Last Updated on February 20, 2023
Seeing life on trains.
By Andrew Culture
As a rule we English folk don’t particularly like talking to each other. We’ll gladly chat away with our partners and children, as well as (sometimes reluctantly) our family. But as a rule we find chatting to complete strangers somewhat uncomfortable. We might push ourselves to the occasional, “Good morning,” when passing someone on the pavement, but this is usually only when we’re on holiday and assume that everyone we greet has enjoyed the same lazy start to the day we have. I don’t know why the English are so repressed in this way, if someone tries to strike up a conversation with us in the street it makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable, although in the case of a few of the more vocal members of the street drinking fraternity I think that’s fairly understandable.
There are of course exceptions to the rule, three immediately spring to mind. The first is my friend Graham’s dad; after twenty years as a bus driver this chap (we’ll call him Robert, because that’s what his wife and sons call him) has had the protective layer of social conditioning eroded by many years of chatting with his regular passengers on rural bus routes in Derbyshire. Robert thinks nothing of stopping to chat to workmen digging up the road or conferring on stroke techniques with someone painting their house. To his teenage sons this was a constant source of embarrassment but as adults they now deem Roberts disarming conversational courage a gift.
However, as with every silver lining there’s a cloud to be considered. For many years one of Roberts’s passengers would get on the bus each morning and offer Robert an almond from a small paper bag that he would produce from a deep pocket that also housed his fare. Being a rural route most of the passengers knew each other and this fellow would walk the isle to his seat ever day with one hand grappling seat backs for stability and the other handing out almonds from his little paper bag. Eventually being the inquisitive sort of lad he is Robert asked his regular why he always had a bag of nuts to bestow upon his travelling peers. His answer raised Robert’s eyebrows and cast his face into a squinting, head tilting opened mouthed sort of arrangement. He told Robert he couldn’t stand the taste of almonds, in fact he despised nuts in all the many forms in which the good lord gifted them to us. As with all curious minds Robert’s grey matter required answers and craved conclusions. The answer was that said passenger was a huge fan of sugared almonds but his strong dislike of the nut at the heart of the matter thrust upon him the necessity to suck each sugared almond until all traces of sugary sweetness were spent, leaving him with just a soggy nut, a nut of no use as far as he was concerned. Being something of a recycling pioneer – or perhaps being someone that listened too closely to his mothers mantra of ‘waste not, want not’ – he would dry the soggy remnant of his confectionary of choice on a window sill. When dry he gathered the almonds into a paper bag and carried them on his travels to dispense to grateful peers, all of whom were oblivious and surprisingly unquestioning on the matter of their origin. This bestowed more of a confirmation than a revelation on Robert, he had never accepted a nut of this chap, and now his repetitive reluctance was confirmed as most wise. Robert chose not to share the revelation of the source of this benefactor’s gifts with his passengers – some things man is not meant to know.
The next exception to the ‘no chatter’ rule is more of a catalyst than an exception per se: alcohol. I’m not going to discuss this in depth, but I want you to bear it in mind as we come to the third exception; unusual circumstances.
Yesterday I attended a music festival in the heart of London; Victoria Park. Now this is nothing exceptional it itself, there currently appears to be a large music festival in Britain every weekend for about half the year. You would think that having a common interest (i.e. the music) would make festival attendees the very model of open chattiness, but festival sites can be surprisingly lonely places. It’s a cliché, but a crowd can indeed feel like the loneliest place. There are exceptions; the first to spring to mind is the annihilated drunk who is as much a part of the festival experience as expensive warm beer and toilets that can make a grown man retch at two hundred paces. But the garbled bewildering messages from these cerebrally comatose folk can’t really be classed as chatting, in fact far from it; in my experience these folk require no conversational partner in order to feel their colloquy justified, fulfilling and complete. It’s less conversational rally, more the case that they are expelling air and their flapping lips – by sheer coincidence – haphazardly form barely recognisable words.
It was the other mainstay of the British rock festival that really brought people together in Victoria Park yesterday; torrential rain. It rained so hard and consistently I half expected to see someone using the huge dumpsters that shone like beacons in the dark brown mud as makeshift arks. Being a man in my thirties I was embarrassingly well prepared for such eventualities and stood smugly under a tree with a waterproof jacket on. Surrounding me were younger folk who were all soaked through to the skin, a skin somewhat bolstered in resilience by beer and cider. Then it happened – because we were huddled together suffering a common plight we started chatting. The topic was one easily chosen, a hearty genial discussion on the persistence and volume of the precipitation. There was a siege mentality developing between us, and for some reason it all seemed extremely funny. I congratulated the lad next to me for his cavalier attitude after I heard him tell a friend that as he was already soaked through to his undergarments he may as well go and frolic in the rain. Good lad. I voiced sympathy to another chap who was trying in vain to keep the plaster cast on his broken foot clear of the soup of churned mud, beer cans and cigarette buts that the ground was morphing into before our eyes.
As the reverberation of the last chord of the last band faded away we all turned and shuffled our way to the exit. As we dissolved into the beast that is several tens of thousands of people trying to get through a single gate I pondered why as a crowd we had stopped chatting to each other. I came to the conclusion that as the surrounding roads were closed and the tube stations were all clearly signposted we had nothing to complain about, everything was very well organised and we’d all be striking homeward in a matter of a few minutes. Could it really be true that as we had nothing to complain about we had nothing to talk about? Maybe it’s true that English folk only break stony silence when blighted by common inconvenience. If you had been stood with me in the queue for the toilets at that festival when someone cut the line you’d probably agree; my fellow line dwellers all became most vocal and castigated the queue jumper with unity and firmness. Faced with adversity we united. Queuing for a cubicle at a rock festival is like the dullest quest ever, for the worst possible prize.
In a move that is either inspired genius or cruel folly some festivals offer men the chance to stand ankle deep in mud and urine staring into the eyes of another gentleman at a makeshift urinal. I confess I struggle somewhat to perform on such occasions; these are not the conditions nature designed my equipment to cope well with. I guess you could call it performance anxiety. The worst communal urinals I have experienced were at Reading Festival in 2008. The long metal troughs were bolted to crowd control barriers by what I can only assume were a race of giants; the ‘target area’ of each urinal was about a foot above the average lad’s ‘targeting equipment’. I will follow this line no further for fear of inspiring your imagination, but needless to say; in adversity we were bonded and chatted merrily.
By the time we were stood on the platform at Bethal Green underground station I was still pondering why we seem so reluctant to talk to strangers and was wondering how it related to public transport. A warm gust of air blew down the platform, swiftly followed the juddering squeal of our train coming to an abrupt halt. The train was packed; it was like looking at an overstocked tank of very unhappy fish. As the doors opened I spotted a space next to a girl carrying two kebabs that I optimistically thought could do with being filled by my 6’ 2” frame. I didn’t so much board the train as lean into it and become absorbed. I decided to conduct an ill-advised social experiment to assess my theory that people didn’t talk on public transport just because nobody every piped up. As the doors slid shut along the train (striking a hundred heads of a hundred socially lubricated travellers) I assessed the gentleman next to me and decided to spark up a merry conversation.
“This train is so full I’ll need to something to hold onto.” I offered this as a starting point to what I felt sure was going to be an engaging and entertaining conversation. As a reply he gave me the kind of look that made me wonder if he was already planning where to hide my corpse. The train was so packed full and I was so distracted by my ponderings that I had entirely failed to consider my exact physicality in relation to my chosen mark. As a precautionary note to anyone thinking of conducting a similar social experiment, check where the crush of bodies places your hands, and if they’re pressed against the crotch of your fellow passenger don’t mention ‘holding on’ to anything in your opening speech.
Some time later as the rhythmic swaying of our homebound Intercity had rocked my companion to sleep I closed my eyes and invited sleep to take me completely. I was held back from the warm embrace of unconsciousness by the chatter of a teenage girl behind me. She was quietly and emotionally telling her patient male companion that her life was a horrid and a perfectly ghastly mess. She detailed in a somewhat repetitive fashion that nobody understood her. Her parents didn’t understand her, her classmates didn’t understand her and it became apparently the chap in the seat next to her was the only person in the world that ‘really knew her’. She lamented and harshly criticised the fact that he was so love with another (at twenty years old) that he much desired to marry this other, who was currently absent from proceedings. Her conversation took a somewhat grim and dark turn that I won’t divulge here, but I sympathised with her entirely – not because I was as clearly in love with her travelling companion as she was – but because being a teenager is a confusing and melancholy experience. I really wanted to turn in my seat and reassure her that everything would probably be fine; when you’re a teen thoughts and emotions are like the staff party at a fireworks testing facility. There are brilliant moments when great emotions shatter the sky and are entirely new an exciting to you. But there are also moments in abundance where something lights the blue touch paper only for an emotion to collapse in on itself entirely, giving up only a dark cloud to the world. As we walk further down the path of our adult lives the world becomes no less confusing, but the perspective time has earned us acts as a great leveller.
Across the isle two white haired octogenarians sat sewing fabric swatches together and discussing how their respective gardens were doing at the moment. One of these ducks had a gollywog doll hanging from her handbag; I’m hoping it was more a sign of her aged innocence than a statement of her beliefs, but you can never be sure; prejudice wears no uniform.
I decided not to wallow in any pre-judging of my own and turned my gaze to the reflection of a couple the other side of the seats in front of my inadequate leg room. The woman was beautiful and glamorous, with perfect blonde hair, deep blue clear eyes, and there in her description I shall pause for fear of making her sound like a golden retriever. Her partner was fairly rotund with a bad haircut, piggy eyes and a wet nose. Seeing them made me feel homesick for some reason. I could see the prettier half of this coupling was also listening to the talk of vegetables and sweet peas emanating from our elderly fellow passengers. She was smiling gently, as was I; there was something very heart-warming and gently safe in listening to these dears chat between themselves. Barring the troubled teen behind me they were the only source of chatter in the whole carriage.
I know the line from London Liverpool Street to Ipswich very well indeed – having travelled it for most of my adult life – but I normally take the commuter trains, which are very different to the late night journey I found myself on last night. On commuter trains nobody speaks to each other, ever. One end of the carriage could be in flames and everyone would shuffle out of the emergency exits as if it was nothing more extraordinary than the alighting at their destination. I have a friend who takes the 5am train to London a few times a week; apparently on that service talking (or making any noise at all) is a crime punishable by death. Assuming death can be struck upon a soul purely through the use of silence as a weapon, in an already silent train carriage.
The temporarily troubled teen and her patient associate alighted at Colchester and were replaced by what someone less anthropologically charitable than I would call ‘chav scum’. Their conversation was inane and low key until we were skirting the periphery of Ipswich, then the apparently sensitive subject of a missed call on the girls mobile raised its ugly and aggressive main sail. The entire carriage proceeded to learn that the gentleman in question had discovered a missed call on his female associate’s mobile phone, a missed call from her ex-boyfriend. He proceeded with a most vocal interrogation as to the whys and wherefores of aforementioned failed contact, and at first she refused to admit it had even happened. There then followed a vocal tussle for control of said phone; he was searching for evidence while she was digging deeper her denial. It then transpired that the missed call had happened while these two were in bed together; her phone was vying for her attention from her bedside handbag while her attention was somewhat distracted by the greasy haired lad now ‘enjoying’ her company. It was at this point other quiet conversations in the carriage ground to a halt, eyebrows were raised and wide eyed glances were shared amongst all present. The female half of this entertainment changed her rebuttal as her sparring partner turned up the volume on his repetitive monotone and mono-themed accusations. She ceased to deny the existence of the missed call, instead she tried (and failed) to change the discussion into one on privacy and what could and could not be considered the business and interests of her boyfriend. She concluded her piece by informing her partner that his raised voice was going to give all assembled the impression that his physical make up consisted entirely of male genitalia. Much to everyone’s surprise he heeded this warning and lowered his voice to a whisper. We were gifted blissful peace for roughly three seconds. Then with all the originality and personality of a stuck instructional record he reignited his complaint, and refused to be doused by his girl’s attempts to discuss what she felt was the heart of the matter.
I turned in my seat and informed this young man that I found his behaviour unacceptable, and registered a polite request for cessation. He invited me to seek opportunities for procreation elsewhere. I informed him that making the beast with two backs would indeed be a delightful distraction from his bellyaching but my travelling companion – whilst I consider him a close friend – is as reluctant as I to broaden his horizons with homoerotic adventure. He then made a request that I attempt coitus with myself, I asked if he could offer any advice on the mechanics of attempting such a feat, proclaiming him the most obvious and apparent expert in such endeavours.
No I didn’t. I didn’t say a silver bean to this streak of anger in the seat behind me. What I actually did was sit trying to keep my sniggering below the range of his hearing.
It was astounding that this vocal battle went on for over ten minutes; it went nowhere and offered up no conclusions. Apparently unsatisfied with the response he was getting this agitated fellow decided that no longer would he spare his vocal chords and started to yell proper. It was at this precise moment everyone in the carriage decided as one that these times could be classed as adverse enough to invoke a relaxation of the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule and we all started chatting to each other. The conversation was light and the topics thick with chaff but we achieved our common goal; drowning out this malevolent troglodyte.
The platform at Ipswich station was a welcome sight to all, even to the quizzical mobile phone obsessed lad who went storming down the carriage, knuckles dragging on the floor. It was as he minced off that I noticed he had a mono-brow and a shallow sloping forehead. Sometimes nature is so unkind.
Despite the fact the threat had clomped off adversity still hung in the air. As we stood to alight I turned to a fellow passenger and informed that I don’t have a television. I went on to tell all who would turn an ear to me that there was no need to indulge in the shallow world of predictable soap operas, all one needs to do to be entertained is take a train. All agreed with a chuckle.
As I walked home (pausing only to let a police car race past me, en-route to the station) I searched for a conclusion to my mental meandering on the subject of talking to strangers. I decided that we should all make more of an effort to speak to people we don’t know.
In some parts of Germany they go somewhat further than the mild ambivalence to our fellow man that we wallow in. In Germany it’s considered the height of bad manners to talk to someone you don’t know in public. When an American chain of grocery stores took over a German chain they installed a ‘welcomer’. In the American stores this welcomer is employed for the sole purpose of standing by the entrance of the superstore to welcome people as they entered. They eventually had to retire this post in Germany as too many of their ‘welcomers’ were getting a punch on the nose from outraged shoppers. From now on I think I’ll view those poor souls very differently.
I fear that if we continue this reticence when it comes to chatting idly with our fellow man then each of us will indeed become an island. Embrace your fellow man – although not literally, not a lot of strangers will be keen that – talk to people you don’t know, converse with road menders, chinwag with fellow passengers. Just talk at will, and if you’re prepared to listen you might learn something quite remarkable.