By Dawn M. Sanders
When I decided to go down and join the picket line of RMT strikers, I wondered about the demographics and the level of actual enthusiasm that would, or maybe wouldn’t resonate here in Exeter, for striking union members and their demand for better pay or conditions. I’ve been down here for nearly 5 years and of course knew before I moved here, upon recommendation for the vocational opportunities for my son (who is hearing impaired/partially sighted) how middle-class it is and the element of snobbery too present to ignore – yet, until now I’ve stuck it out. I’ve had few opportunities since I’ve been here, to get involved in the things I care about – apart from when I was in the Labour party, but after Corbyn’s demise and the take over of an establishment stooge, I jumped ship like so many others and of course, nothing’s been the same. So, the more I read within alternative or social media, the more I knew I just had to be ‘out there.’ I’m not one who’s content with just armchair activism, signing online petitions or bemoaning the life circumstances we’ve been saddled with – at least when I lived in Sheffield, socialism was/is alive and well. Maybe stupidly, maybe naively, I just assumed most major stations up and down the country would have a picket line outside – after all, I did ring cross country rail network the day before I planned to join the last day of scheduled strikes and the chirpy lady I spoke to on the phone said, ‘oh, Exeter is a major station – they’ve been gathering outside, that’s where they’ll be. So, in anticipation, I needed a few things from the shop the night before, so bought several packs of croissants, doughnuts and bananas for the strikers I was planning to meet and show my solidarity for. I’ve been to so many demos and rallies of solidarity for workers, it just felt like first nature. Still, I kept waking up during the night – 4-something, 5-something, 6-ish – sod it, just get up…
It was a beautiful morning, but when I got off the bus at the train station – all was quiet and usual, just the same swish swish of the flow of traffic, but no crowds, whistles, or people around. I meandered into the train station and tried to ask a guy there with little English, where the picket line was, but he just kept trying the usual physically nudging me this way/that way, so I walked away telling him to keep his hands to himself, my patience being tested. I asked a woman at the window, ‘where’s the picket line, I’ve come to join it’. “There isn’t one” she said, walking to the door and glancing outside. “There not out there today, they have been the other day, but there’s no one there yet – they tend to get here for around 9.” I would have thought they’d be out there for early – didn’t pickets generally start early morning? – I felt bemused. So, I asked another guy, ‘are you staff’ “yes” ‘aren’t you striking? “No” ‘Is anyone at this station striking? “no” he said again curtly. ‘So, isn’t anyone from St David’s RMT? “no” He, like the first woman I spoke to, said they ‘had been there in previous days and could still turn up, so I told him I’d wait a while and, if he saw them to point someone in my direction, as I was there to support. He said he would, as I stood waiting with my bag full of breakfast snacks, I felt like a bit of a dope. I stood around for about half an hour, nothing but the usual passers-by. Unlike a lot of train stations, Exeter doesn’t have the poor odd sod hanging around asking for spare change I could have just given the bag to. Sod this, I thought and heard the bus start up from its starting point, which was the right one for me to get home, but by the time I got near-ish, it pulled away. Luckily, I got on another in about 20 minutes. I thought, right, so what do I do with this bag of food? I knew roughly where the food bank in town was, but it wasn’t that near, and I didn’t know it well enough to get there and really just wanted rid of it. So, I thought, I’ll go up to Sidwell Street, synonymous for a lot of homeless people – I wasn’t going to see it go to waste.
Getting off at Sidwell Street, I walked toward the top of the street, where a lot of doorways often are home to someone with a sleeping bag or just sitting. It was all pretty clear and before I knew it, I was in front of the community centre – a lovely old church. So, I walked back finding someone sitting down and I offered her the bag: “no, not for me” she said decisively. So, I walked back up the direction of the church and the same lady was standing there who had spoken to me. She turned out to be a Jehovah’s witness, so I explained about needing to get rid of the bag of fresh croissants and stuff and thankfully she took it from me. Sigh.
Getting to the right bus stop on Sidwell Street to get home, I started talking to a friendly-sounding lass and told her of my conclusion – this place is just too middle-class and another sign I’m in the wrong town! There was no picket line on a Saturday morning on the last day of the biggest rail strikes for decades – she just laughed, agreeing, ‘Exeter is toryland’(even though, technically a Labour strong hold) and I told her how I had been in Labour with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, but how I resigned when this idiot took over. We chatted, seemingly making a cool connection and her bus came.
Finally marching up to my front door, the fiasco was finished. I made a cup of tea, opened the one plastic box of croissants I had kept from the bag I handed the Jehovah’s witness in Sidwell Street, tucking in – I reclaimed the karma, if there is such a thing, and reclaimed the morning.