Those Greyhound conversations run on and on

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The Independent Online
The first thing I heard when I got back from North America earlier this month and pulled out of Heathrow in the cold dawn light was the sound of Kerry Shale on Radio 4 telling us yet again what Bill Bryson thought of Britain in Notes from a Small Island.

Now, I am usually happy to hear what Bill Bryson thinks of the place (especially when Kerry Shale reads it - if I were a rich man I would pay Kerry Shale to come round to my house and read books to me) but this time there was something that stuck in my craw. Bryson was telling us never to talk to people on trains. People on trains are boring, he said. They talk about trains. And engines. There was, for example, this man who had approached him on a British train while he was reading a Paul Theroux book and had proceeded to lambast Theroux's lack of interest in railway engines. "How can you travel from Lahore to Islamabad by train without mentioning the engine's number?!" the man had cried. All people on trains are like this, said Bryson. Avoid them

This was so patently untrue that I stirred in my jet-lagged sleep and cried out in protest, which was just as well, as when I awoke I turned out to be driving home down the M4. But recently I have met the most interesting people imaginable on trains, all very forthcoming, often funny and invariably quirky, and I do not regret having talked to any of them. Not on American trains, of course. They hardly have any trains left in America. In America you either fly at great expense and inconvenience, or you are forced to go by bus.

My wife and I were recently forced to go by bus on the simple three-hour journey from Burlington, Vermont (a most underrated little town), to Montreal (which I suspect may be overrated, but we weren't there long) because there was no other way of making the journey. There was no air link. The Amtrak train link had been withdrawn. You can't hire a car in the USA and leave it in Canada. So it had to be the dear old Greyhound bus.

"Buy a bottle of cheap wine for the journey," chuckled an American friend when he heard we were mixing with lowly American bus passengers. He would have been surprised to learn that the young guy I sat next to was a post- graduate plant geneticist going to a big conference in Montreal. He had come from Bloomington, Indiana, a long way away.

"Bloomington? " I mused. "That's where Hoagy Carmichael came from."

"Funny you should say that," he replied, "but in the building where I work there is actually a Hoagy Carmichael room."

It was clear from the surprised way he said this that he hadn't the faintest idea who Hoagy was.

"You from England?" he asked.

"You probably guessed it from my cute accent," I said.

He laughed. "Well, we have two guys from Britain working in our lab. One from London, one from Northern Ireland."

"No political problems, I hope?"

He said nothing. He clearly wasn't aware why there should be, so I changed the subject.

"Plant genetics, eh?" I said. "What's your speciality?"

"Sunflowers," he said. "In fact, I have to do a short paper on it at Montreal. I've been given 12 minutes. I've never given a talk at a conference before. I'm rather nervous."

"Practise on me," I invited him.

"Well," he said, "there are three basic species of sunflower growing wild in America. Two have quite distinct sets of DNA, but the genome of the third shows characteristics of both the others.

"Therefore it is a hybrid. But nobody has the faintest idea how long the hybridisation process has taken - how long, that is, it took for the third to evolve from the other two. So we decided to use a combination of some computer simulation and some experiments in the field ..."

He explained at some length. We arrived at the American-Canadian border. We all filed out and had our luggage searched. We were seriously questioned. Two people were not allowed to get back on the coach. One of them had a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) conviction on his papers, which may have had something to do with it. We got back on ...

"This suggested that the hybridisation process did in fact take place faster than anyone had realised ..."

He finally came to a halt.

"That was twenty-five minutes in toto," I said, looking at my watch. "You've got to cut it by half."

Dear Bill Bryson, people on coaches talking about sunflowers can be just as bad as people on trains talking about engines.