The day before New Year’s Eve, I was travelling to London with my family.
The ten o’clock train to King’s Cross Station.
We were in carriage C, seats 45, 46 and 50.
A table to ourselves with access to the window and wall socket. The quiet coach.
As we approached, we found a family dozing in our place.
‘Ah, these are our seats, is it OK if we…’ All very English and polite.
The man woke his two sleeping children, four and five I estimate, and moved to the adjacent seats whereupon they immediately fell asleep.
I noted the man. His skin colour, the male pattern balding, the carrier bag he shifted from table to table, blue and green with Arabic writing.
He sat next to his wife, headscarf, holding her baby, perhaps a few weeks old.
At the next stop, another family boarded, ‘These are our seats,’ they announced to the family who were forced to move again.
(Why didn’t they just look for the empty rather than occupied seats? I reflected.)
My sense, confirmed by my children, was that our request had been more sensitive than the latter family, more, ‘Oh, look you are accidentally in our place,’ compared to, ‘Get out.’
Do you see where this is heading?
The journey from my home to London is short. 90 minutes.
I sat, chatting with my children, and imagining the world of the man who was now diagonally across from me.
His two sons, wearing identical blue track suit bottoms and tops, a pattern I often see in families who are hurried, pressed financially when the mum buys in bulk; the baby was silent, occasionally mewling.
All that has happened these past three months, I have wondered about my place in the world, in society and on this train.
I considered the family’s movement a microcosm of the fate of the Palestinian People.
‘This is our land, please move,’ then, ‘Move again.’
I know the comparison is flawed; this is what was in my mind.
Yes, my imaginings are harebrained.
I considered the father’s occupation, the family’s situation.
Were they Palestinian? Syrian? Afghan? Refugees? Relocating?
Why, on an early train, did they all sleep for the 90 minutes of the journey? Perhaps they have nowhere to live, constantly on the go. The dad’s Apple Watch was an early generation, what did that indicate?
All these questions never answered.
The family who replaced them, consisted of two women, I imagine early 30’s and two girls, six or seven.
The women talked for 90 minutes. Those conversations that are impossible to unhear, an hour and a half of their life’s trivialities, their party experiences and relationship intrigues.
For a time, I listened to white noise and played with my phone.
On Wednesday I attended a meeting of my organisation’s BAME network.
The chair had invited me following a discussion in December where I expressed my frustration at Judaism being omitted from a Trust document relating to world religions and their death practices; a guide intended for staff, for them to support bereaved families.
‘We don’t have many Jewish patients,’ the author explained. I left it there; I didn’t ask how many Jains, Zoroastrians or Bahá’í we employ or support.
It began as expected.
‘Oh, hi Rod, are you sure you are in the right meeting?’ The corollary being, this is the BAME group, and you aren’t one of us.
‘No, I’m in the right place.’
Some of the discussion related to the purpose of the network (which has struggled to gain traction/membership). ‘What is the point of the network?’ I asked, ‘Is it to support BAME people? Is it to facilitate diversity and inclusion? Is it to encourage our overseas employees to feel more welcome?’
All of these and more.
We then discussed who or what is BAME.
For readers outside the UK who might not be familiar with this acronym, it stands-for, ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic,’ it is the gamut of not-white although as we know, the world is more complicated than this.
Are you Asian if your grandma is from Madras and the rest of your family are Norwegian? What about your mum or your great-grandfather? What proportion gives you an ‘in’?
Is Judaism an ethnicity? It is a minority? Are either adequate?
We know from recent events both in Israel and at US and UK universities that Jews, in the eyes of some both don’t count, and are white.
The minutiae of Jews counting and not necessarily aligning with a skin-colour or race paradigm is an irrelevance.
My daughter is studying Camus.
Last week, she and her brother were discussing L’étranger – the Outsider or the Stranger, depending on your translation.
In the novel, the hero, Meursault kills a man, ‘The Arab’.
Like my eponymous train traveller, this is a man yet he represents a group, he is the intersection between the individualistic West and the collectivist East.
I see this in the figures of the dead.
I have come to know the names of many of those murdered at the events in the South of Israel on October 7. The ten or twenty thousand Palestinians killed in bombings remain anonymous.
‘64 members of my family were killed in a bombing,’ I heard on the radio.
That number is too big. It defies the limits of interpersonal understanding.
There is such a difference between people and person.
The killing of an individual versus the death of a group.
It was supposedly Stalin who said, ‘One death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.’
Who am I?
Am I a statistic or an individual?
The reality is that we are all both.
My lifelong fight against the translation of statistical methodologies to the practice of medicine, ‘Take this tablet, Evidence Based Medicine suggests that your will live six months longer.’
(Omitting that six months is an average, a combination of meta-analyses, the fate averaged over the existences of a hundred thousand similar middle-aged white men.)
You are you and you are you.
That grammatically tenuous sentence is accurate.
Our society is capable of investing millions in the fate of one old man yet equally able to ignore the fates of thousands.
We are taken where the media leads us.
If the Tik Tok Yellow Brick Road says ‘good’ we believe the hype.
Unquestioning, we don’t consider the limitations of language or computer algorithms.
This has been circular.
Part of me remains on the train.
In another world I talk to the man, Abed? Shahid? Hafiz? I find a commonality, we bond, we become friends, share hopes and fears, and live happily ever after.
The reality is disconnected.
It is Groundhog Day, it is October 7, it is Climate Crisis and cancer, start then start again.
Dizzying, the Dervish spins mindful and mindless.
Two places at once.
Up and down.
Schrödinger’s Cat mewling its last.
‘Wake up Rod, you are dreaming.’