30 Jan 2013

Syria, Europe and Uganda via the Metropolitan line

I’ve been to Timbuktu, but had never been to Northwood. Indeed, I thought it might be Norwood – a confusion of two “Nors” one north, one south of London.

Fortunately, I had the right one. As I left the Metropolitan line tube train yesterday morning I suspected I might be the willing victim of a pushy mum with an extremely able 13 year old daughter. But in the event, I was to find myself no victim.

Even as I turned off the platform I became aware of two small girls in green uniforms, quite clearly bound for the same school as I. Each clasped their father’s hand.

“Jon Snow, Channel 4 News,” cried one. “It’s him,” replied the other. They may have been twins, perhaps eight years old.

I asked their father where he came from. “Syria,” he replied. For a moment I caught my breath. He went on: “86 per cent of us want all this to stop.” I knew he was speaking of home and carnage. Here he’s a consultant at a major London teaching hospital. His wife is too. I thought what talent we have sucked from this ghastly tragedy.

Soon we were through the school gates and having pointed me on my way, we bade each other goodbye. I marvelled that the children watched Channel 4 News with their father every night. “So boring,” I ventured. “No,” they cried. “We like it, we learn about things from it, and anyway, we like your socks.”

Within a moment a ten-year-old Malaysian Chinese girl carrying a violin came up to me. “Are you lost?”, she asked. I said, “I don’t think so”. “Where are you going?”, she asked. “To the Head-teacher’s office,” I replied. “I’ll take you there,” she insisted, and she did.

My chaperone, the now 14-year-old girl who had invited me, was waiting on the doorstep. I had run into her mother at a charity fundraiser. She’d asked for my autograph for this self same daughter.

I’d given it to her on my business card. Mother and the child had used the information on the card to write an irresistible email begging me to come to assembly. So here I was.

Standing in front of 1,200 girls aged 11 to 18. Bright, diverse, and craning with interest. I talked for twenty minutes about news and current affairs and ended with my absurd account of nearly shooting the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin dead. It went down a storm.

Then to the sixth form for a politics class. Shy at first, and then a collective torrent of questions about politics both sides of the Atlantic.

I tried to interest them in Europe. They appeared completely uninterested until I asked them, did they want to stay in or out. A universal, if un-exuberant “in” prevailed. Finally, “do you think our constitution should be codified?”, asked one. “For sure”, I answered, surprised by the acuity of the question.

I left the place uplifted, but aware that I had spent two hours in a school the like which only 7 per cent of the population could ever hope to enjoy.

Later in February I shall be going to a girls school in the state sector… I shall report back.

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