Thursday, 16 March 2017

Charon's Ferry Fare & Escaping a Criminal Record

'No I don't take credit cards!'
There were no separate first- and second-class seats on Charon’s ferry. Kings and slaves paid the same tiny obol fare for the same wooden seats. Death, as the Greeks knew all too well, was the best leveller of all. 

More than my Jobsworth
They did invent steam power, but not railway trains, and so the myth of Charon’s ferry fare provides the nearest ancient parallel I can identify to the predicament from which I have just escaped. A train company has decided not to argue in court that I should be given a criminal record, as they had previously proposed.

One evening just before Christmas I could not get the seat in Second Class for which I possessed a ticket from London to my home station. I sat in First Class.  Since train overcrowding is a national scandal, this has often occurred before.  On all previous occasions, when the ticket inspector appeared, one of four things happened, depending on whether s/he was a human or an officious zombie:

1) S/he officially declassified First Class;
2) S/he ‘let off’ myself and my fellow malefactors and turned a blind eye;
3) S/he accepted my offer to pay the difference between the second- and first-class fare;
4) S/he required me to pay a full first-class fare but advised me I could apply to be reimbursed for the second-class ticket.

Not that night. I was asked to buy a first-class ticket AND pay a large on-the-spot fine for Being Such a Naughty Girl. I refused. What gives a business the right to inculpate and fine a customer when it has not provided the service (a second-class seat) for which the customer has paid?

A barrage of personal questions—why was I on the train? what had I been doing in London? with whom did I live and for how long?—violated my civil liberties. A police officer was hailed who said he would arrest me and put me in a cell until I provided my name and address.  So I reluctantly did.

Soon a letter arrived. I was about to be summoned to a Magistrate’s Court, being charged with ‘intent to avoid a rail fare’ under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889, s.5 (3). The operator always pressed 'for the heaviest penalties'. These included 12 weeks in prison, a 4-figure fine, and the need to disclose forever to any employers or embassies that I had a criminal record for ‘dishonesty’.

Being just about able to afford a lawyer, I did. I could produce medical proof that I have an arthritic knee. I won a moral victory, too, since the matter was settled out of court by paying the ticket and not the fine. But what happens to people without cash available for legal fees? It is iniquitous.

While waiting to hear if this Kafkaesque prosecution had been dropped, I dealt with my fear of prison etc. by researching the 3 ways ancient Greeks said you could cross Lake Acheron without paying Charon AT ALL:

1)   Attack him with your club and take over the rudder (Heracles did this, and it appeals, but today it would risk an additional legal charge for Assault).
2)   Run round the lake instead (Xanthias, Dionysus’ enterprising slave in Aristophanes’ Frogs does this, but my knee would make it difficult).
'Free Transport for All!'
3)   Move to the town of Hermione near Argos. Here the ferry fare was entirely waived by Demeter in gratitude when she recovered her daughter Persephone nearby. She was clearly not only a feminist but a socialist who believed in the principle of free public transport for all. Sadly, this is a pipe dream in our current profit-driven society. 

Aeacus, Transport Magnate
Just like the ticket inspector and his fine-taking credit-card machine, Charon was a minion of the powerful and didn’t even get to profit personally from the ferry fares. He had to hand them over to Aeacus, concierge of the dead and--ehem--a part-time judge. It was Aeacus rather than Charon who was therefore the equivalent of the rapacious privatised railway companies of Britain.

1 comment:

  1. face with a skull I stand before
    whose sockets hold my eyes.
    The Germans crowd me at the case
    where the poet's skull's displayed.
    It's fleshed by my reflected face
    and when I leave reflayed.
    The Gerriatrics quieten down
    at the case when I am now,
    a poet's skull with laurel crown
    still on it's bony brow.
    What strikes me dumb is that I spy
    the obol put inside his cheek
    to pay his fare 's still there, but why?
    Did the ferry bar this Greek?
    Why the coin still with the skull?
    Was it, as in these old folks' day,
    that Charon' stiff-skiff was chock full
    and the bard was turned away?
    And turned away because art fails
    when violence is rife
    and doesn't help to tip the scales
    towards the claims of life?

    Are hearts touched by your great gifts
    or softened just a jot?
    Since I'm working double shifts
    they're obviously not!

    Charon said: 'Piss off, I'm full!
    At least to poets I am.'

    That's why the obol's with the skill
    all bards get told to scram.

    And poets' obols are still leaning
    against their fleshless jaw
    because they failed to give a meaning
    to all those ghosts of War.
    I think for poets the moral 's
    when they reach those Styx bank queues
    they should ditch their golden laurels
    and stand behind the queuing Jews
    until the last one's safely crossed,
    then poets might have their say.
    Poetry since the Holocaust
    's a Stygian stowaway.

    (Tony Harrison, 'Queuing for Charon').