Sunday, August 13, 2006


My Transport for London

On Friday I rather hurriedly organised a flat-viewing, and headed south to meet a potential flatmate.
The bus was fairly empty when I got on, having only started its journey about 400 metres up the road, and I took a seat near the front on the top deck. As the bus carrried on, it gradually filled up, taking people home from WC1 to SE1.

A young man sat down next to me, African in appearance but with a fairly light skin. His fingers were rough, his nails were worn down as if he habitually bit his nails and there were a few cuts on his thumbs where the skin had split. A patch of skin on hs neck loked as if it had been splashed by some liquid, maybe something with cement in, and had left a dry-looking greyish patch.

My fellow passenger got out a book, and started reading. On his lap was a small black rucksack with apparently very little in it, a rolled up copy of Metro, and the small hardback book with a green cover that he was now reading. I glanced over and saw that the book was written in Arabic. Nothing particularly unusual in a man reading the Qur'an, but for some reason I stiffened slightly, and began watching this man's demeanour very closely, and couldn't take my eyes off his hands.

Did he seem edgy? Distracted? Nervous? I couldn't read his emotions and for some reason this made me more on edge. I work near several of the stations which were attacked on July 7th 2005, and often walk past the small plaque outside the BMA which has been placed as a memorial to those killed on the London bus blown up in Tavistock square.
Due to three out of the four explosions on July 7th being below ground, most of the pictures from the tube bombs were of blackened survivors. The front page image for that day though was the later bus explosion, red London double-decker with its roof blown off exploding rows of seats identical to the one I was now sat on.

As we went over Waterloo bridge heading towards Waterloo station, the image of the blown-apart bus ran through my mind, followed by images of explosions, imagined scenes of the aftermath of a terrorist attack... and then the man sat next to me started reaching into his bag.

It was too much. my pulse rate must have quadrupled. I stood up, "sorry, this is my stop", lunged for the bell at the top of the stairs, dived down them, pushed my way through the crowds on the lower deck and out of the exit doors.

The bus carried on over Waterloo bridge and on its way to SE1. I wandered down to Waterloo station and found another service to take me to my destination. The news reported no atrocities in London that evening. My fellow passenger was probably just another person heading home after work, using public transport and following their religion as millions in the city do every day.

I did wonder what this little incident said about me though.
Am I racist?
Failing in my duties as a citizen by not reporting what might have been 'suspicious activity'
Being whipped into a state of fear by a government trying to hold onto power?

I do know it took a couple of minutes before I got my breath back and stopped feeling unwell though.

And after all that, the flat was unsuitable.

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I remember getting a train at York just after the July Bombings and the Stockwell shooting. I was looking at the armed policemen in front of me and my main thoughts were:

1) I have a big bag (I was going home to visit my parents)
2) I am of mixed race and have a beard
= No way in hell would I run for a train for risk of being shot.

Paranoia makes you interpret normal things to an extreme, whether or not that paranoia is constructed by the government. It was probably paranoia behind both of our thoughts. Didn't you do psychology? You should know more about this than me!

Maybe you should take an english translation of Qur'an on your next journey?
It's a fine line between paranoia and alertness - and in central London, it doesn't do any harm to be alert to the many potential threats to your wellbeing [terrorist attacks are unlikely, getting run over or being mugged rank as somewhat higher in likelihood]
As to the english Qur'an on public transport, as I recently got myself a beard I see no reason to scare other passengers or nervous armed police. Though I do wonder whether it might be an idea to at least try reading it in the safety of my own home.
It would be amusing to start a conversation with someone on London public transport... even more so if it were about interpretations of Qu'ranic verses!
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