Friday, 5 February 2010

Payment in Kind

I'm not great at smalltalk. I'm okay with customers, and I enjoy chatting to them, but I'm certainly not the best one in the team for in-store chatter. I'm useless at taxi banter. I either have nothing to say, or I can't think of anything to say, or I'm too tired, or I'm too focused on getting from A to B. I'm just not very good at it, and that is a bit shameful to admit. However, I recently found myself in a taxi on the way home from work.

"So how are you this evening?" The taxi driver asked in a friendly manner.

"I am good," I said, anunciating and emphasising each word positively. "How are you?"

"I'm good thanks. Exams right now?"

"No, no, no. I work at the deli, actually." I smiled. Smart coat, well spoken, getting a taxi: He thought I was a student. I lament each time I have to admit that I'm no longer a student. I miss the days of student discounts and the connotation of youth. Nah, I'm a "real" person now. It's quite an honour really, some of the female students in this town are very beautiful. Exquisite. But I'm not one of them, sadly.

"Oh really, that's a nice place! In town, yeah?"

"Yes, it is, it's a great place to work too. Bit quiet though, what with the students being away. Has it been quiet for you?" Students here are quite known for their use of taxi services.

"Yeah it has. I mean Christmas and New Year are busy, but it's a quiet time of the year, January."

"It's funny," I added, "residents complain about the students, but without them, the local businesses suffer."

"I wouldn't have thought that many students went to your place though." Taximan pondered.

"There are lot of wealthy students round here," I replied knowingly; he would have first hand experience of this too.

"Aye, you're right there. So how long have you worked there?"

"Just since I finished Uni, really. Moved back home and I'm saving up money at the moment."

"Oh, very good. What did you graduate in?" He seemed genuinely interested.

I lowered my head. My answer is a potentially dangerous answer to give to a taximan. It could open a can of worms. But I know I can play it right. I laugh at my self and reply in a self-depricating manner, "Politics. Nothing interesting."

"Oh wow, that's great. Now I don't know much about things, so maybe you can give me your expert opinion on the whole MP expenses scandal."

I considered my words for a moment and replied "It was out of order, it was totally out of order, but their claims were allowed under the system so I think it was unfair that they had to pay back money retrospectively. And I know MPs make the system, but I think a culture of abuse grew over the years. I don't know if the MPs who abused the expenses were being malicious and deliberately stretching the system, or if they are the kind of folk who are so removed from ordinary people that they thought it was genuinely acceptable. And I can't decide which is worse."

"Well, if they are that removed from ordinary people, should they be in power, really?"

"Exactly. MPs are members of the House of Commons...'commoners' allegedly."

"Aye. So what do you think of David Cameron?"

This is a difficult question to answer, though probably easier to answer than being asked what I thought of Gordon Brown.

"I don't know," I sighed. "He reminds me of Tony Blair at the beginning. He certainly seems to have a similar PR campaign: He's fresh, he's slick, he's promising something different. But that makes it hard to see if the Tory party really are different now."

"I think I agree with you there about being slick like Tony. But it's his background isn't it?"

"Well, yes, how many 'commoners' go to Eton?" I then argued that it doesn't mean you have to be out of touch, if you've got what people call 'life experience'.

"Aye, I don't know much about the politics side of it, but I was in the military 29 years, so I know a bit about 'life experience.' Do you think he is out of touch?" It was more an insightful question than a leading question, but still, I couldn't answer. I genuinely don't know. I didn't learn that bit at uni!

"So what do you think of Tony Blair then?" Again, a question out of genuine interest. I got the feeling he was really trying to get some light on the subject, rather than trying to get an opinion, or to share his opinion. This was interesting to me.

And it's not that I'm an expert in all of this. But I do know how to frame an argument or two.

"He promised a lot at the beginning, and I think he probably did a lot of good, changed the direction of the country in a way it needed to go. We needed to change, desperately. However, he probably damaged his reputation with the whole Iraq war thing."

The taximan seemed to agree.

"It's not my area of expertise I'm afraid," I added. "I think it was wrong to use 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan as an umbrella for the war in Iraq. I think that was entirely misleading. I'm not an expert in that region though." I felt ashamed. I should know more. I am very clued up on certain areas, and extremely weak on others. That ain't great, I know, but at least I admit it.

"So what is your expertise then?" he asked.

I laughed at myself again, "uuuh, Europe, So I know a lot about the EU!" I nodded shamefully, "Another controversial area!"

He laughed. "I only know about what's in the papers, about bendy bananas and stuff. What do you think of the EU?"

"It's a great idea in theory. Look at it - it makes countries cooperate when they had previously been at war with each other, opens up markets and make trade easy. But in practice it's a mess.

"UKIP MEPs could be claiming much crazier expenses than our MPs did, from an institution they allegedly want to dismantle. But we don't even know, because the system is so clouded.

"Even the new President was elected behind closed doors. That certainly doesn't engage people.

"The media and MPs blame the EU for unpopular decisions, which doesn't help. There is a culture of misunderstanding about the EU and it's completely unproductive.

"And it's so, so complicated. I studied it for years and still don't understand the EU. What hope do ordinary citizens have of understanding it?"

And we arrived at my house. I tailed off..."well, that's just what I think."

"Thank you," the taximan exclaimed, "it's been a pleasure talking to you. It's opened my eyes. Always good to talk to someone who knows how to think. I'll give you a discount."

"No no no no, not at all," I replied. And there was me working out the tip as I rifled for my purse.

"No way. I insist. It's been a great ride. Have a good evening."

I hope it doesn't make me a bad person for accepting his discount, but he did insist. I'd like to think it was a mutually beneficial journey. I might "know how to think" but I can't drive, and he can. And he definitely seems to know how to get someone talking...eep.

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