Brian Viner: The terribly polite, middle-class war against mobile phones on trains strikes its first blow

Even if they don't cause cancer, they have destroyed the embarrassment gene
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The Independent Online

The usual tenant of this space, as you know, is the great Howard Jacobson. And funnily enough I was thinking of him earlier this week, even before I knew that I would be slipping into his Hush Puppies for the day.

The usual tenant of this space, as you know, is the great Howard Jacobson. And funnily enough I was thinking of him earlier this week, even before I knew that I would be slipping into his Hush Puppies for the day.

I was sitting on the 08.47 train from Worcester Shrub Hill to London Paddington - the one that departed Worcester at 09.03 - gazing out of the window. I am quite strict with myself on the Worcester-Paddington journey, which I undertake two or three times a week. I allow myself unlimited gazing between Shrub Hill and Charlbury, but at Charlbury I force myself to knuckle down and switch my laptop on, knowing that the battery just gets me from Charlbury to Paddington unless there is a signal failure north of Oxford.

It was Election Day, a good day, it occurred to me, to conduct one of those ambitious schemes where photographers are despatched all over the country and in the same 24-hour period take pictures intended to provide a socio-cultural snapshot of Britain. Imagine the archive we'd have if someone had come up with that idea in 1945, or even 1964, and carried out the exercise on every subsequent election day.

The reason this thought occurred was that in a field between Pershore and Evesham I saw a group of about 10 men in turbans and long robes, picking fruit. It was a spectacle you might also get on the 08.47 from Peshawar to Kabul, which is not to say that I found it disorientating, and certainly not disconcerting, as Robert Kilroy-Silk might have, just mildly arresting. It was not, at any rate, a sight that would have greeted anyone in 1945 or 1964. But then the 08.47 is nothing if not a barometer of our times. Just as we were coming into Paddington on Thursday morning, a man just behind me in the carriage, a man in late middle age wearing a grey suit, made a rather brave and noble speech.

"I'm going to say this very loudly," he said, very loudly. "I find it extremely annoying when somebody conducts a long and loud business conversation on their mobile phone while sitting opposite me on a train. It does not have to be so loud, nor continue for so long. And for those of us who are trying to read or analyse documents or just look out of the window and think, I find it absolutely paralyses the thought processes. If anyone agrees with me, perhaps you would be kind enough to make a supportive noise."

There was some desultory clapping and a lot of the faint smiling that you get between middle-class English people when someone in their midst has done something verging on the outré. I was one of those faintly smiling, at a woman with freckles who faintly smiled back. But of course I should have whistled and stamped my feet and given him the support he deserved.

On the other hand, I have been perfectly happy to have my thought process paralysed by some of the mobile phone conversations I have overheard on trains. The latest medical research apparently suggests that excessive use of mobile phones does not cause cancer, as had been speculated, but they plainly do something almost as sinister, causing the total evaporation of the embarrassment gene.

On the 08.47 from Worcester alone I have heard a man sacking an employee, a teenage girl telling her mother that she no longer loved her, a woman shrieking at her husband for forgetting to pick up their son from another boy's house, and a clergyman describing a decidedly intimate surgical operation. I've seen the same clergyman several times since - he gets on at Moreton-in-Marsh - and always feel like asking how his bowels are.

As for the man responsible for Thursday's offending mobile-phone conversation, he said softly to the complainant: "There is a quiet carriage further up the train where nobody is allowed to use mobiles. You could always have sat in there."

"I most certainly would have done," continued the complainant, just as loudly, "except that every seat was taken. Anyway, it is my view that there should not be one carriage reserved for those who do not like to listen to mobile phone conversations. There should be a carriage reserved for those who wish to make them, and you can all bellow together."

With all this going on, Howard Jacobson had rather faded from my mind, but he reappeared on the 17.52 back to Worcester Shrub Hill, the reason being that I once asked him whether he had ever seen someone reading one of his books in public. He said he had, on a train, and that it was a most uplifting experience. If the American author Dan Brown ever feels the need to be similarly uplifted, he should spend a week travelling between Worcester and Paddington. I can hardly remember the last time I saw less than one person reading The Da Vinci Code, even though, in my view, it is a load of semi-literate poppycock.

My mean-spiritedness stems from having just written a book myself for the first time, and because I have yet to see somebody reading it on a train. I did meet someone the other week who very gratifyingly said that he'd been reading it on the Tube and had to put it down because he was laughing so much. I told him that he should have held it up, not put it down. And wondered when exactly we became a nation that doesn't mind talking about its bowel operations in public, but is rather self-conscious about laughing.

Anyway, remembering Howard's story I have taken to wandering up and down the aisle at least once between Shrub Hill and Paddington in the hope of spotting somebody engrossed in my book. I haven't yet decided what I might do if and when I find my Holy Grail. Go and sit down again, I suppose.

Howard Jacobson is away

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