Every now and then a hunger gnaws at me. To breathe easy; to take great
gulping breaths of the world with the trust that no one is going to come at
me from behind and knock me over.
Perhaps it’s an island thing. We are stoic about the violence around us. A
constant fear is part of our lives. Fear as we drive, fear on the roads,
fear as we walk, fear as our youth drive, even fear in our schools. We live
with it pretending it’s not there.
It’s the only way or we’d go mad.
This fear takes up too much space. Fighting fear with life takes up too much
But when you push it out of your mind, there is a healthy roaring hunger for
the world—its buildings and parks, its institutions and ideas and its
people—infinitely various and fascinatingly same. Push past more fear here,
of terrorism and bomb threats. Still.
Time stands still in airports, in cosmopolitan cities. There is nothing of
the city woman in me and everything of the country bumpkin. My head swings
back and forth fascinated, not knowing where to feast my eyes.
Should I stare at that little brood of British Sikhs with their turbans, the
tall African girl with silky skin and arrogant eyes, the group of Hasidic
Jewish men with locks, the British girls without makeup, bouncing about in
ballet shoes and uncombed hair with glorious freedom, the group of Japanese
men moving like penguins, with an invisible barrier around them? It goes on
and on. So many lives, so many ways to live it.
That’s the hunger that an enormously cosmopolitan city like London feeds. My
husband has stopped being embarrassed now. I talk to everyone. Share your
life. Share your country. Is it different? Is it the same?
I spoke with the young African girl sitting opposite me on the train from
Oxford to London crocheting. I watched how on the packed train, people left
the three seats around her vacant, moved on. They may have reacted to her
many beads around her neck. Whatever. People are scared of whatever is
She is the daughter of a surgeon from Ghana. She went to one of England’s
most prestigious (and expensive) private schools in Malvern. That she is
doing a degree in music. Not hip-hop either. Her laugh rings out as she
pulls out from a bag, dozens of shades of wool. She collects it.
She carries it. She finds wool peaceful. I do too, watching her crochet as
we whip past fields of heather.
I talk to housekeeping in Oxford. A young girl with her hair in a ponytail,
she wears an apron and holds a tray of cleaning products. She has degrees in
chemistry and biology. She is about to do another intensive degree, law, she
says, in one year. Then she wants to work with the United Nations for a year
with refugees, in Africa. Her father is a financial adviser. Her mother is a
professor. But she cleans toilets. Does an entire degree in one year.
Determined to find her own way in the world. Cleaning toilets helps her to
define her independence, her determination to live a packed, useful life.
I watch the man slumped against the train. His eyes closed, his body curved
like a foam plastic noodle. We shout for help as he slips as if in slow
motion. The train is about to pull away. By the time officials rush to his
aid he falls. There is despair there, addiction and loneliness.
I talk to the dean of one of Oxford’s colleges. He earns less than a young
graduate in the financial district of London. His pension will be lunch in
the halls. But he will never leave. No value can be placed on the pursuit of
knowledge within the splendid medieval colleges lovingly persevered for
centuries by men like himself.
There are many ways of living and thinking.
Pushing us past the fear.