegal. Dom Jolly's Trigger Happy TV sketch where he shouted down a massive phone in public has become cemented as a fact of life.

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Most sarcastic responses to Forde conflate the rejection of his argument with a dislike of his material. "Do the decent thing" sounds like the kind of hammy political nonsense Forde would skewer Keir Stamer or Boris Johnson for. No one likes to have their knuckles rapped.

These critics ignore the obvious point and safety net: Festival show descriptions include age guidance and have "a baby in arms" policy. Forde handled himself well on the night in question, and his subsequent tweet was hardly the end of the world when the guidance is there, plain as day.

There has been a dip in basic courtesy. A rising number of people operate as if they live in a vacuum, even in the most public places. The more congested the world gets, the louder people are. It is a similar selfish rationale that attempts to justify drunk driving.

Everything is one giant pressure cooker and a tug of war between your right to do anything you please and people wanting to exist, free of hassle and infringement.

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The restrictions imposed in response to Covid only compounded a problem brewing for years. There is a society when it suits us. I want to be free from Covid, but forget wearing a mask to protect vulnerable people.

We want Brexit, Scottish independence or whatever nationalist fantasy is on the table this week. Everyone wants excellent schools, hospitals, roads and NHS staff to get competitive pay. We want a nuclear deterrent, massive social care funding and green taxes to avert environmental catastrophe. Mix and match as you like. Just don't ask ‘me’ to pay for any of it.

Society is not dead. But a decaying moral nimbyism is eroding social cohesion and national efforts to tackle problems affecting everyone. We claim to be more socially aware than ever but act in increasingly selfish ways. When called out, we double down, we don't apologise.

You can hardly blame a baby for crying over that.

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