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It was one of those moments in British politics that we metropolitan liberals particularly enjoy. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, let his veil slip a little as he denounced the foreigners changing the very nature of the country in the spittle-flecked prose of radio phone-in. There are some serious issues around immigration but Nigel prides himself on his common touch and so recounted a train journey from hell, surrounded by hordes of immigrants.
This truly was an ordeal to rival Scott’s final push to the Pole. London Bridge, New Cross and Hither Green sped by in a blur of Spanish or Urdu – or Welsh, perhaps. Not till Nigel reached the sunlit uplands of Grove Park were the delicate Farage lugholes able to discern “English being audibly spoken” in the carriage. This will doubtless have been the Lewisham Beowulf Society, whose members travel the commuter lines reading excerpts from the heroic poem.
I know how Nigel feels though. Nothing stirs the heart like the sound of the mother tongue on a rush-hour train. Many of us yearn for the days when Chaucer was routinely heard on the main routes out of London. This, I’m sure, was Nigel’s real point. You just don’t hear Chaucer quoted on the train any more – although I did hear some last week. At least I thought it was; actually, it turned out to be a couple of Norwegian exchange students trying to work out the best route to Sevenoaks.
Regulars on that route expressed surprise at Nigel’s experience. But perhaps he was excluding modern English or any variant not punctuated with phrases from Ukip dialect such as “What ho, squire!” or “How’s the good lady wife?”
In any case, Nigel should know better. The whole point of being English on a train is not speaking at all. If he did hear English being “audibly spoken” it was probably foreigners, anyway. No self-respecting Brit – at least not Nigel’s type – would be caught mouthing off on a train. “Not a peep till Perivale” was the unspoken motto of the Central Line during my school days – and England was undoubtedly a better country for it. Even now, I wonder if the English he heard was not in fact the glottal twang of Australians on their way to a rugger match in Eltham.
This surely is the bigger issue for the Ukip members dreaming of the lost land just a few stops beyond Grove Park. No wonder they no longer recognise their own country. In the good old days for which they yearn, the only audibly spoken English one expected to hear on a busy commuter line was an apologetic “Excuse me” or the clipped tones of a lady asking a groper if he’d mind awfully removing his hand from her bottom. Not that Ukip is dogmatic about it; the party would always make an exception if Trevor Howard needs to talk urgently to Celia Johnson.
And yet, in our beastly modern country, the sensitive Ukip eardrum is not only assailed by foreign dialect but also by English accents discussing soccer or dinner arrangements on their mobiles as they trundle through Orpington – or perhaps the odd Ukip voter captured on YouTube ranting about the number of black faces in the carriage. This surely was the real point Nigel was making – it was a primal scream for the era of silent commuting, an era when all that was heard was the rustle of a newspaper and a sly chuckle over a solved crossword clue.
This is the social cohesion Nigel worries about: the inability to hear English people not speaking to each other. How could a Ukip member be reassured that indigenous Englishmen are ignoring each other in the time-honoured way if their silence is drowned out by other dialects?
And yet, with the right regulations, I am sure immigrants could be persuaded to conform. Many of them are thoroughly good eggs who just need to understand that speaking on trains is frowned upon, especially if it is audible.
Yet this is where the authorities let us down. Migrants are taught the name of the patron saint of Scotland, yet never told to keep schtum on a train – especially if you see a ruddy-faced man in a dark suit, sitting nearby.
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