I’m sat on Bethnal Green tube platform, waiting for the eastbound train to take me to Snaresbrook, ready for my last day of jury duty. We’re going to start with the judge’s summing up at about 10, and then deliberate, and then deliver our verdict. On Mr M. Mr M who doesn’t speak a word of English, washes dishes in a curry-house, and has been accused of threatening to kill two family members with a kitchen knife.
The seriousness of what we’re about to do this morning has been growing on me all night. York Hall pool is next to Bethnal Green tube, so I’ve been swimming there this week with the early morning crowd, rather than closer to home in the Lido, and it’s a very grumpy pool compared to the Lido, and this morning I was quite disgruntled anyway (thinking about Mr M), so I’ve come down here to wait for the tube in quite a bad mood. Harrumph.
And then. One of those London moments. A Hainault-via-Newbury-Park train pulls in, no use to me, harrumph, again, and a young black woman gets off, and our eyes meet. I don’t know why, but we smile at one another. And then our smiles grow larger and we’re grinning. Mouths open, grinning. Shared happiness. Shared something. Then she’s gone.
I remember the first afternoon I was by myself in London. Not quite
twenty years old and down on the sleeper train for a milk-round job
interview. I ate a sandwich in St Martins-in-the-Fields and was served
by a man whose demeanour denied any previous experience in which I
could embed him. Of course, I know now, he was homeless, one of the
homeless people who are helped find their feet at St Martins. I’d never
seen a homeless man before so I couldn’t identify his nervous
agitation, his almost palpable desire for me to like him, or at least
not to dislike him on sight. Perhaps if you’re homeless for a
while you become invisible. I walked through St James’ Park and along
Petty France and jumped when I saw the sign saying “Home Office”. It’s
all here, I thought, it’s all here, I’m here too, look at all these
people, look at these millions and millions of people, none of whom know who I am.
I took a tube to Hammersmith, it was a hot summer’s evening, and the
District line filled up with people of a middle-class prosperity that
was just as alien to me as had been the homeless man working in St
Martins. A man with a huge jaw (to my Scottish eyes) winked at me, as a
woman in a too-heavy overcoat cracked open a can of wine (it was the
1980s and this was a shocking sight). My anonymity among these masses
gave me a heady sense of liberation.
Time Passes, though, and eventually we all put down some roots – don’t
we? Now what I crave from London, and increasingly find, are the small
acts of recognition – the shopkeeper who remembers me, the barman who
knows what wine I want, the swimmers in the pool who say “hi” – all
those small acts add up – they integrate – to be, I think, almost a
definition of community integration. I know I am integrated, not
through any theoretical categorization of myself (“I am middle-class”,
“I live in Hackney”) but through my experience of interpersonal
interactions (“I smile at strangers on the tube and they smile back”,
“I am known by the man who serves me in my shop”, and most
fundamentally of all, of course, “I love and am loved”). If no-one in
London ever acknowledges your existence it’s the loneliest place on the
Which takes me back to Mr M. Prior to this last fortnight I have been
guilty of casual indifference to the Bangladeshi community in east
London, despite living cheek-by-jowl with them. They were “them”, and
not “us”. I have made comments like “why don’t immigrants learn
English?”. On the first day of evidence I was tutting away to myself
about the fact that all the witnesses required translators. I was a
walking, breathing Daily Mail editorial.
But as the evidence in the trial was produced, something very good and
quite separate to the charge emerged. We learned something about what
it is to live like Mr M. We met an amazingly community-spirited young
man from Bethnal Green who combines full time study with helping his
fellow Bengali speakers carry out those tasks the rest of us take for
granted, from communicating with British Telecom to giving an interview
to the police. Another prejudice of mine was knocked for six when a
very distinguished Bangladeshi man, who had tried to help Mr M’s
family, came to give evidence and told us sincerely that any form of
affirmation would serve for him: he didn’t require the Koran. Reading
this back, these seem like quite small matters: all I can say is that I
wasn’t unique in finding the experience quite profoundly transformative.
But nothing moved so much as to listen to the details of Mr M’s life.
“Why don’t immigrants learn English?” – hmmm. Quite how a man who works
50 hours a week in a Bengali-speaking kitchen, for less than the
minimum wage, is going to find the time or the money for language
lessons, was not a matter I had previously considered. But I will now.
What happens when things go wrong for someone like Mr M? They end up
spending the night on a bus stop in Whitechapel, because they can’t
explain to the police what’s happened to them. They are prey to
baseless accusations from evil people who’ve learned how to manipulate
the police system to their own spiteful advantage. Mr M was lucky – he
had made just one or two connections into London life, with those
witnesses we heard from, who were eventually able to help him. But he
was very nearly lost, and came close to complete dis-integration.
But for the random chance of being on his jury, I would never have
known of his existence. I said jury duty had been transformative, and –
without wanting to labour a political point (the feelings of desired
connectivity with my fellow Londoners explains to me why Toryism is
more than just mellow libertarianism) – for me it has been. There must
be something practical I can do to help with teaching English to new
Londoners, for example. If we all managed to reach out, just a bit
more, we’d help prevent more people falling through the interpersonal
Mr M was Not Guilty, by the way. Unanimous.