One of the reasons I recently left London was the fearful over-crowding, buses and tubes packed every day of the week. I don’t vote UKIP but I was also tired of moving in crowds whilst hardly hearing an English voice.
Oxford is multi-cultural, but the majority are English. It’s the most expensive town outside the capital with house prices ten times higher than average earnings. As you would expect in such a prestigious university town over two fifths of the population have a university degree. There are a lot of ‘yummie mummies’ about, with elegantly coiffed hair and size eight charity shop dresses originally from Boden. In the Uhuru Wholefoods cafe on the Cowley Road, they chew the quinoa over the local schools, food intolerances, allerigies and alternative medical remedies.They tend to be cyclists but as I still travel by bus, I mainly sit with white, fat, failing people, a group I haven’t spotted in London for years. I think they used to be called working class. Seeing them again comes as quite a shock.
The girls on Oxford buses are easily identifiable as English by their grey skin, scraped back dyed blonde hair and excess weight. On my first trip into the historic town I sat by a young girl with an enormous pasty face. Her two year old in his buggy lay back, hardly moving, eyes half closed, his waxen face smeared with mucus.
‘Does your baby have a cold?’ I asked her prissily, sounding like a social worker from the 1950s.
‘He’s alright,’ she said, fondly. ‘Just bored being stuck in his chair when he wants to run about.’
She dug in her bag and pulled out a wet- wipe. He couldn’t take it and I could see he was in pain. She sat back gazing at her mobile. I shifted my eyes but they kept returning to the baby’s exhausted face. His eyes flickered and rolled back in their sockets. I’d never seen a really sick baby before but I knew this was one.
‘You should take him to the doctor,’ I said, trying not to sound critical, taking more the approach of a timid anthropologist.
‘Have a look at this,’ she said showing me a photo on her mobile. It was the baby, this time his face covered in blood, clotted and fresh.
‘He’s been hit in the face,’ I said, sliding into a state of shock. ‘No,’ she said almost laughing. ‘He woke up like that this morning.’
‘You must take him to the doctor,’ I said again.
‘We’ve got to wait for the paediatrician,’ she said, parroting some words said to her. ‘I’m taking him to my Mum’s today.’
As we got off I watched her bump the buggy down onto the pavement, his small arms waving in distress. As she waddled away I wondered if the grandmother would help the child, whether anyone would. Later, if that great Oxfordian the Prime Minister in his Witney constituency, ten miles west, ever sees these whey faced people and their wan babies. The people of Witney share an accent and a county with them but they are prosperous and so live in an entirely different way, in homes built of brick not concrete, and they eat distinctly different food.
On the bus recently a white mite suddenly piped up the word, ‘Chip.’ Her doting Dad was delighted. I think it was her first word. It seemed a pity there was no reconstituted potato magnate from Aldi Potato Wedges or McCain Homefries sitting nearby who might have used her in an advert.
Unlike the lean, hard-driven travellers in London these roly-poly people are approachable and often generous. I recently saw a hugely obese young woman sit down panting so hard I thought she would collapse.
‘I can’t breathe,’ she wheezed as her partner scrabbled for an inhaler.
‘I’ve got a present for you,’ she told him gratefully after she recovered, pulling out a whole Swiss Roll. She broke it in two and he crammed half in his mouth.
‘Oh dear, I can’t eat this,’ she said looking at the packet and then looking at me. ‘Milk chocolate is bad for me. I can only eat the dark.’
For a moment I was back in the Uhuru Cafe before I remembered that although it was situated in a nearby street it was also a whole world away.