Wednesday, 24 November 2010

London notes

London never fails to make an impression, especially after a lengthy absence. I've not been over since April, mainly because of reasons to do with the economy - fewer companies willing to sponsor Poland-related business events in the UK.

Arriving early at Luton, I just make the bus from the airport to Luton Parkway station. I hand over 50p of the £1.50 bus fare and I'm scrabbling around in my wallet among the one, two and five zloty coins for a one-pound coin, which in the dim light I can't seem to find. The driver gives me the ticket and waves me into the bus anyway. It's more important that he gets the bus boarded than hold everyone up for a mere pound. How practical! I repay the social trust accorded to me by handing over that coin later once I'd found it.

Elsewhere, I see more examples of social trust and social harmony in action. At St Pancras station, a man in a wheelchair is asked by a member of staff (in obligatory high-visibility vest) "Can Oi 'elp yaouw, Sir?" I can't imagine surly PKP staff at Warszawa Centralna volunteering to help in such a kindly way.

The train to St Pancras is three and half minutes late. Over the station loudspeakers at Luton Parkway we hear abject, grovelling apologies for any inconvenience the delay might have caused. (Not a bit - I've have missed the train had it been on time!)

On the train, I'm sitting near four students discussing between themselves their accents ("My parents say I'm well-spoken," says one, who sounded upper lower-middle class to me. "Ah've got Black Coontreh vowels," says another). Accent is so important to Brits. With 80% of the indigenous population falling into the general category of 'middle class', it's crucial to distinguish between the wafer-thin sub-stratas therein. Quoting Carol Midgely from today's Times, 'Britain is socially immobile because its obsessed with class. It's not where you're going by where you are from." Not a problem that Poland has. As I wrote here, in Poland, accent is pretty much homogenous. It is a Pole's vocabulary that reveals much about his or her schooling, rather than it being accent that betrays the speaker's social and regional provenance.

St Pancras is as beautiful as ever, the East Midlands high-speed train that gets there non-stop in just under half and hour deposits me on the main concourse rather than in the underground Thameslink platform. Passing the glittering shops lining the lower concourse, I see something you just don't see in Poland - rich old people.

Sir John at St Pancras: my favourite poet

Entering the Underground, I see all the Tube lines are running a good service. And then a loudspeaker announcement. No service on the northern end of the Victoria Line - person under a train. And a minute later - no service on the northern end of the Bakerloo Line - another person under a train. A spate of Wednesday evening suicides is holding up North Londoners returning home tonight.

But the Piccadilly Line's still good. A westbound train is standing waiting for me, ready to whisk me on towards Ealing. Central London is still quite posh, as you can hear by the upper-middle clahss aircsents between South Ken and Baron's Court (though you'd not guess by looking at the speakers' egalitarian clothing). It's worth watching the first two scenes from the musical My Fair Lady to see that in this department, little has changed since the days of George Bernard Shaw - "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him."
But by the time my train reaches Acton, I notice that I'm in the one-third minority of passengers in my carriage who are white (and I'd guess half of those are Polish). London's diversity makes the native English a minority in the land of their forefathers.

There's a ticket inspection between Acton Town and Ealing Common. The ticket inspector is backed up by a uniformed police officer (a volunteer Special Constable); this type of revenue protection measure would be unthinkable in Poland - what happened to the social trust and harmony I'd witnessed earlier? Indeed, I no longer recognise the land where I was born.


toyah said...

The account you've made is so impressive that I can't possibly comment on everything I would want to. In my recent post, I four times perhaps used the phrase 'intensywny' when speaking about Rymkiewicz's writings. Such is your thing about London and England.
But let me refer to the story you have told about this bus driver. When I and Antek were to go to visit Graham, we got on the platform a minute before the departure. We rushed on in the platform, completely exhausted, without the tickets, and scared to miss the train. The train was already there, the clock showed 10.59, and I asked this black, uniformed guy who was there, whether we could get the tickets on the train. He asked us how much time we had left. I said a minute.
And he did exactly what your bus driver had done. Not saying a word, he waved us in the train.

Otherwise, you might be awfully right. Things seem to be getting bad.

toyah said...

One more about this suicide business. I remember when a few years ago I went to Avignon in France. I don't know if you have ever been there, but - like all the towns there - it is a very bautiful place. Very. So I sat there on a bench and watched the people and things. Suddenly I saw a group of young boys and girls who were passing by and acting like a bunch of "kibole' coming home after a GKS - Ruch match. The way they looked and behaved was something of the worst type you can imagine. They looked mean and angry, they were like sunk in their own meanness, anger and dissatisfaction.
And I said to myself: this Avignon is such a pretty place, it is so clean, and colourful, and tidy. And I know so many people who, if they only had a chance to live there, they would be the happiest people on earth.
And you see a bunch of kids who are obviously local people, and all of a sudden they can't even appreciate this one single thing.
And here you have those London suicides. The thing surely escapes me.
Perhaps there is something about this 'happiness gene' that you once wrote about. Some of us just don't have it. We both do. And this is what the thing is about.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Well it is good to hear some positive thoughts about elements of the UK. The locals all too often fail to appreciate that the place isn't terrible.

I worked on the Underground years ago. You'd be amazed at the propensity to evade payment. Putting in automatic ticket barriers at a station could raise takings by 20%. Stockbrokers seemed as likely to evade the fare as the 'lower classes'.

It isn't just the British that evade payment. For a while there was a Romanian speaker employed at Euston station because so many visitors from that country tried not to pay (or to bribe the conductor).

The suicides are a Winter thing. Plus 'care in the community' doesn't make the mentally ill take their pills. Now that every suicide is treated as a 'crime scene' it takes far longer to clear up the mess too.