Charles Nevin: A spot of Foucault at the bus stop

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The Independent Online

In turbulent times it is always a good idea to keep in touch with popular opinion as it is expressed in traditional forums away from the artificial confections of platform and studio. We should be grateful, therefore, for the timely publication of a piece of research into what people are talking about at the bus stop.

You might not be surprised, given the location, that more than 60 per cent of the conversations seem to be about the weather. There doesn't appear to be a breakdown of whether bad or good weather excites more comment, but this is, in any case, subjective: I myself recorded at least seven cases of "warm enough for you?" in July.

Of the queuers, 15 per cent were happy discussing rising crime, 10 per cent preferred to discuss sports results, while 9 per cent wanted to talk politics. Some might feel encouraged that only 2 per cent of the queues wanted to swop notes on celebrities, while 10 per cent were happy to talk about global warming (no data on whether this included asking whether it was "warm enough for you").

But, for me and for anyone who wishes to see this evolving into a more warm, sharing society, the significant figure is 47, the percentage of those who did not want to talk at all. Almost as worrying is the 98.4 per cent who said they would not even respond to an opening conversational gambit on cultural matters, but it does at least help to explain the tense incident which ensued when I attempted to start such a conversation on philosophy while waiting for the number 56 in the Balls Pond Road with an interrogatory "Foucault?"

What's to be done? Well, I have considered an Arts Council grant for arts interpreters, some dressed in costume, to join queues at random to set up a bit of a buzz, but my preliminary surveys suggest this is likely to lead to pressure on the next bus stop.

Which is why I have decided to appeal to you to take up the challenge in the general good cause of bringing the silent minority out of their shells and expanding the range of the loquacious. All it requires is your goodwill, a possible change of travel habits, and a certain subtlety of approach. Thus, depending on conditions, you might want to open with, "It rains a lot in French films", or, "as Hemingway so nearly put it in For Whom The Bell Tolls, 'warm enough for you?' ".

You can apply this disguised technique elsewhere, too; for example, "I see Chelsea won. What do you make of an open-door immigration policy?"

"Do you think Gordon Brown will make the buses run on time?" might be good for getting into politics.

I'm probably slightly parti pris, too, but never underestimate the power of the shared snippet from your newspaper. A little practice will allow you to combine items to create a winning topic. On Friday, for instance, you could have tried this: "Well. Despite record numbers of people taking to caravans, I'm not sure, as a meteorite the size of a cricket ball has crashed through the window of one in Mablethorpe, Lincs."

Close scrutiny would also have provided the fish with the shortest lifespan (the pygmy goby, 59 days), a fierce gang of raccoons terrorising Washington state, the supposed aphrodisiacal effect of camel milk, and a man in Tredegar who has had his family tree tatooed on his back; by which time the whole queue will be in animated hubbub, or you will be at the front.

It's glam up North these days

Coleen McLouglin, a fellow columnist, has pointed out that Northern women are far more stylish than their southern counterparts. I agree, and would go further: we are witnessing an upward geographical shift in style leadership right along the cutting edge.

Liverpool, home to the fair Coleen, is limbering up to lead Europe's culture in 2008 with an explosion of creativity and construction; were you aware, for example, that the city now has more cranes than Dubai? It does.

Across the Pennines, there's even more seismic movement away from outmoded images: Leeds has been voted Britain's most female-friendly city; while in Sheffield, men as young as 25 are turning to Botox.

Three clinchers: David Hockney is living in Bridlington, Geoffrey Boycott has left for Jersey and David Beckham was pictured in Venice last week in a flat cap.

* Knock, knock. Who's there? Isabel. Isabel Who? Is a bell necessary on a bicycle? Marvellous. Actually, the answer will shortly be yes, as there are plans to make them compulsory. And to think, according to a tourism body, that foreign visitors are complaining the British have no sense of humour. The cheek of it! What about the Government? Or the Blair Farewell Tour? And they're talking about a fourth term, too. No, stop, please!

Consider, too, you disgruntled but welcome meinherrs, messieurs and senoras, these other random features of island life inexplicable unless someone is having a laugh: the new postal charges, the hunting act, Wembley, Cup-a-Soup, the M25, Alan Titchmarsh at the Proms, driving on the left, and that waitress who asked earlier, "Is everything all right for you?"

And if that's not enough, try this: Why couldn't the bicycle climb the hill? Because it was two-tyred!

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