Let them eat guinea fowl

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown visits the provinces and finds oppression, degradation and casual racism on the train to Yorkshire:

I don’t have a beard, a hijab or a rucksack, yet my first-class train ticket is checked five times. Perhaps Trevor Phillips would say I wasn’t trying hard enough to integrate

Five times? That sort of thing sounds overly officious to me. And all because she has brown skin. Disgraceful behaviour, surely.

But let’s allow Ms Brown to tell the whole story before we condemn Britain’s railway ticket inspectors to the status of punctillious Nazis who only need only spot a brown face or detect a whiff of curry before they start their cruel discrimination over the number of times tickets are checked.

On my way to Harrogate to speak at a conference on hospice care, I am late, so rush on without a ticket. Standard class is packed and, with a column to write for the Evening Standard en route, I decide to go first class.

Well, we’ve all done it haven’t we? Decided to travel first class without bothering to pay for it. Who wants to stand next to so many standard class passengers if one doesn’t need to? Surely it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour for someone who has an important engagement to lecture people in Harrogate on hospice care? And an Evening Standard article to write as well. An important multi-tasking London journalist has certain standards.

As I sit down, I can feel some passengers staring at me. I don’t have a beard, a hijab or a rucksack. Yet five times staff ask for proof that I am entitled to be there.

The staring must have been a minor trial but can probably be explained away as the lazy curiosity anyone – of whatever tint – is greeted with when entering a train carriage for the first time. But asking five times if she is entitled to sit in first class carriage. That’s different. Especially if it’s the only ethnic minority in the carriage who is being picked on.

I inquire politely why the others aren’t having to produce their tickets. “Madam, I am doing my job. These are regular customers.”

Hmmm. I’m starting to smell a rat here.

If, in similar circumstances, I had been asked if I was entitled to sit in first class I think I might have confessed right away that I wasn’t. Then I would have explained why I was there and attempted to get away with as small a fine as possible by being friendly and co-operative with the ticket inspector who, after all, was just doing what he was paid to do for a wage considerably lower that that enjoyed by “feisty” Independent columnists.

So why put him to the bother of asking five times? I wasn’t there so can’t say for sure but can only presume from the context that Ms Brown didn’t see fit to answer the question the first, second, third, and fourth time it was asked of her and the poor man was treated to the polite enquiries as to why she alone was being picked on by him rather receiving an honest answer to his question.

Maybe it’s just me but if I wanted wanted to mitigate the trouble I was in for obtaining services by deception I would have tried to smooth things over with the ticket inspector rather than accusing him of racism. But as I say that’s just me.

Racism does exist in this country and is a problem that needs dealing with. If any readers of Harry’s Place think they have been asked for their first class ticket too many times and it’s only because of the colour of their skin rather than because they couldn’t actually produce the correct ticket my advice would be to write to the customer relations manager of the company at fault, copying the letter to the managing director. The letter should explain what happened in as much detail as possible including the exact time of the incident. Make a note of the conversation as as soon after the incident as possible because contemporaneous notes have a higher evidential value.

Something tells me this is not the route Ms Brown will be taking though and that the penalty charge she complains about in the article is more likely to have been levied for bumptious behaviour towards a member of the staff than because of her pigmentation. I’ll let you know how the struggle for justice goes if Ms Brown ever mentions it again in print.

Anyway, all’s well that ends well. Ms Brown informs us she was treated to a capital repast and sparkling company on the way back to London after her temporary sojourn in Harrogate:

A portly gent with grey hair sits opposite me. The guinea fowl takes time to come, so we start to talk. He is a rich Scots entrepreneur, dreadful right-winger on taxes, libertarian, too, anti-regulation and an enthusiastic bore about golf, but a great conversationalist. He shares his cheese platter with me and orders expensive champagne. Suddenly the staff are licking our boots, plying us with free chocs and smiles. Maybe I do belong, after all.

I suspect these last words are more true than she thinks.