14 June 2019

Crossing Divides ‘On the move’

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Commuters on London tube. Photo: Mike Knell
Commuters on London tube. Photo: Mike Knell

Could we talk to each other more on public transport?

That is the challenge put to the nation by the BBC ‘Crossing Divides’ season, writes Sunder Katwala, which is holding an ‘on the move’ day today, to encourage people to spark conversations on their journeys.

But this is Britain – so is it going to work? Might people react with horror to the idea of talking to strangers – or will it turn out to go better than they might have expected? If it might not prove too hard a sell in Liverpool or Sheffield, will those travelling across capital cities in Belfast or London be harder to persuade?

Several transport companies are trying various interventions to encourage participation – and to find out what makes a difference (and what doesn’t). The idea of a ‘chat carriage’ – as an alternative to the quiet coach – on west coast trains sounds like a good idea, as a way of tackling the anxiety about whether other people would welcome an effort to strike up a conversation.  Conversation cards and announcements from drivers will also try to break the ice.

There is a deeper purpose, of course. A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross found that over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages – more than the population of London – are either always or often lonely. Loneliness particularly affects older people, for some of whom a chat on the bus might be their only social interaction that day, even that week. And those of us working to bridge divides in British society know that positive social contact with someone from a different background to your own is a proven way to break down stereotypes and help integration. It’s one reason why we launched the Remember Together campaign with the Royal British Legion last year, which will be bringing people together once again this November.

I tried my own experiment in conversation, at the end of the World Cup summer last June.

England surprised us all by reaching the semi-finals – the progress of the team lifting the mood of the country, sending some of us slightly mad for a few weeks. I had been wearing a waistcoat in tribute to Gareth Southgate as the team progressed in the tournament, but the special occasion of a semi-final required another step-up – so I found myself wearing a red and white England jester hat to watch the game and bring luck to the team.

England took the lead but were defeated in extra-time. I felt gutted – but proud of what the team had achieved, and how it felt like it had shifted the mood of the nation. It struck me that one way to maintain that spirit for just an hour or two longer would be to carry on wearing the jester hat on my journey home, on the tube across London, then on the train home south of London to Dartford.

As a conversation-starter, it proved remarkably successful. Lots of people wanted to talk about the pride and disappointment in the team – and about what the experience of watching the tournament had meant.

Of course, that was an unusual night.  Lots of people had been watching the game, so many of us already had that experience of shared hope and shared defeat in common.

The only thing that I hadn’t realised was that my jester hat – with its red and white sections – was not as clear in its message as I might have assumed.

A friendly older Irish man smiled broadly at me as I got off the tube. “Croatia?”, he asked, giving me a friendly thumbs-up. “No – England”, I replied, sadly. He commiserated with our defeat. I could sense he might well have been supporting the other team.

I won’t be wearing the jester hat tomorrow but will try to strike up a conversation on the daily commute into Charing Cross. Like many people, I feel a little bit apprehensive about how it will go – but can there be any harm in trying?

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