Frightened and confused - just like Tony Blair

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MY wallet was stolen last week. Every credit card gone, the pictures of the kids destined for some gutter or dustbin, random pieces of cardboard - temporary membership of the National Library of Scotland, a second-class single Calcutta-Madras - that I've kept for years now lost for good. If I were to use the logic of Gerry Adams - two killed by IRA bomb, John Major responsible - I would blame my elder brother. It was he who sat me on the fence in 1948 next to one of the London Midland and Scottish Railway's busier lines; he who took me as a five-year-old to the nearest locomotive sheds and taught me the difference between a Black Five and a Jubilee. If these things had not happened, I would still have my wallet, because I would not have changed trains at Reading, and would not have opened the window of my new train and stared abstractedly into the dark. Life, as Proust used to say at greater length, is a queer business.

The 10.05 from Oxford to Paddington on Wednesday night was a perfectly good train. It was on time, it was fast, it stopped only at Reading. But there it stopped for what seemed a long time. A train from the West Country drew in across the platform. Experience culled from a lifetime of watching trains suggested it might be faster. I was keen to get home. I got out of the first train and into the second, and then, the bad moment, watched the first train leave. The train I was now on stopped at Slough. Restless, I got up from my seat and stood in the vestibule at the end of the carriage. I pulled the door window down and felt that pleasure of childhood, the wind on my face, with other pleasures of childhood slipping by outside: some old rolling stock in a siding at Southall, the enormous new sheds at North Pole junction built for the Chunnel expresses.

It was only when the train began to brake outside Paddington that I re- entered life inside the carriage. I found a couple of girls pressed next to me. They might have been 16-year-olds, 20-year-olds, or 12-year-olds; it was, as I later told the policeman, difficult to say. They had that kind of scraped-back hair that you see on off-duty models and strippers. "Ooh," said one in a West Country voice, "are you the guy who was knocking on the window at us?" Not me, I said. Then came an innocent, bucolic question. "Is this the station for London then?"

When I bent down to pick up my bag I noticed some familiar bits of paper on the floor: an empty Fisherman's Friend packet, a letter offering serialisation rights on an "extraordinary debut novel". They had been in my coat pocket, from where the familiar bulge of my wallet was missing. I caught up with the girls on the platform and phrased the question carefully. Had they seen anyone take anything from my coat? They were outraged. I had a cheek. They kept on walking. Later, the British Transport Police gave me a leaflet. "People react to crime in many ways," it said. "Although most do not suffer long-term harm, both adults and children can be seriously affected. Some may feel angry, frightened or confused."

RON Davies, the shadow Welsh secretary, questions the future of the monarchy and makes some perfectly ordinary criticism of the heir to the throne. Result, panic and outrage. Tony Blair gets angry and makes Mr Davies apologise and withdraw. John Redwood, who, you may remember, said that Tories could not be true Tories if they sanctioned the abolition of the Royal Yacht, calls for Mr Davies's sacking from the Labour front bench. You can understand Tony Blair's fear - that come the general election Labour can be painted as the republican party, and there might be some votes for the Tories in that - but the consequence is that the rest of us are treated like children in front of whom certain things cannot be said. Clare Short's mild remarks about the possibility of considering the legalisation of cannabis incurred similar wrath from her leader - or at least a similar retraction, because I begin to wonder about the sincerity of the wrath. A senior Labour figure told me a few months ago that Tony Blair had said privately that to win the next election and keep the Tory press at bay they would have to do "some contemptible things". Pretending that nobody in the shadow cabinet has a vaguely republican thought in his or her head is clearly one of them. Might it not be - a daring idea - that a Labour victory is more endangered by the charge of humbug than the charge of radicalism, given that the future of the monarchy is now a part of everyday conversation and questioned even in the Tory party?

THE woeful behaviour of the Royal Family has wrought a sea-change in British attitudes over the past few months. This paper has led the way in calling for a republic. Now even the Guardian has gingerly dipped a toe in the water. Last week one of its editorials ended with the ringing question: "At such a turning point [the Waleses' divorce], is it not also the time seriously to consider the mechanism for constructing the British Republic?" There speaks the bold voice of liberal England, catching up.

I DON'T expect my stolen wallet to turn up at Paddington, but if it did would Railtrack keep 10 per cent of its contents? Or perhaps pay 10 per cent of the debt on its credit cards? Those seem to be the rules, according to last week's story of Ms Morrine Jeffers who lost her purse, also on a Reading to Paddington train, but was lucky enough to get it back from the lost property office. Her purse had contained pounds 75; now it contained pounds 65.50. The missing pounds 9.50 had been abducted not by a thief but by Railtrack, which has a pounds 2 standard handling charge for lost property and the right (given by whom?) to retain 10 per cent of any money the property contains. A statement from the rail regulator, John Swift, promised that a new code of practice would ensure, not the abolition of this feudal tithe but that its existence would in future be "well-publicised". As the British Transport Police have it, some people may feel angry, frightened or confused.