I spent last night with a friend in Edinburgh. This morning, boarding a bus into the west end, I spotted a vacant seat next to an attractive young black woman with a cloud of hair. As I sat down I noticed that she was wearing an Edinburgh International Book Festival tag. I told her that we were heading for the same place and we began a conversation.
She told me that she was a blogger and writer of short fiction from Nairobi, and earlier this year had set up and organised a touring literary festival that had travelled through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, DRC and Rwanda. Now she was in Scotland as a delegate on the British Council’s Momentum programme, which brings together arts producers from around the world at festival time.
She had a wide, open smile and an infectious energy, and she was full of enthusiasm for her projects and her writing and her first visit to Scotland. Feeling a little low-key after a late night, I was lifted up by our conversation, and we continued chatting after we had got off the bus and walked down George Street together to Charlotte Square.
Once inside the festival we said goodbye and later I received an email from her: ‘This is Wanjeri Gakuru, writer, festival producer and big-haired Kenyan in Edinburgh. It was so lovely to run into you on the bus. Thank you for your curiosity and reminder to get off the bus at the right stop!’ The whole episode was typical of those brief but heart-warming encounters that have made the book festival such a nourishing and inspiring place to spend time in over the years.
Later, on the train home, I ended up sitting next to two middle-aged white American women with strong southern accents. Directly across the aisle was another American, a slightly younger man, sporty-looking with a less definable accent.
The women were from Kentucky, I learned, and they were heading for Aviemore where their husbands, who had gone ahead of them, were taking part in a motorcycle rally. They were obviously familiar with Scotland and told me that they had been several times before because they ‘just love everything about it.’ They were Outlander fans and, I soon began to understand, Trump supporters. The single man meanwhile was from Houston and was here for a golf tour with friends.
One of the women, a pharmacist, spoke of how Obamacare had led to the closure of many pharmacies and that for the first time in her career she feared for her job. I didn’t quite follow her reasoning but the gist was that ‘affordable’, though mandatory, healthcare had proved to be anything but affordable to many. She was afraid, too, of ‘all the violence – it’s never been so bad, but of course it suits the Democrats because they want to stir it up to create division.’ ‘I think we’re going to implode,’ added her companion. ‘There’ll be a civil war.’
East Kentucky, where she came from, is seriously depressed, explained the pharmacist. Nothing has replaced the coal-mining that used to power the local economy. She told me how she had recently had to give money to the man who looks after her dogs because he was unable to pay his electricity bill, ‘a proud man who had worked hard at the mines all his life.’
The conversation moved to guns. All three owned one, they declared. ‘I want the right to defend myself in my own home,’ said the pharmacist. I suggested that this was one aspect of US culture that we struggle with in the UK, and asked if the violence might in any way be related to the fact that it’s so easy to own a gun. The Texan looked at me incredulously and shook his head. ‘There are real bad people about,’ he said. He had revealed by now that he was neither a Republican nor a Democrat but an independent voter. ‘You could do with a third party,’ chipped in another passenger who had been listening.
At this point the discussion tailed off. It had been perfectly friendly, but perhaps now everyone felt that they’d said enough. I was left to reflect on the sincerity with which the three visitors had spoken. Their concerns seemed entirely real, and their political views, given those concerns, entirely understandable.
It’s easy to ridicule the collective views of a class or group of people. But when you have the opportunity to hear them as individuals, expressing honestly held human fears, the chasm of difference quickly narrows.