Talking to strangers

mumblings

Just over a week ago, I travelled to Surrey to give an outreach talk about my work. I could have driven, but the timing was rather tight and since the M25 on a Friday afternoon makes any journey time estimates completely moot, I decided to take the train. It’s a slightly complicated journey of a couple of legs, and to get the cheapest ticket I had chosen two single tickets: one going out via Reading and the return coming back via London.

On longer journeys, I always make seat reservation, particularly if it’s a busy time like a Friday afternoon, but I do wonder why I bother. On several recent journeys, I have had a reservation but the reservations computer (which displays the reservations above the seats) has been broken or has had incorrect data, so that seating ends up as a complete free-for-all.

The same thing happened on this journey. Someone was sitting in my reserved seat, and when I pointed this out, she and her companion said that someone else was sitting in their reserved seats, so they’d had to find another elsewhere. The reservation computer was of course helpfully listing all seats as unreserved. Rather than fight about it, I decided to find another empty seat and ended up sitting next to a very dapper chap in his early 70s1. This turned out to be an excellent bit of serendipity.

When I looked around the carriage, most people were in their own little bubbles, as is often the case on public transport. Even many of those ostensibly travelling with others were in the tractor beam of a glowing screen or muffled against the world with headphones. Usually, that would be me too. I like to spend solo train journeys in a combination of listening to music, reading and gazing out of the window at the scenery. It didn’t turn out that way this time.

We started on the usual British-people-on-a-train conversational opening gambit of ineffectual complaints about the pointlessness of train seat reservations, but I quickly discovered that I was sitting next to an older version of Milton Jones. He had an extraordinary facility for clever puns and one-liners, and I was the solo audience for his stand-up (or rather, sit-down) comedy. He explained that his love of wordplay might have originated in his background as a second-generation immigrant, surrounded by a multilingual household. He even told me a joke in which a pun depends on the listener knowing both German and Lithuanian. He had an amazingly creative mind, finding analogies and alternative meanings to craft a surreal joke or pun.

As I’ve explained before, I’m slightly hopeless socially, and often more of a listener in conversation2 than a talker. This chap had lived a very interesting and varied life, and it was fascinating hearing about it. He is still working because he loves his job and sees no reason to stop, and he had an admirably genial and well-balanced outlook on life generally. I even overcame my usual reticence and told him a little about my life too. The time passed very quickly and I was quite sad to be leaving the train at Reading. It was lovely breaking out of the bubble and making contact with another human being. I must remember to try it more often.


  1. I’m not guessing - he told me his year of birth later on, but I think it would be ungallant of me to be as precise as he was.
  2. Though I do really enjoy listening, and think I’m quite good at it.
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