The Difference a Smile Makes

Riding the train across the southeast corner of England can be a rather impersonal experience. Over the course of the three different trains I have to board to reach my destination, I rarely have to say a word. A flash of one’s phone or ticket is enough for the ticket collector and human interaction tends to be limited to the odd pleasantry, such as confirming that this is indeed the train to Redhill, or some such assistance. Besides that, you can travel for three hours or so and hardly have to say a word to anyone. In any other country I suppose it would seem dreadfully out of touch, but it seems to suit the English very well. To each their own; an Englishman’s house is his castle; don’t go looking for trouble and no trouble will come to you, and other such expressions. The English love their personal space so much, it’s easy to assume that the loss of low-level human interactions in the face of the endless march of technology was welcomed here with open arms.

I might as well talk for myself. Sometimes I feel as English as the soil itself. Here I am, alone, barricaded into my window seat by my luggage and hoping the four tracksuit-wearing twenty-somethings don’t occupy the seats opposite. A damp narcotic stench, reminiscent of straw at the back of a big cat enclosure at the zoo, drifts up the carriage as they enter and I wince. I wince at the smell, and at the swiftness of my judgement; for the smell pervades long after the lads have moved on, lingering about the hawk-eyed man in the suit sitting opposite. I hadn’t even noticed him take his seat.

When the times comes to change trains, I do so quickly and willingly. I cross the platform and board the waiting train, finding a mirror-image window seat, onward-facing, back to the doors. Same seat. Same service. Same train design. It’s as though somebody just pressed the reset button on the passengers. And it’s silent again.

There are flashes of hope, though. The ticket conductor on this service greeted everybody when he got on, a cheery, wiry-haired gent, with a smile so warm you could put your feet up in front of it. He looks like a regular. At least, he knows the other regulars, anyway, commenting on a girl’s new blue-dyed hair and how he’d not be brave enough to do it himself; inquiring after a young man’s onward travel; and confirming for a second time that this is indeed the service to Redhill to a doubtful older woman. The smile does not break even once.

One of the most intelligent men I ever met was a ticket inspector. I wish I’d taken more detailed notes of his reasoning, but it was something like this: “It pays the bills, it keeps me on the road and allows me to think when the day is done”. He spoke Finnish fluently “because Finnish culture is fascinating”, had an intrinsic understanding of musical harmony and was a profligate Europhile. In another life, I should like to give ticket inspecting a go.

The sun is setting behind the white spring haze. Albion, the White Island, continues to live up to its name (insert topical Jon Snow reference here). I hope the last leg of the journey is as personable as this one has been. BB x

Commuter Vignettes

A collection of observations from London and Madrid.


14.38The Lonely One

A girl gets on the Metro before me. She has that listless look of a twenty-first century child, of a face torn away from the blue glare of her mobile phone. The phone is there, of course – it always is – sitting dormant in her hand but very much alive. Maybe she’s sad because nobody’s messaging her right this instant. There’s something Latin about her look: behind the white Adidas shirt and the pale blue jeans, there’s an arch to her nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Montezuma, and she wears bold red lipstick on her thick-lipped pout. It looks a little out of place on her frown. She looks about eighteen, but with that tricksy Latin blood in her veins, she could be anywhere between that and thirty.

The tannoy goes off for Nuevos Ministerios and she leaves.


10.40The Spider

A London micro-manager discusses his six-month leave and coffee with Tom this morning, at a volume just loud enough for the carriage to hear. If the asking price rises into the millions, he suggests waiting for the results to deteriorate, like a bald and very well-dressed spider. Business is the meal of the day. His latest victim, a Gucci exec, writhes in his binds down the line, whilst the shadow on the receiver worries about growth. All of this is, yep, yeh, very good, cheers. The flies will just have to resign themselves to another day of good business.

The tannoy goes off for East Croydon and he leaves.


10.46The Ghost

Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.
Could the onboard supervisor contact the driver please.

‘Perhaps he’s not onboard,’ says an old timer. He gets a lot of laughs.
‘Gone AWOL,’ says a glamorous matriarch. She gets a few more.
‘Gone home,’ says a jumper-round-the-neck. The laughing streak dies out. ‘I mean, I haven’t noticed anybody check our tickets, so perhaps there isn’t one.’

Three minutes later, the train pulls out anyway. It doesn’t sound as though the onboard supervisor made contact.
‘Gonna be late now,’ says the matriarch, looking at her phone. ‘Ten minutes delayed.’

The tannoy goes off for Clapham Junction and she leaves.


11.23The Sardine Run

The 10.09 Southern Services train to Redhill is delayed. Apparently this is still newsworthy. Downstairs, the Underground splits at the seams. Giants with sports shorts and mop-tops jostle for standing room with Catalan sightseers, Russian students and a Rastafarian flyerman, dozing silently over his stack of pamphlets. The driver on the tannoy is profusely apologetic about the frozen train, citing an earlier faulty train as the reason for the blown lines ahead. The three-minute delay becomes a five-minute delay, which in turn becomes a ten-minute delay. Five was enough to oust the man in the navy pinstripe suit and the other big fish. I’m only going one stop so I really could have walked, but people-watching isn’t so easy on the move.

The tannoy goes off for Green Park and I leave.


22.52The Platoon

Small talk sweeps Cabin Six. Three late-twenties girls types discuss renting flats, grown-up men and which was the most distressing Harry Potter death, Dobby or Hedwig. One of the three isn’t contributing so much. Another keeps the flow going. Their ringleader dominates the conversation with perfectly formed silences and sentences. Corporal, Captain and Commander. They each tell a tale: the tale of the bright orange Maine Coon and a cactus, the tale of the old lady who fell asleep watching the BBC news and the tale of the silent nurse. The underlying moral of this urban saga? If you live in a flat, you can hear someone go to the toilet. A twenty-first century aphorism if ever there was one.

The tannoy goes off for Redhill, the Corporal gets off, but the Commander’s tales go on.


10.43The Herd

Three stag parties board the plane. Two of them are your standard bunch of square-jawed gym jocks, joking loudly about how muntered Gavin is going to get, how he’ll be flat on his face, gatted, smashed, trolleyed. The other herd follows their oddly-dressed leader down the aisle like a pagan procession, their Chosen One wrapped up in a pink and purple sari with all the bells and whistles – except, of course, the kameez that usually covers a Hindu bride’s modesty. Nip slips are clearly less of an issue for six-foot tall white men. When your average Joe has umpteen problems getting through airport security, it’s frankly ridiculous that he walked through untouched. He’s obviously done his homework if he’s going as an untouchable, though somehow I don’t think that’s the idea his cronies had in mind. The Arabic music crawling out of the speaker in his back pocket would seem to suggest that. At least in Madrid he won’t look out of place. In Gatwick Airport on a Friday morning he just looks like a prat.


15.16The Slaves

Jenny Seville might have painted the scene in front of me. A perfect tableau. Three commuters stand over me with their hands on the rail, facing out across my head, with their eyes glued to their mobile phones. A smart, short-haired man in a blue suit with his earphones in, a disgruntled middle-aged lady in a pink blouse and a professional women with a sharp nose and dark eyes. They stand before me like some grotesque Swiftian pantheon, their smallest features blown up and illuminated in the backlight. To their left and right, lesser gods scroll soundlessly in the blue glare. I feel tiny, sat pressed into the chair at their feet. All along the train, heads are down, faces are blue and conversation is fleeting. There are islands of humanity in the slave ship: a huddle of Latino men talking jovially with no electronic assistance, and a couple of old women discussing train delays in central Madrid. Every time I look around me, I catch the eye of the Green Woman, the only other person in the slave ship who isn’t glued to her phone. She looks like a slightly larger and slightly less airbrushed Anne Hathaway.

The tannoy goes off for Atocha and she pulls her phone from her pocket. I have no binds, so why do I feel so shackled? BB x

Splash: Fear in a Hoodie and a Baseball Cap

I was sitting in the park sketching when one of the local malotes loitering around the bridge lobbed a brick at me. It fell short by a few feet and landed with a heavy splash in the water, but the message hit home. I took my blonde hair and foreign appearance out of firing range and returned to the safety of my room to listen to a podcast on South African townships in peace.

It’s a sad fact of the world that one of the things that scares me most is my own generation. It always has, far more than all the villainies of our world. The romantic in me would like to point out that I’m currently living in the land that birthed both Cortés and Pizarro, those butchers of the New World, as well as the most ferocious wing of the Spanish Inquisition… but I’d like to think I’ve got more than enough common sense to eliminate any racial motivations behind this morning’s unfortunate brick incident. The simple fact of the matter is that it’s a world I just don’t understand. And, to quote a Batman villain (for want of a better source), ‘you always fear what you don’t understand’.

Why? What’s the point? What would lead anyone to revel in a deliberate act of aggression? If it’s a misplaced act of pumped-up testosterone, I disown my sex here and now. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m British and I’d rather die than tread on somebody else’s toes. Or perhaps it’s because I’m the kind of person that bursts into tears over King Kong or The Green Mile. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the simple fact that everyone is different, for good or ill. Without fear and violence, how would we define that which is good?

As a kid I remember being chased by thugs from down the road when I was out with my camera watching buzzards. The same suspects called “carol-singing” a few weeks later – a six-second, tuneless rush of We Wish You a Merry Christmas for which they expected payment – and pointed me out as ‘that kid with the sick camera’. At the time I had no idea what he was on about; ‘sick’ as an adjective meaning ‘impressive’ had developed in the nine months I’d been out of the country and it caught me unawares. I still find it substandard as a slang term. France’s verlan is simply streets ahead, no pun intended.

It’s this bastardization of words, of filling the English language with redundant dual-meanings, that bothers me. Standard has come to mean excellent. Lad has come to mean exemplary individual and gay has been a blanket, one-size-fits-all insult for as long as I can remember. Especially the latter, since it’s been used on me since I was at primary school. It shouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, since it was neither true nor (I hope) intended as such, but the ignorance of it all has frustrated me for years.

Who am I to comment? I’m a relatively privileged white middle class English boy with two jobs in a country where most of my generation struggle to find one. Is it any wonder they’re angry? A small part of me occasionally resurfaces at moments like these, telling me to mind my own business and go home. But then, it’s a hateful phrase and one that’s no match for my own curiosity. Honestly, if it weren’t for my aforementioned issues with causing trouble, I’d have all the fittings for a journalist.

Nevertheless, here I am, holed up in my room. It’s less shock than the warmth of my bed that’s keeping me from going back to the park now, but it’s had me thinking; doubly so over my South Africa plans. What right have I to fork out on a self-styled adventure to a country where my own brick-dodging incident pales in comparison to the terror of the townships? A younger me would have cited white-guilt all day. These days I simply wonder whether or not the problem is seeing us and them in the first place.

And strangely enough, it’s only left me keener than ever to go there.

In that sense, it’s not the hooded youth I’m afraid of. It’s the potential for violence in all of us. We are, by record if not by roots, a violent race. It’s our imperative as a species to overcome that and nurture our caring side, which is certainly not unique to us in the animal kingdom. A line in one of my favourite books says ‘there’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing’. She’s right. But if we all become so afraid of ourselves by drawing lines in the sand that we have to live in compounds like today’s South Africa, what kind of a world are we leaving for those who come after us?

The drone buzzing about overhead just crashed to earth with a loud smack right at the feet of the malotes. The kids to whom it belonged ran to collect it none the wiser to their jeers. A lesson in bravery from two seven year-olds.

I’m keener than ever for South Africa. Fears must be faced, not avoided. It won’t rid me of all of my fears, but it might just put my troubles into perspective. BB x

Giving Amman a Second Chance

Had I known the Kievans would throw a violent protest four days before my return flight to the UK, I might have forked over that extra £80 and come home three days earlier on the two hour layover, instead of holding out for one last fling on that twelve hour layover that awaits me now.

The last stretch always seems like the longest. Only three nights remain, which is a damn sight closer than three weeks, and I have a bed for only two of those, as my 4am Saturday morning flight means that Andrew and I will be on stakeout at Queen Alia International Airport all night, catching sleep when and where we can. I’m still up and raring to get out and see Kiev during our ridiculous layover, protest or no protest, but it won’t be much fun on less than an hour’s sleep, and I’ll probably need my wits about me in the current climate. Especially when I speak about as much Russian as the hornet buzzing about my window. Still, that’s as much of an adventure as I could ask for, and the more I think about it, the better I feel for being so parsimonious with my flights back in May. Let’s just hope they let us out of Borispol first, or the whole thing will be dead in the water. 

But let’s not jump too far ahead! I’m still here in Amman. The breaking of the fellowship has come about at last, and a great deal more sincerely so than the last time I used that turn of phrase in Casablanca. We said farewell to Mac yesterday, after five days on the road together. Kate and Katie left for home in the early hours of this morning. Of the original Ali Baba team, there’s only three of us left. Andrew and I are practically the old guard. When first we arrived, it looked as though the end wouldn’t be ‘farewell’ so much as ‘until next year’, with all five of us set to return next summer; same people, same time, same place. Fortunately, life is a constantly fluctuating thing, and I’m bound for other lands next year. In truth it’s most likely that I won’t see the bulk of Team Jordan until we’re called back to Durham next October, now far in the distant future. So perhaps it really is farewell- until the next time.

It’s coming up to five o’clock in the afternoon, which means this post has taken me all of an hour and a half to write. The midday sun is just beginning to think about giving up the ghost, Andrew’s penning a couple of final postcards and the fan’s on at full blast, as it has to be if we aren’t to pass out in the fug. The hornet’s gone, thank heavens, and the orange vendor is back on the job, driving lazily up and down the streets with his pre-recorded pitch on a tinny repeat. We picked up our luggage yesterday and made a gesture at packing up, even though three whole days remain. It’s the thought that counts. Trying to fill up the final hours is a tedious affair, but on the plus side, downtown isn’t as frightening a beastie as it used to be. I guess that has a lot to do with living two minutes’ walk from the centre. Date bread and street pizzas from 25p a piece, slushies for half a dinar and plenty of cheaper eateries than the falafel mothership that is Hashem’s – and best of all, all of them within walking distance. So we come to it: it’s not the crush that bothered me so much as it is the needless expense on the taxi rides to and from wast al-balad. Diagnosed, at last. And that, I hope, is my last spark of angst off my chest.

For two months I’ve bombarded this blog with big city blues and saturated you all with my town mouse tantrums. I look back on all of that and laugh. It’s easy to do when I know I’ll be home in four nights’ time, of course, but it’s the final and most important part of the therapy. I’m not about to turn around and say that Amman is a great place to live – it’s not – but I’ll concede some ground to my detractors in that it’s not the Hell on Earth I made it out to be. It’s a question of willpower, living in a place like this, and I’ve learned a great deal about that here. Whether it’s a choice between holing up in your room with a book and braving a night on the town, or striking up a conversation with a local without a prompt, or even finding a functional solution to the ten-foot tall, sixty-foot long man-eating slug in the eleventh room on the left, one of the most important lessons you can learn in life is conviction. Being true to yourself. I thought I was pretty on it before I came here, but I see a lot of what I thought of as conviction now as my natural stubbornness, and there is a difference. You shouldn’t do things because you feel like you have to, just as you can’t be made to love a place you don’t like, but if you don’t make an effort on the inside to see the good in all things and stand by it, you’ll be on an island forever. Take it from the king of the castaways: man up. Some troubles in life are insurmountable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unassailable.

I’ve come close to breaking my golden rule and slipping into despair out here, but it’s that brush with the very worst emotion of all that’s given me the strength to go on. And Amman, for all its flaws, is built on a bedrock of warm, friendly people. Sure, you might have more adventurous encounters outside the city limits in provincial backwaters like Tafileh, but Amman itself is a very good place to start. Don’t make the same mistake I did and allow yourself to be freaked out by the size and speed of the place; beneath the rush are a host of charming characters who simply want to know how you’re getting on, if you’ll give them the time. The guy who runs this hostel, the Bdeiwi Hotel, told us last night that you often judge a language by your experiences with the people who speak it. He’s got a very good point, too. Sit on a step off the main road like a local and you’re bound to have somebody come over and strike up a conversation, in Arabic or in broken English. It’s heart-warming once you get used to it, just how much these people care. The sheer extent of the hospitality of the Arabs can seem so great as to be insincere to the untrained Western eye, as I once had to explain over a failed homestay offer in Morocco; we, a country so used to living off the hospitality of others. I think back to my trek across London with sixty-three kilos of luggage on my back, when I collapsed flat on my chest from exhaustion in the Underground and it took all of eight minutes for somebody to ask if I was alright; Amman is not as faceless as that, nor could it ever be.

Three nights remain. Twenty six dinars are left in my wallet. My city angst is exorcised, I’ve had a good two months’ run of it, and Andrew agrees with my final judgement. All is well with the world. BB x