Belfast Telegraph

How offer of seat set off a bizarre train of events

By Eamonn McCann

Another year older. The reality came home on a day in June when I stepped onto a crowded tube train, already late for the event I'd travelled to London to attend. I grasped the overhead rail to steady myself and prepared to stare into the middle distance, which is what you do to avoid eye-contact on London underground trains.

Scarcely had the train lurched into movement when I became aware of a willowy young woman a couple of seats away standing up, smiling brightly and beckoning. I was momentarily taken aback. This hadn't happened to me in some considerable time.

Then I realised with an inward gasp of apprehension that what she was doing was offering me her seat. This hadn't happened to me ever.

My mind was suddenly flooded with memory of an Oppenheimer gig in Sandino's a couple of years back when I stopped at the merchandise table at the back of the room to buy a copy of Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It, a somewhat brilliant piece by the Belfast duo Shaun Robinson and Rocky O'Reilly, who for a time were middling big in Japan and parts of the US, but broke up in 2012.

O'Reilly looked up as I approached, proferring my tenner. "Are you Eamonn McCann?" Well, yes, I modestly conceded. To which he responded on the instant, "My granny thinks you're great." A bad moment. But what was happening on the Tube was worse.

Ah no, I flustered, thanks, but no need, I'm happy standing. By this time, though, she was up and had taken a step towards me, with a wave of her hand to convey that the now-empty seat was mine.

Over the course of the next second, a tangle of paranoid thoughts formed in my mind. Were other passengers wondering, "Why is she offering that fit-looking fellow her seat?" Or, alternatively, "Isn't it nice these days see a youngster showing a bit of respect for the older generation?"

Then another thought began to gnaw. If I refuse the seat, will somebody think it's because she is black?

Towards the end of the lingering second, I had a brainwave. "It's okay, I am getting off at the next stop." She accepted this graciously and resumed her seat But now I had a new problem. I was going to have to get off at the next stop, which would make me even later.

Still, no escape. I had to do it, which I did with a vague backwards nod of acknowledgment towards the woman.

Then I had one of my brilliant wheezes. The platform was crowded. People were squeezing on and off the train all along. It occurred to me that, if I managed to scurry through the throng, I could get back onto the train two or three carriages up with nobody, especially the woman, any the wiser.

So this is what I did, rather chuffed at the finesse with which I had escaped a difficulty that would have left many another floundering for appropriate etiquette. I stood swaying contentedly enough until the train reached my destination, Russell Square. I stepped off. The rain started moving again, slowly at first, catching up with me as I walked along the platform towards the exit.

As the carriage I had originally been in came level, I saw the woman regarding me with wonderment through the window. A number of other passengers, perhaps alerted by the direction of her startled gaze, swivelled round to observe.

I smiled in a way which they probably thought demented, shrugged my shoulders elaborately, spread my arms and mouthed incoherently to indicate, "It's not what you think, honestly it's not," without being entirely certain what it was that I thought they were thinking. The train gathered speed into the tunnel and was gone, end of story.

Except that now I became aware that a number of those who had disembarked with me at Russell Square and who had been streaming past had stopped as if abruptly brought to a standstill by the sight of somebody grinning like Alfred E Neuman, gesticulating with wild abandon and miming a mouthful after a train.

Some stepped sideways and arced around me, as if fearful that I might pounce on them. I stood where I was minutely inspecting the tube map on the wall until the platform was clear.

Then I ran across Red Lion Square to Conway Hall which, because it is owned by the South Place Ethical Society, allows odds and sods of all sorts to use as a venue for meetings, arriving just in time to make my speech about the need in these unpropitious times for us all to maintain a sense of revolutionary elan, which is not always easy.

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