Miles Kington: So what does turn green after Harrow?

'Well, you know what Melksham smells like? It's like that ? but even worse'
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The Independent Online

The other day I was travelling by train from Bath to London, half-reading a book and half-listening to a group of women at the table opposite . One of the four women had been to Venice on holiday and was showing off her holiday snaps to the other three.

"Is it true that Venice is very smelly?" said one of them suddenly.

"Oh, yes," said the traveller. "The canals really pong. It was still quite warm when we were there, and they seem to smell more in hot weather."

"And what do they actually smell of? What kind of a smell is it?"

"We-e-ell," said the traveller, racking her brains for a comparison, "well, you know what Melksham smells like? It's like that, but even worse."

Poor old Melksham. It's the town in Wiltshire which tends to be the butt of Wiltshire jokes, and also the home of the Avon rubber factory which, I believe, is the source of the smells referred to. But even if you have never heard of Melksham, it was a funny remark, and I hastened to write it down on the nearest shirt cuff, so that it could join the short but distinguished list of other odd reactions to Venice.

(Actually, there are only two. One is Robert Benchley's cable to the New Yorker from Venice: "Streets full of water. Please advise," and the other is Alphonse Allais's remark in the 1890s, "The first thing that strikes you about Venice is the complete absence of the smell of horse dung," which tells you all you need to know about town traffic a hundred years ago.)

But I was also glad to add it to my small but cherished collection of overheard remarks. Just occasionally you hear something said by someone else which strikes you as so odd or mysteriously banal that it sticks with you long after you have forgotten all those interesting facts you heard on University Challenge and you swore you would never forget.

For instance, about this time last year I was travelling to London by train from Bath down the Waterloo line, which goes past Westbury. There had been a slight fall of snow the night before, which gave the distant rampart of Salisbury Plain quite a grand aspect. As we got nearer to the escarpment, a mother opposite me said to her daughter: "Darling, when we get round the next corner, we're going to see the White Horse of Westbury. Have you ever seen it?" No, she hadn't. "Well, it's a huge white horse carved on the hillside."

We came round the corner. There was the Westbury White Horse. But it wasn't white. All the whiteness was the snow which had fallen on the hillside round the Horse. By contrast the White Horse, which is grubby at the best of times and only looks pale by contrast with the ground around, looked, well, black.

"But it's black, Mummy !"

Mummy's mouth fell open. She stared in disbelief. She recovered quickly. "Yes, well, dear, sometimes it's black and sometimes it's white, now get on with your book."

I once heard a woman in London say to her friend, "Of course they turn green after Harrow..." which was such a mystifying remark that I lingered to hear exactly WHAT it was the turned green after Harrow. Can you guess? Was it school prefects? Cucumbers? Sporting editions of newspapers? No. It was country buses on their way to Watford.

I also once heard two girls in Washington Square, New York, discussing the new boyfriend that one of them was having a hard time with. He sounded pretty grim.

"Why don't you just kick him out?" said her friend.

"Well," said the girlfriend," I don't really think I know him well enough yet to do that to him."

Great line of dialogue. Straight out of a superior sitcom. And that's about the whole of my remembered list of overheard remarks. It's not much to show for a lifetime. But it could be worse. I once heard Anne Leslie being asked on Radio 4 if she had ever heard any good overheard remarks, and she said: "Yes. I once heard a woman say to a friend, 'Of course they turn green after Harrow,' and it turned out to be nothing more than country buses going to Watford!" The next time I bumped into Anne Leslie, I said it was an extraordinary coincidence that she had heard that too, and she said: "Don't be a chump. You told it to me and I borrowed it from you. I have never overheard anything amusing so I had to use someone else's. You'd do the same, I hope."

What a journalist.