Today, I travelled to Bristol for a memorial service for the much loved mother of an old friend. Towards the end of his very moving oration, her son happened to mention that his mother nearly acquired four different passports, that is citizenships, throughout her life.
Born in India, she became a citizen of the newly created Pakistan and then later, of Bangladesh. In the last years of her life, she divided her time between a flat in Dacca, her son’s home in Bristol and her daughter’s home in Philadelphia; in the last months, frail and unable to travel, she was based in America, and so was very nearly granted US citizenship: her fourth passport.
Mulling over this very modern story – an elderly woman who found herself at the centre of a family far flung around the globe – on the train from Paddington to Bristol and back, I was distracted by the presence of a batch of Millwall fans, on their way to – and back from – an away game with Bristol Rovers.
Despite my initial Pavlovian reaction to the opening hiss of early morning beer cans and – more understandable this – loud conversations about threatened violence on a mobile phone, the fans we sat near on the way down to the west of England were pretty considerate, even charming to surrounding passengers: certainly far less annoying than the didactic middle class mother, instructing her child in the wonders of art and geography for all to hear. The Millwall group we encountered on the way back – a couple of kids with a group of disparate adult men, including a soldier who had encountered the Taliban – were louder but even sweeter. And Millwall lost the game.
But I couldn’t help thinking about this weird place called the United Kingdom, where one minute you’re sitting in a community hall in Montpelier thinking about the twenty first century Indian diaspora, the next you’re listening in to white working class Britain talking to itself.
It’s encounters like this which explain why I’m coming to appreciate public transport more in my middle age. On trains and buses, you get to meet the strangest, the noisiest, the most irritating, the kindest, the most different-to-yourself people………..and because you’re stuck with whoever it is, often for hours at a time, it means re-examining old prejudices in the light of new information.
At a later date, I may tell you about the final leg of our journey this evening on the Bakerloo line from Paddington to Queens Park……………..the gang of boys running from platform to platform, the drunk with the M and S sandwich, and the five girls and a boy, screeching all the way to Kensal Green and beyond. And I’ve still got £5.30 left on my oyster card.