One of the books I quickly read when I first arrived in the UK was Jeremy’s Paxman’s, The English: A Portrait of People (1998). It is a fascinating read into the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the people called the English. “The end of empire, the cracks opening in the so-called United Kingdom, the pressures of the English to plunge into Europe, and the uncontrollability of international business” got the writer thinking about “what did it mean to be English?” In his search to discover the influences on the roots of English anxiety Paxman was keen to find out: “Why do the English seem to enjoy feeling so persecuted? What is behind the English obsession with games? How did they acquire their odd attitudes to sex and food? Where did they get their extraordinary capacity for hypocrisy?”
I was surprised, though, that Paxman did not delve more deeply into the “long-suffering mentality” of the English even under the most intense of circumstances, though he did reflect on the population’s outpouring of grief at Diana’s death as a puncturing of a ‘reserved façade’ normally associated with the English. This so-called disposition of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘putting on a brave face’ would betray nothing, even on a train ride. Research seems to suggest that this default mode may be having significant impact on the health and well-being of the nation. It has become so chronic that maybe the whole nation may be in need of help!
Train journeys at Peak times are a fascinating and frustrating experience in the niceness and stiff upper lip of the English – in fact across the whole of the British Isles. In crowded trains – which not even transported animals according to European regulations would be subjected to – where you can feel the warm breath of passengers caressing exposed necks, faces, armpits, chests and breasts, swoon in the aroma of perfume or bear the brunt of sour breadths of your fellow travellers, I am always disturbed by the apparent quiet acceptance and nonchalant response of my fellow passengers as if nothing is amiss.
These packed out trains are worse than a crammed mini-bus on a Caribbean island. And when at a stop along the journey incoming passengers ask those inside to “move up the aisle, please”, I am always amused how quickly space is created without a murmur. In the Caribbean, I can imagine someone shouting back: “move up where, YOUR backside, mine or theirs?” Even more testing of one’s patience is the sudden appearance of a train conductor negotiating his way (they tend to be mainly men), climbing over passengers and luggage to examine the tickets. The audacity of it all is mind-boggling given that I thought that as a passenger I paid for a seat! I even once suggested to the ticket collector that it may helpful and fair if I am given a refund since I am standing all the way to my destination. In that overcrowded train, he suggested without any emotion: “Sir, I would suggest you try to find a seat or you can step out and wait for the next service”, which by the way will also be crowded.
But back to the passengers: these are mainly professional people on the way to work and I am sure their workplace travel rules will follow all the health and safety requirements about being seated and strapped into your seat on any moving vehicle or means of transport. Some of these travellers may even be managers and insurance brokers who would know that it is illegal to allow people to travel in an overcrowded vehicle and without being seated. Yet the train services can operate with impunity to crowd as many passengers as possible into a carriage to swell their coffers.
Why do travellers not protest? Why can’t train commuters rise up and take to the streets? Do we need to get into a drunken stupor before we can take on such nonsense treatment? It is time to kick this habit of polite meekness. Enough of the “so-called” English reserve, “niceness” and “stiff upper lip”: it is time for a protest that carries a growl and some transforming bites! Perhaps, we need to take some hints from the strategy book of protestors from around the world. Until people stand up to be counted, individually and as a community, much of the dehumanising nonsense and gradual degradation of rights would continue to become entrenched as the norm in our life together. The grins and habit of operating with the freedom to treat us as they wish need to be exorcized!