Love thy neighbour, just don't talk to him

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know what happened to Andrew Boulton. I think he went off to be a doctor, just like he'd always wanted to when we were at school. He's probably respectable now, and won't like to be reminded that once he hung around with the likes of me, people who sit around in our shirt- sleeves, giving off a pleasing aroma of Bois du Portugal and Latakia while a couple of hired Latvian danseuses exotiques squirm attractively by their pretty heels from the rafters. "I wonder," we say to ourselves, giving one of the girls an absent-minded twizzle, "what it would be like to be respectable?"

It must be nice: the blameless life, up-to-date with the bills and the tax, in good odour with the missus, nothing nasty up the sleeve or in the woodshed, one's life an open book. My life is an open book, of course, though not the sort of book you'd be wanting your wife or servants to read - but I bet they'd be happy with Andrew Boulton's.

I can see them now, Euphragia curled up on the chaise-longue while, below stairs, Mrs Pickles the cook, Snoek the butler, and Young Irons, the slightly iffy septuagenarian odd-job boy, huddle round the old range, breathing through their mouths. "This Andrew Boulton," they tell each other, "his life is an open book. Have you got to the bit where the electricity bill comes in and, quick as a flash, he whips out his appendix - no, silly me, his cheque-book - and pays it in full. He's a doctor, you see; you know where you stand with doctors. Not like those horrible columnists you read about, nasty habits and telling lies."

But it's not just that. Andrew Boulton set out to become a doctor and became one. I set out to become a doctor and look at me now. I can't even keep a simple column on track. This was supposed to be about a man on the train, and we're thoroughly derailed already. If I were a surgeon (like Andrew Boulton may or may not be now), someone would be wheeled in to have their offal out, and before you could say "scalpel" I'd have veered off and be irrigating his adenoids or boning the bugger in pursuance of "Mad Cow" Cunningham's little directive.

It's worth a try, though ... the man on the train. He was harmless enough; the sort of specs you used to get on the NHS which now cost a fortune, pale-grey overcoat, blue jeans, powder-blue jersey, burlap bag with little hogs printed on it, plastic attache case, a couple of books which he held gingerly, like bombs or babies. Too tall, too thin, bony wrists ... in he came, just as I returned to my seat in the empty compartment. "Are you getting off?" he asked. "Getting off?" I said; "Me? No," hoping to get across the message that if he even thought of sitting down he was such an utter shit and bastard that I would be quite justified in punching him in the funnel and ripping his lungs out.

He sat down, opened one of his books, went in for a bit of a sniff, bit of a dry sniff, a tic, he was a dry-sniff sort of a man and I wondered what his wife made of the sniff. Probably didn't notice it much of the time, but every now and then one would catch her on the raw and that would be it, for hours. She'd sit there thinking, "Here comes the sniff again", and one day she'd kill him, punch him in the funnel and rip his lungs out, and the judge - a dry-sniff man himself, they all are - would be merciless.

It's atavistic. This train-compartment business, this terrible rage: it's territorial. That's what anthropologists say, and that's what reminded me of Andrew Boulton. When we were about 15 or 16 we went to see his grandma who lived in Pickering on the North Yorkshire Moors. It was a day out, and off we went with our pipes. He was a crusty briar, I was a yellow Dutch pottery job, and Paul Charlton couldn't come because he'd bought a carve-it-yourself meerschaum the size of a small saxophone - and was at home, carving it himself, and wouldn't come out till it was done. We must have looked like arseholes but we thought we looked like men of the world, rugged, reflective, mature, clean-shaven. I shaved at every opportunity and reeked of aftershave - Brut, Nine Flags, Aqua Velva. Pipe, shaving, imbecilic "opinions": they were the passports to what we thought would be the jolly, self-determining world of adulthood.

Andrew Boulton's grandma was buying none of it, ignored our opinions, sniffed pointedly at my aftershave, and forbade us to smoke in the house ... but on the way back we had a compartment to ourselves for the first part of the journey, which we duly filled with reeking tobacco-clouds - Andrew was Rich Dark Honeydew, like his father, I was Clan Aromatic, like a poof - until the train pulled in at some snow-blinded halt and a man in a Gannex raincoat showed signs of joining us. We sprang into action like manly, pipe-smoking lions. Andrew Boulton lay full-length on the seat, groaning and writhing, and I stood at the door. "I shouldn't come in," I said; "my friend here has a serious and infectious disease." "Aye," said the man, pushing me gently aside, "and so've I. It's called 'curiosity'." And he sat down like a sirloin of beef, and of course we had to talk to him then ... and passed as pleasant a journey as I've had before or since.

And I thought of this as I was glaring at the harmless bony man. Perhaps it's nothing to do with territory. Perhaps the damned anthropologists are wrong. Perhaps it's just that we have no mechanism of politely addressing strangers, like the French "Bonjour, monsieur" and no tradition of swapping life-stories like the Americans. The jolly club of adulthood does not exist. Instead, we sit there hating each other, me waiting for the dry sniff, he waiting for whatever it is I do that I don't know I'm doing, having a miserable time when we could be chatting away amiably, broadening our minds just like travel is supposed to do. Perhaps we should have a National Say Hello Day. But perhaps not. It would never work. Something about the idea just isn't respectable. !