Bus stop crows. That’s what Passenger called them in a song a few years ago.
Those hunched up, dark-quilted, sensibly-shod, woolly-hatted, patiently-resigned winter commuters that we can all recognise. Those of us lucky enough not to have a long commute only intersect with them on the rare days we take the train to London. Like this morning, when engineering work in the Surbiton area had ‘over run’, and the whole system was up the creek.
They sit and they stand, reading their books and papers, playing chess on their i-phones, watching stuff on their tablets, the good money they paid for the experience just some bitter memory.
‘Hopefully, we’ll make it through to London,’ says the chirpy guard, ‘but I wouldn’t bet on it.’ Someone rolls their eyes; someone else smiles without humour.
‘I’ve got absolutely nothing new to say, but the book says I’m supposed to give you five minute updates. So there’s your update.’ My neighbour goes on Twitter and tells a world that couldn’t care less how cross he is. I find myself wondering if his wife likes him quite as much as he thinks she does.
‘I’m not exactly sure what’s happening,’ the guard says after another half hour. ‘But fingers crossed, and all that.’ We cross our fingers. A patient clutching a wad of Royal Marsden Hospital admission paperwork looks like she wants to cry. She also looks like she has done a lot of finger crossing recently.
‘Myself and the driver have volunteered as we know the alternative route,’ says a new voice after Woking. We pass over a jammed section of the M25 and we thank the god of small mercies that we are moving at all. The Marsden patient rings admissions to check that she will be seen, even if late. A job interviewee calls in and is told to come in another day.
‘See it. Say it. Sorted.’ adds an annoying voice on the public address for the umpteenth time, like they could do anything even if we found a bomb. Like they could actually get through the packed carriages and check it out. Like they could defuse it if they found it. But this is Britain, where going through the motions is a rite of passage, where making the best of a bad thing is a central tenet of our further education.
About an hour later, we make it to Waterloo, the fact that we are the first train to get through all morning adding to the sense of pioneering adventure.
‘Myself and the driver thank you for your patience, and apologise for the delay.’
It is an eerie scene, Waterloo without the trains. Just the little crowd decanting from our own train and no one else there. No trains. No crowd coming through the barriers as we exit the other way. Just us, as we turn from crows to metaphorical penguins, waddling along our Ice platform to our delayed destinations.
My own delayed destination takes going through the motions and making the best of a bad thing to new heights, as I am going to listen to the Prime Minister telling me and 1500 other people that it’s all going to be OK with that Brexit business, and that she is listening to us intently. I saw her here two years ago and, like an actor in a substandard play, she has got better, even if the script hasn’t. She just delivers it with confidence borne of the room being full of the least critical people she will have come across in the last few months. You can tell that she thinks we are ‘her people’ and, judging by the applause we are urged to give her, she is right. She is a pessimist selling optimism, which is all she was asked to do. She takes questions freely and, as she leaves the stage, somehow we all know that we will have been the high point of her week. We might have been worried, sceptical even, but at least we weren’t Jacob Rees-Mogg.
I’m here under slightly false pretences, but I am here nonetheless, and in the lunch (sorry, ‘networking’) break, I am interviewed by the Morning Star and the Wall Street Journal for my views on what she said. Don’t think they singled me out as anything special…we all of us get interviewed on days like this. And I tell them honestly what I think, all the while secretly longing to attract Laura Kuensberg’s attention. There’s just something about that jaw line, I think, something about that Edinburgh brogue.
The general view in the arena is that we are in the mire, but that there is deeper mire on either side of us. ‘You can only piss with the dick you’ve got’, says some wag to his colleague in a stage whisper, and we all wish he hadn’t, only the man from the Morning Star has written it down.
But, as the rain teems down on the O2 and the Thames outside, and the networking session comes to an end, I start to feel the strange and powerful elation that comes from having surrendered a deep-seated prejudice. For while the majority of the room may still be male, pale and stale, every year it is slightly less their world, and there is a new breed out there calling the shots. Maybe I heard the uncomfortable word ‘diversity’ once, but I saw it everywhere. Inspirational people half my age running extraordinary businesses; who don’t think it’s any stranger to be openly gay than to be openly straight; who don’t believe it’s showy to have an ambitious sustainability plan, or pious to campaign in the workplace against slavery, single-used plastics, anxiety or loneliness. Who don’t operate under the cultural straight-jacket that has pinned down their predecessors. People who realise that the ‘next generation’ are as interested in the ethics of their prospective employer as they are about the details of the job, or its salary. And who will vote with their feet if they don’t find what they want.
And if that’s not exciting in the present mess, then nothing is.