I tried my best not to turn around, but in the end had to sneak a look. The speakers were two black men, possibly in their late twenties or early thirties, one apparently a newcomer, the other an old hand showing him the ropes. But the bit of their conversation that made me desperate to know who was talking went, as I recall, something like this: "The thing is, they're having children younger and younger, and they don't know anything except shouting. They just shout. Shout, shout. That's the only way they know to discipline them. They don't have..." – you could hear him searching for the word – "maturity. That's what they don't have. I don't know what will happen to those kids."
People talk to their companions on buses in the way they don't on any other form of public transport. It's quiet enough; they don't feel they are addressing an open carriage. Is it unethical to listen in? Perhaps. But over the summer, with the buses a bit emptier, it's hard not to. And amid the prattle, the apologies for lateness yelled into mobile phones and the obsessive consumerism (you might be surprised how many under-12s converse, if at all, in Ad-land clichés), I've also heard people passing extraordinarily harsh judgements (often on themselves), genuine voices of disquiet and acute observations on the state of the nation.
Two white women probably in their sixties, well-spoken, probably not related, were discussing the daughter of one of them. "She's so talented, so creative... But she's 40 now; she's not attached." (Long pause.) "She's had two suicide attempts; her personal life is a complete mess." I had so many questions. What does she do? What did she want? Who expected what? How and why did it all go so wrong? Even Bridget Jones, I thought, eventually contrived a happy end.
Another two women (look around you, more women than men travel by bus), perhaps teachers, perhaps social workers, on a training day out, talk despondently about the chaos of some children's lives. "You know what's the single most reliable indicator of success?" (She meant at primary school, I think) "It's whether they have a table at home." "A table?" Came the response. "Yes, it's not just whether they eat together as a family, have regular meals, not just sitting in front of the television, but whether the child has somewhere to write or draw... That's the one thing."
Or how about this for a glimpse of generational incomprehension. A young-elderly couple, a young girl and an adolescent boy perpetually fiddling with a computer game. Referring, I presumed, to his younger sister, the boy said "She's village". Intake of breath from grandmother, followed by a self-consciously restrained query. "What did you say?" "She's village at it." "What do you mean by village?" "She's not much good." "Why do you call that village?" "Village cricket, geddit?" Small sounds of amusement, and "village" becomes the word of the moment as the adults play with their discovery, clearly relieved that their grandson's insult had more than four letters and evinced nothing more dismissive than the age-old scorn of townspeople for their country cousins.
Alas, second-born is no longer second-best
They're back from their holiday truce, the Eds, the Milibands and the rest, and Miliband D still leads the running by a short head (and a new hairdo) from his younger brother. But I'm not putting money on his victory (and it's nothing to do with his gift for party-planning).
The consensus has been that in any contest, the first-born will beat the second-born, tending to be of a more competitive disposition, more ambitious, more self-starting and more generously endowed with leadership ability. (I am one, I should know.) You can also cite his longer experience, his more senior jobs and the fact that it was to him that Labour rebels looked when they sought an alternative to Gordon. But I'm even less sure he will get the top job now. Not because his formal qualifications have shrunk, but because, alas, the ascendancy of first-borns may be at an end.
The leadership qualities sought nowadays are of the consensual, mediating, sociability sort – qualities that are honed by younger brothers and sisters as part of their family survival mechanism. They know better than we do how to compromise, to bargain and not to boss, but to duck, trim and wheedle to get their way. If men, they may be better at dealing professionally with women; they know they have to make an effort, that precedence is not theirs by right. This, and nothing to do with achievement or experience, is why Ed Miliband's time may have come.
Farewell, Fawlty Towers
At the start of this year we booked, for almost the first time ever and very much at the last moment, a package holiday. The service, from initial approach to conclusion, was a joy and a delight. Let me spell that out. Phones and emails were answered, calls were returned; the staff were well-informed, gave expert advice, spoke perfect English and took trouble. This was not, I should clarify, at the luxury end of the market.
I remembered this pleasant experience, after a recent lunch at Pizza Express and a sortie into McDonald's. In both places, I have encountered brusqueness and/or limited competence in the English language. But no. As I arrived with my elderly mother and my husband walking with a stick, the girl at Pizza Express was charm itself, finding a convenient table, arranging the chairs, and briefing us, but not in a parroting American-server way.
What struck me most, though, was that both she and the smiling, super-efficient lad at McDonald's, where I treated myself to my annual (OK, bi-annual) milkshake, were, to judge by their accents, local. So I wonder: has the recession forced people to take low-paid work, or could it be that a new generation is rediscovering a tradition of stylish and friendly service? How I hope it's the latter – because if it is, we are halfway to making the grade for London 2012 and, more to the point, making the UK a more congenial place to be.