There he was, on the 12.15 to Shepherds Bush. I caught the train with only 40 seconds to spare, and if I’d missed it I’d never have seen him.
He was middle aged, bearded, balding and smartly dressed. He was listening to music on his bright yellow earphones and seemed oblivious of the crowded carriage. On his right, two women were sharing the earphones on a Samsung notebook. On his left, three older people were discussing their day out. Opposite was a random selection of Londoners, and an American woman who hit her head when she sat down and started laughing about it with her neighbours.
And yes, there he was, knitting. A pink and white jumper, already more than a foot long and growing all the time as the train trundled northwards.
He had a nifty little travel knitting kit, with two short needles linked by a nylon thread and stoppers which fitted over the ends when it was time to stop. His pink and white balls of wool nestled beside his rucksack and he worked steadily, knit one row, purl one row. He never once glanced up to see if anyone was looking at him. He looked utterly relaxed, cool, unfazed.
As we approached Shepherds Bush, he put the stoppers over the end of the needles, wrapped the lengthening garment carefully around them, wound the wool back up, and stuffed the whole lot into a neat little nylon bag. He placed it in his rucksack, stood up, and instantly blended back in with the crowds getting off the train. He was an average man again.
True non-conformism is rare and always, in my book, to be celebrated. Often what passes for non-conformism is simply people conforming with another norm. Punks may have been anti-society but weren’t they just creating an alternative reality in which they all looked and thought the same? Runners, cyclists, hillwalkers, tennis players, country music fans, churchgoers, office workers: most people in most situations will gravitate towards the normal gear, behaviour and appearance of that subgroup, even if it sets them apart from the wider norm.
Uniformity has a powerful lure. Or so it seems to me.
So to see a gloriously genuine act of freedom, an unselfconscious, unstatement-making choice of activity was delightful. And of course utterly fascinating.
It was hard to stop watching, which made me feel like some kind of knitting voyeur, a stocking stitch stalker, a needle fetishist.
Before catching the train I’d come hotfoot from watching the London to Brighton vintage car run. The buffed beasts of beauty plodded along, on their annual migration south. Most of the drivers were in period costume, some in plus fours, others looking like Biggles or Toad of Toad Hall. Most were men, or in mixed groups.
Then came an open-topped vehicle, with just two women on board. Maybe even commenting on it is sexist: after all, I know a woman who goes fishing. I comment simply because it, too, was outside the norm.
Why should boys get all the vintage cars and women get all the knitting? (or the Devil get all the good tunes, for that matter). The answer, of course, is that none of them should.
Glory be to God for dappled things, for all things counter, original, spare and strange, for men who knit pink jumpers on trains and women who drive open-topped vintage cars to Brighton, and for all who are truly themselves, whatever the cost.
(with thanks and apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins)