The comfort of strangers

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The Independent Online
I picked up a hitch-hiker yesterday. He said it was very brave of me to have anyone else in the car, after what Mr Steven Norris had said about the horror of sharing your car space with total strangers. No, no, I said, it was nice to have someone to talkto on these long drives - I had been shut up with my thoughts all this time.

And in any case ( I told the hitch-hiker) what Mr Steven Norris was saying about the pleasures of going by car and avoiding all those terrible people you meet on public transport was said a long time ago and much better by Mr Willie Rushton, the artist. I overheard him once on the radio saying that if you really had to go across London, then taxi was the only way to do it. "You can always get a seat in a taxi and never have to stand, and you never travel with anyone you haven't been introduced to."

I have a lot of respect for Willie Rushton, if not for Steven Norris, but I think I must be in a minority here. I actually enjoy travelling with total strangers (I told the hitch-hiker). I like getting into trains and staring covertly at my fellow passengers, listening to them, eavesdropping on them, watching their extraordinary behaviour.

I like walking to the buffet and back again to look at people's faces, to study the clothing of humanity, to look over their shoulders and see what extraordinary books and papers they are reading. (I saw a man the other day reading a book called A Quick Guide to Conversational Gaelic). I even like talking to them - I have had some great conversations in trains.

And not all people on trains are strangers. The other day I got a morning train from Bath to London, and realised as I looked at the faces on the platform (why wait for the train to arrive to start studying faces?) that I knew at least four of my fellow passengers. There was an ex-director of the Bath Theatre Royal, an extremely reputable top civil servant, a rugby player and my accountant. Not all together, but scattered through the crowd like distinguished plainclothes policemen.

I elected on the spur of the moment to chat to the civil servant, which turned out to be slightly embarrassing when we got on the train as it turned out that he had a first-class ticket and I had a standard, middle-of-the-road, bottom-of-the-barrel, plain ordinary ticket. This meant that he would be obliged to go and sit in the front of the train in sad isolation, whereas I had the run of all the rest of the train.

I took pity on him and went to sit with him for a while and keep him company in his first- class coach, where he told me some interesting things about the present Government. His chief inside information seemed to be that they are a bunch of incompetents. Gosh, I didn't know that. But then the ticket inspector came along and said I would either have to pay more or re-schedule our conversation, so I was forced to return to the hurly-burly of standard-class accommodation and the delight of watching other people at play.

Incidentally, it is my observation that women are much better at watching other people than men are. Ask a woman to describe the fellow guests in a restaurant, after a meal out, and she will go round the whole room fairly accurately. Most men will not even have noticed their neighbours. One reason for this is that women are interested in people and men are interested in themselves.

Another reason is that women are usually in a better position to see. This is because whenever there is a restaurant table for two by a wall, the woman will almost always be sitting with her back to the wall, and the man facing the wall, back to the restaurant. Don't believe me? Have a look next time you eat out.

The reason is quite simple. When the couple enter the restaurant and are shown to the table, the waiter will pull the table away from the wall to allow the first person to sit down. The man, if he has any vestige of courtesy left, will let the woman sit down first and therefore she will be in a good viewing position, and as the evening goes on you will find lines of women with their backs to the wall staring out at the other diners, and lines of men facing them with no idea what is so interesting behindthem.

My first-class friend got out at Didcot - a place, as far as I can make out, where people only go if they want to go to Oxford, and then I wandered back along the train past the buffet, where they had an enormous pile of Daily Telegraphs, not for sale, but to give away. Apparently they have started giving away the Daily Telegraph in hotels as well these days. Maybe they don't actually sell the paper any more, they just give it away. What do you think?

I turned to the hitch-hiker for his opinion. He had fallen fast asleep. I lapsed into silence. Sometimes, Mr Norris, it doesn't make much difference if you have company or not.

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