Brief encounters and murderous mobiles

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The Independent Online
As nobody, Heaven be praised, has offered me money to print their St Valentine's Day greetings in this column, I shall be forced to talk about something else instead, and I think it is going to be about talking to people on trains.

Do you talk to people on trains? I do. It's one of the chief pleasures of travelling by train.

When I say talking on trains, I don't mean talking by telephone to people who are not on the train. People who ring other people from the train should be barely tolerated, as instead of going into the lavatory and conducting their silly little conversations in private they always sit proudly where they are and raise their voice louder than is anywhere near necessary, as if to say, "Look at me - I've got a mobile phone - you haven't!"

At home we don't shout into a phone, indeed we hardly raise our voice above a whisper, but we can still be perfectly well heard by the people at the other end. So why is it that people on trains using phones feel they have to raise their voices? Same with phones on trains. I was on a train home from Paddington the other day, and a couple of seats behind me was an infuriating woman who launched into long, loud conversations on her phone about business life, the next day's meetings, office gossip, and so on, and when she was tired of talking to one person she rang another and had exactly the same conversation all over again. You could feel the whole carriage silently seething as they tried to ignore her, until finally I couldn't bear it any longer and I got up and turned round and said to her very forcibly and audibly:

"If you have to talk so loudly, could you PLEASE have more interesting conversations?"

Though I say it myself, I thought that was quite a snappy line. It did not, however, have the desired squashing effect on her. She looked murderous daggers back at me and said: "If you don't like it, you can always move somewhere else."

At this point I should have said, "I'm afraid there aren't enough empty seats in the train for all of us to move to," but I didn't think of this till later, and just sat down fuming. Luckily she scored an own goal now, because she turned back to her phone and said to her unseen friend, "Sorry about that, but there's a bloke on the train who says I'm talking too loud." At which a chorus of passengers' voices arose around me, saying: "He's not the only one," and although she outwardly paid no heed to this, her voice suddenly went very soft and quiet and we all smiled at each other because we knew we had won.

Satisfying at the time, I suppose, but train conversations shouldn't be a matter of winning and losing. They should be gentle things, rising and falling like breathing. The next time I got on the train at Bath to go to Paddington I sat opposite an old bloke who didn't look like much until he produced a small flask and said: "Don't think I can get this tea down unless it's got some whisky in it," and poured a slug of Scotch in his tea. "Want some?" he said.

"Don't think I could face Scotch before 11am," I said politely.

"I beg to differ," he said, and we were off on a long circumambulatory conversation which lasted from Bath to Didcot and which ranged over prisons (he had been a policeman before retiring), racial prejudice (he was Welsh), strangely boring seaside towns (he lived in Weston-super-Mare) and so on. I was actually meant to be working on the train but this was more fun, and by the time we got to Reading we were lifelong buddies. Then, at Reading, another man got in and sat with us. My friend offered him some Scotch. He refused. He got out a mobile phone. He hunched up his shoulders to signify isolation and made as if to dial.

"Bloody hell," said Taffy (which he had told me was his name). "He's got a Yuppie phone. Or don't we use that word any more?"

"What word?" I said.

"Yuppie," said Taffy. "Is the word `Yuppie' too Eighties? Is the word dead now? And if there are still such people as Yuppies, what is the Nineties word for it? I appeal to our friend with the Yuppie phone. What do you think?"

Our friend with the Yuppie phone, who had been listening to this with some amusement, put down the phone and joined in our conversation. By the time we got to Paddington we were all friends for life. I submit with respect that none of this would have happened on a plane or in a taxi, only on a train.

Well, that's it. I rest my case, whatever it was, and a happy St Valentine's Day to you all.