Sunday, 31 March 2013

Trains offer such insights into the human condition

Train travel, as I’ve said before, is an excellent way of getting round Britain: fast, comfortable and these days surprisingly reliable. 

It has to be said that I have low expectations, having reduced them drastically as a result of my experience travelling on the nationalised services offered by British Rail, and then taken them to absolute zero when faced with the privatised monstrosity created by the sainted Maggie Thatcher.

These days, with the tracks renationalised in all but name and private companies offering highly-regulated services on them, I can’t help feeling we’ve hit a reasonable compromise. A little pricey, certainly, and it still suffers from hiccoughs, but mostly it runs to schedule and in comfort.

But it isn’t the efficiency of railway travel that strikes me most, it’s the window it offers into the lives of others. 

Rolling classroom for education on our species
For instance, I recently enjoyed hearing a conversation between two schoolgirls.

‘You’re going out with Brian Wilson? Why? Why?’

See the subtext? ‘You have to be crazy to go out with that awful Brian, but I’m just a little jealous he didn’t ask me instead. 

Her friend came back at her hard. ‘Because he asked me.’

Wow, that answer must have hurt. I took a swift glance at the two. These were children, but I suppose the one on whom Brian’s election had settled seemed, one might say, a little rounder than the other who was, if it’s not ungenerous of me, a bit angular. 

‘Go on then, Miss Angular demanded, show me his number.’

Encouraging isn’t it? The younger generation demanding evidence before making up its mind. Miss Angular wouldn’t have gone to war just because her best friend claimed there might be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Hope is not lost. 

‘It’s not on my phone,’ replied her friend and rival, ‘he only asked yesterday.’

Ah, I raised my hopes too high, too soon. That was an answer worthy of the Blair school of duplicity. 

‘I can’t believe it. Prove it. Prove it.’

Quite. Quite. Just remember Hans Blix. And after that challenge, Miss Angular went on the attack:

‘Why are you going out with a year 9?’

Again, the subtext is worth examining. On the face of it, we’re hearing a principled refusal of the subordinate role of the woman, necessarily cultivating the older man. But underneath, isn’t there just a touch of slightly ugly Puritanism? Denied the fruit I covet, I denounce others who enjoy it.

But the answer was powerful and irrefutable. ‘Because I look like a year 7.’

Alas. It all turns on looks in the end. She was going out with him because (a) he’d asked – the expression of a wish is enough to win consent – and (b) he’d asked because she’d successfully presented herself as 12 when in point of fact she was only 11. And th
at’s enough to turn a 14-year old’s head?

Society’s not out of the woods yet.

My only regret about overhearing this conversation was that it drowned out another, being held on a mobile phone by a character with a voice at least as plummy as the late Laurence Olivier’s. 

‘I’ll play King Lear, which is what I’m going to call the character because I can’t be bothered to work out what his real name is. But I’ll only do it if Gemma can get a full cast, with a serving girl and a Palomides.’

Quite. We may be an actor (pron. actaw) who is currently resting but we don’t do just any old part, even to please our dear friend and fellow lovely Gemma. 

Is that clear? And we mark our indifference by refusing to learn the name of the character assigned to us, instead using that of a far more prestigious role which we would otherwise be playing, no doubt in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, if we hadn’t decided to do Gemma a little favour. 

And the amenable fellow had other points to put on the record. 

‘If Gemma plays Eladine she’s doing it as a favour to me, and I’m only doing it as a favour to Chris,’ he went on. He clearly knew what was due to him, and what was due from him: it’s not just Gemma we have to please but Chris too.

That shocked me. How could so fine a personality feel under an obligation to someone with so proletarian a name as Chris? But then I speculated that it probably wasn’t a mere Christopher but at the very least a Christian. 

Sadly, the Thespian left the train at St Albans (naturally: such a desirable city, and not at all because the properties aren’t quite as eye-wateringly expensive as in London) so I couldn’t follow the rest of his negotiation, which Ive no doubt he would have gone on generously sharing with the rest of the carriage.

Still he granted us one final thought as he left the train:

‘She has an elfish look so she could play the slave.’

Well, quite. Slaves are just so elfish aren’t they? It must be captivity that does it, the freedom from every having to make any choices, that gives them that little sparkle.

Ah, what would I do without the railways? Certainly, my education in the ways of my fellow beings would suffer sadly if I lost these insights.

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