I MET someone on the bus who I know from my church. I was glad to see her: meeting people in the street and chatting is so different from my former life in London. Unfortunately, some of these conversations are all too predictable.
‘I’ve just been to the memorial gathering for Hiroshima,’ she breathed, barely audible with self-righteous satisfaction as the bus set off.
I felt from her tone that only one response was expected. I didn’t give it.
‘Well, it ended the war,’ I said somewhat cheerfully.
‘That is such a lie,’ she said. ‘The Japanese had already sued for peace. It was just genocide by America.’
I said I remembered how my parents and grandparents talked about it, how they were convinced that it had ended the war and stopped yet more killing going on. From them I got a sense of how people thought about it at the time.
‘You have swallowed the propaganda,’ she said, ‘that’s what the Americans want you to believe.’
I had swallowed the wrong thing, but she hadn’t. As she is such a breathy, ethereal person, obviously so much a pacifist, probably gluten-free and fragile, I didn’t like to say much more. That type of woman is everywhere in east Oxford; good-hearted, virtuous, at least outwardly, and convinced that ‘they’, which could be the USA or the evil capitalist press, are excreting a constant stream of lies which only the truly misguided swallow.
We got to discussing life drawing and painting. I wondered if she was interested, thinking I’d seen her at one of the many local groups.
‘I don’t wish to be with naked people,’ she told me. ‘It’s not modest.’
Obviously, I hadn’t seen her there.
As we got off the bus a very elderly Muslim man pushed past us both. Many are extremely friendly, as if old age has freed them from certain constraints, but this one shot us a look of contempt. Seeing him flap past, I told her how bothered I’d been by a recent BBC Radio 4 edition of Poetry Extra about the Gujarati Writers Forum in the UK. Apparently, these Indian poetry groups are popular in many towns. The programme was introduced by the poet Daljit Nagra, winner of the Forward Poetry Prize, recipient of the Royal Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship, regular judge of literary awards with work on the GCSE syllabus, and Judith Palmer, Remain activist and a director of the Poetry Society. They talked of the ‘new forms’ these migrant Indian writers were finding, and the humour of some of the verse. We heard some elderly men chuckling before it was revealed, without any comment from Nagra or Palmer, that women are not allowed to take part in these groups.
Gujarat is mainly Hindu, ten per cent Muslim. I don’t know what religion is most represented by these poets, but an old Gujarati man was heard saying, ‘Ladies are not encouraged to write. They are the muse of men, not writers.’
There was a lot of haw-hawing, then another sage added, ‘We sometimes invite girls, the pretty ones, to come and dance for us.’
This was followed by jolly music and the sound of girls singing. It was impossible to imagine elderly white men making similar remarks on Radio 4 or anywhere without any question being asked. No comment was made about this flagrant and illegal sexism by Nagra or Palmer, who I would chance a bet are both good ‘feminists’.
I told my Oxford friend about this. She hadn’t heard the programme as she has no radio. She has no TV and doesn’t read any papers. ‘There’s no point. It’s all propaganda,’ she said. ‘That is the BBC view, that’s how they made it sound.’
‘There was no comment from the BBC,’ I expostulated. ‘My point is, they said nothing.’
‘They have their agenda,’ she said knowingly. ‘They always make things sound a certain way. You need to be careful not to be fooled by that.’
As we parted decisively, I was left wondering how it is that what she hears is so very different from what I hear. We are as divided as if one of us were speaking Gujarati. ‘Who are “They”, spreading this propaganda that fools like me swallow while you remain immune?’ I wanted to ask, but conversation between us has now ended, she in one camp, I in another. She silently battling the evil forces of capitalism, me being seriously and regularly duped.
I wonder, too, with what she and her tribe intend to replace the evil ‘They’ when the time comes? I’d rather not know but I suspect it looks a lot like Jeremy Corbyn.