08 March, 2009


Travelling in the Multiculture

The conductor of the DLR train made an announcement. (I can't quite bring myself to use the pompous and overblown term Passenger Service Agent or its wonderfully Ruritanian predecessor Train Captain, which summons up images of South American generals in extravagantly peaked caps, "scrambled egg" and sunglasses. Well, it does for me anyway.)

The DLR conductor was a gaunt African lady, East African at a guess. We were approaching Canning Town station at the time. And indeed in her announcement, I clearly heard the phrase "Canning Town". I also just about picked up the phrases "Jubilee Line" and "London Bridge". At least I think I did. As to the rest of her announcement, it was completely unintelligible and I do mean by that that it might just as well have been in Swahili or Amharic. As it happened, I was not intending to transfer to the Jubilee. If she was telling us about service interruptions, for example due to engineering work, it didn't in the event matter to me whether I understood what she was saying or not. Other travellers may have been less fortunate.

Now the point of this anecdote is that part of the job of a DLR conductor is to communicate information to passengers. The working language of London is British English, and this was nothing like it. I'm not suggesting that she should speak with a gorblimey, Lord love a duck cockernee accent, just that she be comprehensible to native-English speaking Londoners.

To that extent she is not competent to do her job and should not have been employed.

This is a widespread problem in London, particularly in relation to platform announcements. London Bridge (National Rail) is particularly bad. Perhaps the transport operators do not care. Or is the problem perhaps fuelled by institutional colour-blindness and fear of the race card? I am reminded of the incident many years ago when some eejit recruiter working for my then employer hired a Ghanaian gentleman for a job which required him to talk to customers, in English, pretty well continuously. Except that he could barely string two words of English together. Because of fear of the race card and a then overpowerful and unreasonable local trade union, it took us four months to get rid of the bugger.

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