Was it a short story, or a poem for children, I once read about a distant planet inhabited entirely by ''Ears'' and ''Mouths''? It was not evidently a place of much visual felicity, but I remember feeling that the fantasy did, perhaps, contain a grain of something recognizable. Here was a society of reciprocal benefits, not based on equality, but on mutual function, a society composed of those who only Talk and of those who only Listen. . . .
It has recently dawned on me why this fiction had a rather familiar ring to it. To discover such an ideal state, it isn't necessary to take flights of imagination, or even to indulge in space exploration. All that is needed is a trip on British Rail.
I don't know why, but it is an almost universal law: Being on a train persuades talkers to talk and persuades listeners to listen. The peculiar thing is, though, that people are not necessarily the same off a train as they are on. The voluble at home can, on rails, be as mute as swans. And although I don't know about them, it seems likely that train-talkers could well be mouse-quiet and tongue-tied everywhere else.
My wife and I fall with a rather baffling inevitability into the role of ''Ears.'' She is more realistic about this than I am. Faced with the prospect of a rail ride, in spite of all precedent I still pack three or four books while she takes only one, or no more than a thick magazine.
I am absurdly sanguine. Five-and-a-half hours from Glasgow to London: The prospect stretches in the mind's eye, becoming an eternity of silence and uninterrupted reading. I could reread Middlemarch. I could actually, at last, finish Tolkien's Trilogy. There's Henri Troyat's mammoth biography of Tolstoy, a great orange chunk of a book that has lain on the shelf willing me to finish it for the last six months. Now's my chance. Oh, and there's Madame Bovary. And I probably ought to take (since it's work) William Gaunt's Concise History of English Painting. And . . . .
On the way down to London the lady on my right, whom neither of us has ever met before, starts her life story immediately as we draw out of the station. She probably knows from experience that if she doesn't start early, she'll never reach the present day by Euston. Apart from the enigmatic hush that settles on even the most continuous talkers while the train stops at intermediate stations en route, she, for sheer unedited word-flow, knocks into a cocked hat Tolkien and Henry Troyat combined, and offers a serious challenge to Tolstoy as well. ''Concise History'' is, to her, simply a contradiction in terms.
I think with increasingly abstract longing and concrete resignation of Madame Bovary languishing in the bag, and nod and smile as Maggie MacDougal of Bishopriggs, her autobiography unravelling like a sleeve of care, launches energetically into her account of 1967, the year of her retirement and her first visit of many to Majorca. . . .
But I mustn't sound cynical. I'm not. The honest fact is that I am genuinely interested in Maggie MacDougal. I'm intrigued by the intrepidity and adventurousness, the recollections and opinions, of all train-talkers: by that informative Doberman pinscher breeder from Halifax I met on the train to Leeds; by the Cumbrian mother of a lad just back from the Falklands; by the Indian Glaswegian who felt vigorously that children should not use pocket calculators under the age of fifteen; by the professor of peace studies; by the Canadian woman visiting Scottish cousins; by the hard-bitten prison officer on the overnight train; by the young man off for three months in Saudi Arabia; by the insurance salesman who had been kicked out of the Navy because his income from selling insurance to fellow ratings had risen to six times his Navy pay. There seem to be few limits to the details and anecdotes people will reveal to a stranger on a train.
It's an odd business. I suppose it is partly to do with the fact that the talkers know they are most unlikely ever to meet the listeners again. It is also , I think, connected obscurely with the forward movement of the train. Chaucer knew well enough that walking produces talking. So locomotion is likely to prompt it even more extremely. His Canterbury Tales would surely have taken place on a train, if a train had been available for his pilgrim characters.
Mostly, however, it is simply a matter of a train being an ideal setting for captive audiences. In every compartment, ''Ears'' are cornered by ''Mouths'' - trapped, inescapably hemmed in, monopolized, positively Ancient-Marinered. The wedding-guest sat on a stone: He cannot choose but hear; And thus spake on that ancient man, The bright-eyed mariner.
Coleridge understood. You cannot choose but hear. Ah, well, there will probably be time to read all those unread books at home on the long winter evenings. . . .