On The District Line

From Anarchy, number 107 , January, 1970.

0n the District Line
Peter Reilly

Tube trains on the District Line are not usually full at ten o’clock in the evening. The theatres and the pubs have not yet turned out their customers and the evening class students are already home. Last Monday evening there were only four people in my section of the carriage. In the seat next to the narrow door at the front end of the carriage a youngish man, dark-skinned, possibly an Indian, sat with his legs, crossed holding an umbrella. A middle-aged man sat opposite him and another middle-aged man opposite me at the other end of the row of seats.
Shortly after the train pulled out of Whitechapel Station a number of youngsters entered through the doors connecting with the adjacent carriage. They came in aimlessly, shuffling, talking, until one of them noticed the dark face in the corner. Immediately they slumped into the seats next to and opposite him. There must have been eight of them because there were not enough seats in our section so two went on and sat further down the carriage. The boys were about fifteen or sixteen years of age-probably still at school. Their hair was short but not cropped, they wore jeans and boots but not the rest of the skinhead uniform. Perhaps they were “Peanuts”. I don’t know.
One of the group, a fat, pink boy, asked the man in the corner if he had a half-a-crown piece. The Indian shook his head.
“Let’s have a look at your umbrella.”
“What?”
“Let’s have a look at your umbrella.”
“No.”
The fat one’s hand reached for the thick cane handle but the other held the umbrella firmly.
“Sure you haven’t got a half-a-crown piece.”
“No, I can’t help you.”
There was a shout from further down the carriage,
“Ask him if he’s got a half-a-crown piece.” Six heads turn.
“We done that already, you git.”
“He reckons you’re a queer.”
“What?”
“He reckons you’re a queer.”
“Yes, he says you’re a queer.”
“He says you’re as queer as him”-indicating the fat boy-“and that’s saying something. Ha, Ha, Ha.”
One boy has pulled his mac over his head and is peering along his nose and over the edge of its collar. Another says, “Let’s try the next carriage.”
“No point, we’re getting off at Mile End.” (Sometime we must have stopped at Stepney Green. I had not noticed.)
The two return from further down the carriage and stand, strap hanging, in front of the man. Their backs mask his face but I see their hands pulling at his umbrella. A thin-faced, dark haired boy is staring at me. I stare back.
Surly, chin jutting, he says, “What’s the matter?”
I pause but can think of nothing better than, “A good deal by the look of it.”
We are nearing Mile End. More of the boys stand up crowding around the man, the corner, and the door. I can now only see his feet; which one of them is kicking! I half stand holding the arm of my seat. The handle of his umbrella appears as one of them pulls it, jerking its owner forward. The doors open and the boys leap-off. A sudden punch is aimed at the Indian’s face by the last to leave. They are gone. But the doors are still open and one is back, throwing a punch around the glass partition, and gone again.
I notice now that the other two men are also standing. Boys leap on and off. Now the Indian is waving his umbrella as the boys taunt him from the platform aiming kicks at him through the narrow door. Another taunts us-standing whites-from the other door, and one of’ the men moves swiftly towards the door. The doors close. And then open. The boys crowd forward again.
Two uniformed London transport men struggle through them to get on the train. The Indian thinks that they have come to investigate and expostulates. “They are trying to get me. . .” But London Transport doesn’t want to know. “Nothing to do with us”, they say and pass down the carriage away from us. The doors close andI sit down.
The doors open. The dark haired one is threatening me from the platform. “Come on, you want to have a go.” I remain seated and wave him away. “You just go and change trains” The doors close. We three are seated now. The Indian stands, turning, bewildered, to each of us, “Did you see. They were trying to get me. . “His hands, one holding the umbrella, are half raised; his voice incredulous.
We are embarrassed. One says, “They’re a disgrace to the mothers that bore them.” The other, “They’re the same lot that caused trouble at Aldgate East the other night”. I say nothing. The Indian sits. We all sit; in the same isolated silence that existed before the incident.
Afterwards. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and fear. Fear-I was afraid with the stomach sinking feeling of personal danger. But further, deeper, I was afraid of what it might mean. I saw recently a book called The Yellow Star. In photographs it traces the history of the Nazi persecution of the Jews from “Juden Raus” to the final solution. I was afraid that I had seen the first photograph in a new book.

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