Monday, 13 February 2017


One disadvantage of living in Brussels is you don't get as much opportunity to overhear people saying intriguing things as you do when you are in Britain or Australia. Even if you speak adequate French, the majority of your fellow passengers on the average tram or underground here don't speak a) audibly, (continentals seem curiously inhibited about speaking reasonably loudly in public, damn them), or b) in French, so the chances of your understanding that something astounding is being uttered by your fellow-travellers are really pretty slim.

Meanwhile in the English speaking world, commuters remain, to a large extent, uninhibited about chatting quite loudly wherever they are, especially since the advent of the mobile phone.

Amazingly,  many people don't like this latter development. Angry columns in magazines and letters in the paper argue that those who talk on their telephones in the street et cetera are undermining the fabric of society and should be hounded until they stop. I disagree. I think the people who make this argument are simple killjoys. Some of the most interesting half hours of my life have been spent trying to piece together, from just one side of a conversation, what exactly is going on between the speaker I'm sitting next to on the bus and the person at the other end of the line. I freely admit that this is an indication of how very dull my life is, but surely, given that, it would be cruel of anyone to continue in the fight to deprive me of what little enjoyment I have.

Two bits of overheard conversation that I picked up on a recent trip to London should serve as illustrations of the kinds of things that bring me pleasure, mainly because they are equal parts batty and baffling:

1. A short, not particularly fit looking, 50-ish man in a tracksuit marched out in front of me as I was trying to cross the road just near Gower Street: "I said, 'I've got the best personal trainer in Brighton' and they all just looked at me", he was telling someone, outrage suffusing his tone;

2. A woman of about 40, with short hair that she'd chosen to dye a colour that I used to call maroon but is now more commonly called burgundy, passed by me in an echoing underground corridor. She was going in the opposite direction.

"We've agreed that, if we don't both find anyone else in the next six months, we'll marry each other",  was all I heard her say. It was enough to leave me even now, ten days later, buzzing with questions. Here are a few for starters:

why six months, why not now or in six years; why marry at all, if you don't really want to - do they have to meet the terms of a will; or do both parties actually really want to but neither is prepared to admit it; or is the burgundy haired one the other one's landlady and he needs the accommodation she provides and is buying time, so he can stay there for a bit longer; and, if they do marry, will the arrangement work in the long run - could half-hearted actually be a good way to go, in the sense that no illusions can be destroyed, because both sides have already acknowledged that they are making a compromise; also, under the terms of the agreement - that "if we don't both" clause - what happens if one of them does find someone else and the other doesn't, will the agreement stand, will the one who has found someone have to marry the one who hasn't anyway to avoid a breach of promise suit; and, for that matter, is there even such a thing as a breach of promise suit these days?


  1. I may be wrong, but I tend to assume that women over 40 who dye their a certain shade of burgundy or magenta, think they're a bit of a 'character' and are to be avoided whenever possible. I realise that I may be wrong and that there are many who are simply fighting the inevitable cloak of invisibility that surrounds many of us in middle age and that I have just had some bad experiences (usually with people called Roz or Jan).

    I'm not sure what the male equivalent is - perhaps men who have a long, grey ponytail, to let us all know that in spite of their thoroughly conventional clothing, they are a rebel at heart. Sadly, a rebel without applause.

    1. You may be right. I think you are. Roz & Jan may disagree. But they and the man with the long, grey ponytail can spend the next six months deciding whether they will hook up for good & whether, if they do, they should all dye their hair matching sea green to mark the occasion

  2. A remember reading, twenty or thirty years ago, a writer's suggestion that decline of American fiction set in when telephone party lines went out fashion. To be sure, when eavesdropping on a party line one did get both sides of the conversation. On the other hand, many of those happiest to be heard on the cell phones don't seem to be leaving much space for their interlocutors, so perhaps less is lost than might be.

    1. Just lately, I've been thinking how much better American fiction is than other English language kinds at the moment - I like big rambling novels like The Goldfinch and one I listened to on Audible last year by Garth someone or other called something like House on Fire, plus Arcadia by Lauren Groff, which I just finished listening to on Audible. I don't think you get such richly peopled novels in Britain at the moment. I suppose what I'm saying is that I am not sure I can accept the idea that American fiction has declined.