Sunday, 13 March 2011

From the bus queue

Sat 5th March

One of the most bummish things about being poor is having to travel by bus. I once lived in taxis, taking several a day, even using them to travel outside London. On one noble occasion on a trip to Petworth, I kept the taxi and the driver with it and went to an hotel over night. It cost £300, cheap at the price. The paper paid of course although they did complain about him to the taxi company.

Those days are gone. I am now travelling with life’s other failures. I doubt if you would ever see a cabinet minister on a bus. You rarely see a white middle class man, although round here you rarely see a white man.

The 207 from Southall to Shepherds Bush is packed with urban peasants from Eastern Europe, Polish and Russian girls in bright make up, with tight pony-tails, sprayed on jeans and killer heels, Somalis and British West Indians, some of whom are now veiled in complete niqab along with the residents from Asia. Occasionally there is a white woman other than me, usually older, or extremely obese bulging out of thin vests, wings of fat sticking out under the shoulder blades.

We are packed in like cattle, or at least like cattle where there is no animal welfare legislation. The crowding is not helped by women putting their babies, small children and bags of shopping on to the seats next to them. I still live in an age where children smartly dressed in uniform stood up for adults so I am reduced to scowling; one of those women who sits on buses disapproving.

I do not enjoy these trips, in fact I hate them but they are often interesting. On the way from Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross to the bus stop in Hammersmith last week I walked behind two Muslim boys who were plotting to blow up the House of Commons. I listened attentively.

“You could just throw a grenade into the chamber,” said one. “Or just roll it in.” They talked a bit about this. One glanced at me and quickened their step, and I quickened mine.

“Do you know where the place is?” said the other. He said he didn’t. “But I could find it,” he said unconvincingly and I felt slightly relieved, pretty certain that he was never going to buy a map.

Yesterday on the late bus I listened to a mixed race lad who has converted to Islam giving advice to another young man who was hidden behind a long curling black beard. He sounded nice, an easy charm, obviously generous hearted as he eagerly advised the other how to progress as an English Muslim.

“You must try to get into a Saudi University,” he said. “As you are a re-vert (Muslims believe that everyone was somehow originally a Muslim) they will let you in easily.”

How odd to prepare for a life in London by going off to Saudi, but what do they know of England, that only England know? More than boys who spend their time in Riyadh reading the Koran I should think.

Many people I travel with live in London, one of the greatest cities on earth but instead of enjoying it, have chosen to live in psychic exile. They have fanatic hearts. I used to be like that myself when I was growing up with a confused identity and no self worth. I also wanted to die for a glorious cause. It was geography, lack of direct contact with IRA people and having so many more practical ambitions that saved me.

This journey into and out of fanaticism is on my mind as I am about to interview young Tommy Robinson, street fighting leader of the English Defence League, for the Salisbury Review. Also because of reading “Alone in Berlin,” by Han Fallada.

There is a lot of talk about a chapter that was repressed, kept back by the East German authorities. They hated any shades of grey, ironic as it was such a grey place. When I used to visit the DDR I was surprised to find a whole half nation which had expunged itself of any guilt about the war.

I visited Buchenwald and saw the chapel like place they’d put up to Ernst Thalmann and his wife who were sadly murdered in the camp near the end of the war. He was leader of the Communist Party of Germany, the courageous KPD which was eviscerated by Hitler. As a student I was infatuated with them, and saw Bader Meinhoff as their worthy decedents.

Later I discovered Thalmann had voted with the Nazis in the Reichstag, giving them block votes, rather than side with any democratic parties of the centre-left. Another fanatic heart.

I used to go shopping on a dreary street in Katowice, Poland called after Klary Zetkin, a member of the KPD. She said, “Thälmann is caught in uncritical self-deception and self-infatuation which borders on megalomania." We’ve all been there. The trick is to grow out of it without blowing up public buildings or killing anyone.

*One advantage of poverty pointed out by Stuart Elliott, my anatomy teacher at Central St. Martin’s. He says that if he was rich, he would spend too much time developing his bad ideas. (He pointed to certain well know artists as examples of this.)

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