Tuesday, October 16, 2007

morning crowds

It's like they're mirages beamed across England. As I set off down the road, there they are, the two girls walking with their showy backpacks, one khaki-green and the other pink, the showiest bags in the whole school. They walk stolidly - average girls to look at, not plain but not stunners, already verging on portly, already making a united front for values. Walking together, matching their bags (is it competition? or security?) they form an oiled cell that slides past the motley collection of other schoolchildren without any other contact. Choices are being made - have already been made.

Seven miles and twenty minutes away, I drive into the next town and there they are again: the khaki bag and the pink bag, the two girls walking stolidly (they are never late) with the best bags in the whole school. A little further on I meet them again. Now they're a couple of years younger. True, one of the backpacks is now red-and-blue floral on a cream ground - but they're making the same kind of appearance, with the same exclusivity and the splendid bags. The same (if I can use a plant metaphor) form of growth.

These backpacks are big and roomy, and not cheap. They were all bought at the end of summer for the new term, and they still look new. The designs are camouflage or hibiscus (last flourish of the surfing-lifestyle look that began to fall from grace three or four years ago). But now here's a gang of boys hoofing it along the street. The colours and designs on their backpacks are relatively hard to describe, just the odd flash of white in a sporting stripe, or a Nike tick, the colours mud and gunmetal. What's noticeable is the way the backpacks are worn, with shoulder-straps elongated to the fullest extent so the bag bumps along on your arse (copyists! I did this for years when the buckles on my canvas straps wouldn't hold up).

Every weekday morning the schoolkids make a black ribbon along both sides of this road, - while in between there's a rush-hour queue of vehicles backed up from the roundabout, stealthily leaking exhaust-fumes. The black is because of the uniforms, which everyone is wearing, though with the usual essential adaptations: trousers sagging, shirt-tails flying, and skirts hitched into minis by rolling them round the belt.

A bus pulls up and shakes from side to side as all the pupils pile out of it. The two boys at the back are in that carnival gear of broad-striped tracksuit bottoms, baseball caps and England soccer regalia that tells you they've bussed in from the town's roughest and remotest estate. It's clothing that hasn't been in fashion for twenty years, if ever, but it still carries with it an electric charge of "the wrong side of the tracks". With their thin, unhealthy faces they look different from their round-cheeked peers, and they walk differently. They look like they're going into college like all the rest, and they look the same kind of age, but their clothing suggests they're done with school - it's a puzzle I can't work out.

Two Asian boys come up the street: remarkably like all the others and yet not quite: it's that big green box that at first I mistake for a lunch-box. Then I realize it's a class project, but it's too elaborate to go in a backpack. And they're already tapping on a phone, earlier in the day than anyone else. Then there's the one black boy - this isn't a black area - who stumbles along in an ungainly way on the outskirts of a group of five, towering over his class-mates. I feel sorry for him. It's drudgery being on the outskirts, even if they are your mates; doing all that listening and never getting a chance to speak up except if the others invite it by making a joke about you.

The Polish children are difficult to spot. I know there must be many because the meat-pie factory, the cement factory, the renowned local brewery ("a taste of Olde England"), and the aggregate depot at the railhead, are all staffed mostly by Poles. I recognize the look of the kids' elder sisters, tall, blond and sharp-cheeked, browsing along the shelves of Asda, but that's only because then I can hear them talking. It's quite suddenly the commonest non-English language in this part of England, so much so that I'm beginning to feel politeness now demands learning at least a handful of Polish phrases. The only word I know is "Czesc" ("Hi" - pronounced "cheshch").

Here comes a bunch of clever girls - slouchily dressed, modest, all shapes and sizes, their faces like shop fruit, hilarious with mockery of everyone else. Socially they have a low status, but they make me smile. Then there's a group of boys with one girl, who is very pretty and confident; dominating them, but with an air of making sure she's seen to be successful by, for example, the famous bags on the other side of the street. Whatever may be claimed healthwise about this daily stroll among the car-fumes, it's a great arena for establishing social presence. And everyone's behaviour, I suppose, is more or less energised by some level of awareness of the captive audience in the queue of cars.

Now here comes a flock of boys on bikes, yawing along from side to side with each push of the knees, somehow recalling the step-machine in a gym. The social principle is clear: you always ride your bike standing up on the pedals. The seat is only used for sitting on if the bike is completely stationary, for example when everyone is pulled up at a street corner in the evening. This principle can indeed be laid aside on the rare occasions when you're gunning from A to B on your own, but that isn't the bike's primary function. It's for social display, like the accessorized cars of their elder brothers.

For the moment the kids own the street. A runner in a light fleece (someone who works odd hours, perhaps a nurse) cuts through the throng, lost in music. The fat boy walking on his own has ear-phones too. A boy and girl walking together; tall, dignified, a little dull like all early pairers. But I've shared enough of my stereotypes; the day after writing this, I drive past the same crowd and see how much I missed in my description, how much I had shaped the facts into the stereotypes which are the eye's only available tools for making sense.

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