HE got on at South Kensington or Gloucester Road, I'm not sure which. The London tube ride to Heathrow Airport is a long one, and I was using the time to dig deeper into a book on Bernard Berenson. Always a fool for distraction, however, I looked up. And I couldn't prevent a grin. Here was this man covered in paint - shoes, hair, donkey jacket, even his wristwatch, spattered and runneled with paint. He knew why I grinned, and grinned back.
As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew he was Scottish. ``Terrible, isn't it?'' he said. ``They turned the water off before we'd finished work so we couldn't wash! We're doing this painting job, you see. ... That's a new watch strap yesterday and look at it. Terrible! Mind you, it's ma work-watch. ... It's just ma work- watch, you know.''
Perhaps I should, at this point, have returned decisively to Berenson. But my sympathy for the Pollocked state of his watch strap overcame my interest in Renaissance connoisseurship. And my new friend, aware of a captured ear, launched forth.
Football - a subject about which I know next to nothing - was his theme. He had prejudices (who doesn't?), and he was sticking to them. ``I don't mind who I tell,'' he said, ``and it isn't just because I'm Scottish - from Dundee as a matter of fact ... from Dundee as a matter of fact - but SCOTTISH MANAGERS are the BEST. The BEST.''
The fellow sitting next to me was reading an evening paper with a banner headline: ``Billy McNeill Given the Boot.'' And the painter's eyes happened to glance that way as he spoke.
``Aye, well, I know that Aston Villa has sacked McNeill. But I say that the best manager is only as good as his players. Give a good manager a duff team and there's nothing he can do ... nothing he can do. And I mean, if the Scottish managers aren't the best there are, why do the English keep taking them from Scotland? - that's what I say.''
His logic seemed good to me (being an Englishman whose home is in Glasgow), and his way of repeating important points was persuasive. Furthermore, he backed up his contention with names: ``I mean - look at Jock McSo-and-So and Archie MacThingummy, aye, and Bill Shankley, Bill Shankley.''
``He was a good man,'' I agreed vigorously. (He was the only one I'd heard of; but long experience has taught me that the smallest hint of knowledge is quite enough to perpetuate a one-sided conversation.)
``A good man, aye.''
Encouraged by my interest, this Ancient Mariner from Dundee now held me with his glittering eye and proceeded to regale me with blow-by-blow accounts of most of his favorite matches. Particularly exciting were a number of graphically portrayed saves by a goalkeeper (Scottish, of course) whose elastic extensiveness and leaping wizardry are legendary but whose name somehow escaped me.
The climax of his narrative was the game (a semifinal or something) between Dundee United and AS Roma - a highly significant contest, I gathered, in the annals of football. If Dundee United had won, it seems they would have been through to the Big Time or whatever you call international triumph and renown in the world of soccer. But alas it was not to be. The Italian team won.
``It was the referee, you see, and the linesmen. They were terrible. A duff referee and duff linesmen. They kept giving wrong decisions!'' Here he paused dramatically. ``Do you know what happened a year later?''
I didn't know, but he was going to tell me regardless.
``A year later that referee suddenly got an enormous, brand-new house - a mansion - and two new cars. A year later, a NEW HOUSE, and TWO NEW CARS.'' IT seemed that the doubtful Italian victory had confirmed in my friend a bias that went far beyond football. It was Italians that he didn't like. Not just Italians, but Italians who come to Scotland to live and work. Italians, moreover, who come to Dundee.
As he sounded forth on this pet subject, I reflected that national prejudice is a very strange thing. I didn't doubt for one moment that this congenial chatterbox would have freely enjoyed an evening's sociability with anyone of any race or creed as long as they were good listeners. But he had never been instilled with the notion that racism is wrong. He hadn't, I'm sure, ever undergone self-questioning in this regard. He simply accepted things ``the way they are,'' and that included the ``fact'' that all Dundee Italians are a bad lot. Apparently there are none who escape from this infallible state of bad-lotness.
``Do you know that during the war, when the Italians sided with the Germans, the windows of the houses of all the Italians in Dundee were smashed? If their front doors were glass, they were smashed, too. The people yelled at them to come out their houses so they could smash their windows without hurting them. No one was hurt. Just the windows smashed.''
``But,'' I felt defensive, ``perhaps they weren't in favor of what was happening in Italy - ?''
``All their windows smashed,'' he emphasized, as if that answered my query. ``And you know what they do now? They come to Dundee and they set up in business - ice cream, and fish and chips - and they make a fortune - and then they retire back to Italy taking all their money with them! Dundee gets nothing.''
I was sure by now that no one in the carriage was missing this conversation. The man with the newspaper next to me had stopped reading and was evidently asleep - pretending, I was sure. The pretty girl next to the garrulous painter was trying to read a book - but she kept shifting position and I noticed that at this point she chuckled suddenly to herself. I wondered if it was the book or the conversation that amused her.
``But,'' I said, ``I have some neighbors and friends in Glasgow who are Italian-Glaswegians. As a matter of fact, he owns a fish-and-chip shop. And his wife loves Italy, and goes over there for most of the summer. But I believe they think of themselves as Scottish. They were born and educated here, and so are their children. They really are Glaswegians. They've certainly made a mint of money.''
``Aye, and they'll retire to Italy and...''
I could see this was a match I was not going to win. But at that moment the train pulled in at a station, and the girl who had chuckled stood up to disembark. She was well- dressed and moved with elegant composure. As she passed the paint er she turned to him and, quietly and clearly - without a hint of rancor - said: ``I'm from Dundee, from an Italian family.'' And then she walked out of the door without looking back. THE painter didn't seem to have heard her. He chatted on to me as if nothing had happened. I don't know what he was saying; all I could think of was the embarrassment I would have felt if I had been him.
After a while I said: ``Didn't she say that she was from a Dundee Italian family?''
``Aye, aye, she did,'' he said, ``funny that. ... But it makes no difference, everything I said is true. Nobody can touch you for telling the truth....'' He considered for a second. ``Aye, funny, that. Her being an Italian from Dundee.''
But he wasn't fazed in the least. He prattled on to me as if I was by now an old friend - until, at last, his own station was reached. ``Aye, well, here's where I've got my digs - clean but cheap. Aye, well, good to have a chat. All the best to you.''
He made for the door, but then turned back. And with very loud emphasis he pronounced: ``Aye, AND LANG MAY YOUR LUM REEK!'' (Translated: ``Long may your chimney smoke.'') Away he went again. But then again he returned to add: ``As long as it's burning someone else's coal!'' - and with a final conspiratorial wave he rushed onto the platform, narrowly avoiding the closing doors.
I admit that I sighed a fairly loud sigh of relief. And as I returned to the gentler world of Lorenzo Lotto and Giorgione - as presented through the scholarship of that American of Lithuanian Jewish birth so long domiciled in Italy, Bernard Berenson - I couldn't help wondering what my Scottish traveling companion, should he encounter some stray Italian on a tube train one day, might have to say to him about the English. After all, there are more than a couple of things we've filched from his neck of the woods over the centuries, apart from football managers.
There's marmalade (which comes from Dundee, not Oxford), for a start.