Friday 17 June 2011
Brian Viner: The joy of what's overheard
Those of us long-sufferers who regularly rely on Britain's benighted railway network to get from A to B, preferably not via C, let alone with buses laid on from D to E, all have our pet irritations. One of my latest is the failure, more often than you'd believe possible, of the seat reservation service.
On Wednesday afternoon I travelled by CrossCountry (which if nothing else is the perfect name for a British train operator, since on the subject of railway journeys, we are indeed a permanently cross country) from Birmingham New Street to Basingstoke. It was a crowded carriage, but I found a seat that was unreserved, which I knew because there was a little computer-operated screen that told me so. Not for CrossCountry the old-fashioned business of tucking a reserved ticket above the head rest, which would be impressive were it not for the fact that their alternative system, reliant on sophisticated 21st-century technology,doesn't bloody work.
No sooner had I settled into my seat, unpacked my laptop and surreptitiously read my neighbour's outgoing text message, than a young Japanese woman arrived, brandishing paperwork that proved, despite the "This seat is not reserved" sign, that it was rightfully hers. I could have stayed put, arguing that the malfunctioning computer wasn't my fault, but that seemed heartless. So I moved to the only other available seat in the carriage, alongside a large hen party from Stockport, who were heading for Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot, were all wearing vibrant pink sashes reading "Kelly's Hens", and got louder and more excitable with every pink plastic tumbler of Southern Comfort and lemonade.
Strangely, that is when my journey started to pick up. If, like me, you are an inveterate eavesdropper, several hours on a packed train doesn't have to be an insufferable experience, and I am indebted to Kelly's Hens for relieving rather than increasing my pain. In truth, they were at their most entertaining when they got off at Reading, 15 of them attempting through a Southern Comfort-induced fug to wrestle their vast hat boxes off the parcel shelf. But I enjoyed some of their conversations so much that I scribbled them down next to the newspaper crossword I was pretending to attempt:
Hen A: "Did you watch Come Dine With Me last night?
Hen B: "No, I was out."
Hen A: "What are them tiny, tiny little fish? Is it capers?"
Hen B: "Yeah, capers."
It would have been unforgivably condescending to put them right, as well as spoiling the fun, so instead I listened as the caper chat moved forward, and recalled overhearing a similar exchange on the Eurostar to Paris a few years ago, when a young northerner started chatting up an American girl of about the same age. She told him that she'd just spent three days in England and it had been really neat. What, he asked, had she seen?
Her: "Yesterday we visited, like, Westminster Abbey in the morning, and Leeds Castle in the afternoon."
Him: "Leeds Castle? I didn't know there were a castle in Leeds?"
Her: "Oh sure. It's real cool. With, like, a beautiful moat."
Him: "I've lived all my life near Leeds and I never knew."
And so it went on, with her describing Leeds Castle in Kent, and him picturing a marvellous moated and crenellated hall somewhere near Elland Road. I know that Birmingham to Basingstoke, or even London to Paris, can't really be included among the Great Railway Journeys of the World. But for quality of eavesdropping, if not majesty of scenery, they're both up there in my personal top 10.
Beware the upcoming eaterie and moniker
My colleague John Rentoul, if he'll forgive me, hit the nail on the head with his broadside on clichés the other day. The next time someone tells me that the sticky toffee pudding, or the view from the top of the Malvern Hills, is "to die for", I might just put their enthusiasm to the test. On the other hand, there are clichés and phrases which deserve protection, because they are part of Britain's cultural identity. Many of them, such as letting the cat out of the bag, three sheets to the wind, battening down the hatches, indeed broadside itself, have their origins in our glorious seafaring tradition. Long may they prosper.
However, I do object to the insidious spread of Americanisms. I concede that all languages must evolve, but that won't stop me waging a battle against the American word "upcoming", which seems to have expunged the more graceful "forthcoming". I also have a bee in my bonnet about journalists using the words "eateries" for restaurants, and "moniker" instead of name. A good rule of thumb is that, if you wouldn't say it, don't write it. And anyone who talks about eateries and monikers as part of their everyday conversation should in my view, and to deploy another venerable nautical term, be given a wide berth.
A father's ignorance
Father's Day this Sunday coincides with my daughter's 18th birthday, just as it did with her first birthday, in 1994. I wrote an article, published in a Sunday newspaper that day, in which I claimed to have come of age as a daddy. "I can unfold a pushchair with one hand," I wrote. "I can tell you, should you particularly want to know, what Spot the Dog eats for breakfast." But now, as I finally do come of age as a daddy, I know that 17 years ago I knew nothing.
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