Thomas Jones · Policemen on a Train

On the train to Rome the other afternoon, three bored young policemen were roaming the corridors. Maybe they'd been on since Trieste and were going all the way to Naples: who knows. In the compartment next to mine a young black woman, travelling by herself, was talking on her phone. One of the policemen stopped outside the door to her compartment and asked her to be quiet. She ended the call. The other two officers swaggered along to join their friend. The three of them stood in the corridor, in silence, staring at her. I thought I should go out and ask them what was going on, maybe tell them I was an English journalist, possibly one who was writing an article about racism, or about sexual harassment... Or maybe I should I just go and sit in her compartment. I didn't do anything though, telling myself (yeah, right) that I'd intervene if they went any further, though of course by then it would have been too late. Eventually they got bored of intimidating her and wandered off. Next time I'll say something, I resolved. Next time.


  • 16 September 2009 at 4:22pm
    requiemapache says:
    Train systems excite the totalitarian instincts of the mildly bigotted, I'm convinced of it.

    From the obliteration of local time by the Great Western Railway in 1840 onwards, railways have suceeded in making individuals objectified, miserable and helpless. Sometimes the exmaples are literary; Tess standing petrified at the crossing with a dairy cow as the thnderous harbinger of modernity hurtles across her path. On other occasions they're far more chilling, as succinctly described by the LRB's headline on a review of Eichmann: "Four pfennige per track km", this referring to the charge made to Jews as 'one way third class passengers' on the death trains. Full piece here:

    Whether you're a mildly racist functionary in a bumptious repressive state apparatus, a card carrying Nazi or the individual responsible for Virgin Trains bank holiday timetabling, an officious attitude to efficiency and "excellence" before humanity is generally regarded as an asset. Unless you're Swiss of course, in which case your fellow passengers are an even more immediate concern as this LRB letter (in response to an Alan Bennett diary mention of quiet coaches) illustrates:

    "Here (Switzerland) the quiet carriage (Ruheabteil) is indeed quiet. I saw one chap being berated (silently) for turning the pages of his newspaper too enthusiastically"

    Full letter:

  • 17 September 2009 at 12:15pm
    tom raymond says:
    I was shouted at by a train guard in Hanoi once. I can't remember why. I think that I was still struggling to do up my rucksack and we had stopped in the station. He barked at me but it felt barely personal; it seemed reflexive, if anything. That's the thing about hegemony: all sorts of responses can be, as it were, hardwired in so that they feel completely natural.

  • 18 September 2009 at 6:47am
    tom raymond says:
    Hah! But I think that my chap had a whistle and, let's face it, there's nothing that can subvert a uniform as effectively as a whistle.

  • 18 September 2009 at 8:38am
    Martin says:
    It's also worth considering the situation from the young woman's viewpoint. Your heroic, gentlemanly and macho actions (had they taken place) might have been perceived as patronising, sexist and even racist by a feisty feminist.

    • 18 September 2009 at 11:20am
      Mike Killingworth says: @ Martin
      Cheers, mate. you have solved a literary puzzle for me. In "The Big Sleep" there's a reference to a stained-glass window copy of Millais' "Knight Errant" and Philip Marlowe can't understand why the knight is dithering. But you and I can!

    • 18 September 2009 at 1:42pm
      Martin says: @ Mike Killingworth
      Yes, alone and palely loitering with intent.

  • 18 September 2009 at 9:59am
    gringo_gus says:
    People here seem to travel a parallel rail universe. Mine is populated by characters from Oh Mr Porter, and is a multiculturally subverted enterprise in the tradition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In Manchester its guards of many colours routinely and satirically announce down-at-heel Burnage where I get on as "Burnarge"; and Salford Crescent as "Salford Croissant", which I get off on.

  • 18 September 2009 at 8:15pm
    requiemapache says:
    Salford Croissant is very good.

    A highlight at Newark Northgate station on a Saturday in mid October was the announcement of the approaching London train and then, with gleeful mock empathy, "...there are 79 day shopping days left till Christmas". Possibly it's a Northern thing.

  • 20 September 2009 at 4:54pm
    David says:
    I'm vaguely reminded of crossing the French-Italian border on a train back in the bad old days of the Cold War. There was a Polish girl in our carriage, and citizens of Warsaw Pact countries were required to cross the border at a different point. Our pleas to the French border guard to let her through were in the end dismissed with 'and even if I make an exception, do you really think the Italian guards would?' This was, we thought, unanswerable.

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