These all occurred over six years ago, but they could have happened yesterday.
Route 250: Between Norbury and Thornton Heath (August 2008)
A Jamaican woman is screaming down her phone, slamming her fist. “I’m goin’ home to pray for my sister, because she’s a wicked woman! She’s a wicked woman. Dem church people doin’ shit. She’s a wicked woman!” Her anger seems to be welling up from a bottomless pit connected to an ocean of every conceivable evil: racism, slavery, oppression, depression, poverty, depravity, disease… Yet suddenly she peers out of the window and spots a little boy she knows. “Hello darlin’!” she coos, radiant, it seems, with happiness for two seconds. And then it’s back to rage and hatred. “She’s a wicked, wicked woman…”
Route 59: Somewhere around Oval (October 2008)
The last leg on a trip back from Paris. Somewhere around Oval a handsome young black man gets on and sits next to me at the front. I casually glance at a billboard outside the window, which uses the metaphor of slavery to advertise a Card Protection Plan. My companion bursts out laughing.
“It’s like slavery but changed” he observes. “That’s what art is all about – taking something and changing it. Metaphor. English people don’t understand metaphor.”
A pause. He introduces himself as Chief Kingsley, from Cameroon.
“Who can understand metaphor, then?” I ask, slightly puzzled.
“Africans can understand it. And most Europeans too.”
“Oh, and the Irish. The Irish are very good at understanding metaphor.”
He proceeds to tell me about a recent visit to the Writers’ Museum in Dublin.
“Have you read any Irish literature?” I ask.
“No, I didn’t stay there long enough – only a few days.”
I point out in my puzzlement that it would surely be possible to read Irish literature here in London.
“I don’t trust English bookshops. They change things, you know, they change things. I only like originals. I don’t like fakes.”
A night bus: Somewhere between Soho and South Woodford (June 2007)
It is well after midnight. We are going back to a friend’s house from a club and the same is probably true of many others on the bus. Behind me is a noisy bunch of English lads, and somewhere towards the back a mixed group speaking in Polish. At some point the English boys pick up on this fact and decide that it would be hilarious to shout the only Polish word they know at the top of their voices: kurwa (literally whore, but often used as a more general expletive).
I mentally roll my eyes and turn round to them.
“If you want to be a bit more original you could say ‘Ładna dupeczka’ – means nice arse.”
“Awesome! How do you say it again?”
“Wad-na du-pech-ka“ I enunciate as carefully as my tired, drunk state will allow.
“OK. Wad… Wadna du… Dupiska.”
I laugh and let them get on with it. Their enthusiasm outstrips their accuracy:
I smile to myself as I imagine what this must sound like to the Poles (assuming they are anything other than oblivious to the cross-cultural badinage going on in their honour):