It's odd. There is something, it seems, about trains that gets the talkers talking. I don't mean underground trains. In them – the London Tube anyway – people seem, if anything, to avoid talking. Perhaps we all stand too close. If you have a chat with one person, it has to be a chat with everyone. So we all studiously avoid eye contact.
But I've had occasion lately to do some fairly extensive aboveground train travel again, and I'd forgotten how conducive to verbal unburdening it can be. Mind you, nothing remotely rivals my experience with the man who, years ago, talked nonstop all the way from Glasgow Central to London's Euston Station – about six hours. I felt there were few nooks and crannies of his life with which I was unfamiliar as we eased our way toward the final destination. But, as with all other strangers on trains, one reason quite a lot can be said is the certain knowledge that talker and listener will never meet again.
On my recent train journeys, chats have been shorter – some very short. But they are friendly, opinionated, and self-revealing by turns. They are a form of social interaction that should be encouraged.
Generally what remains in the mind afterward are snatches – like the garrulous young woman with the very small child who played funny faces with me. When they came to their stop, she said "Say 'thank you and goodbye' to the man!" And to me, aside: "I'm bringing 'im up to 'ave good manners, see."
Then there was a young man who noticed (it wasn't difficult) that I was soaked. The sky had opened on my way to the station. "And they call this summer!" he observed. "Course I put it all down to global warming, people with gas-guzzling 4x4s! What do they need them for? There isn't much off-road opportunity in Manchester, is there?! I mean to say – taking their kids to school in them. And cheap air travel! No wonder the ice caps are melting!"
Another man on another journey asked across the aisle what I was reading and why. "It's a very long biography of Kingsley Amis," I answered. "I'm reviewing it." This fascinated him. He couldn't come to grips with the idea of it: the effort, the time, getting paid for it. Extraordinary!
"I read newspapers," he said, as if that was more than enough.
The girl opposite said she'd be interested to read the biography, although she liked Martin Amis (Kingsley's novelist son) better.
The man sitting opposite me on the way from Manchester to Preston – not a long ride – immediately told me that he was recently retired and had taken over a garden plot on an allotment to grow vegetables. The plot had been a wilderness when he started, but it now was pretty much under control. His runner beans were shimmying up their poles nicely and his onions looked promising.
He didn't ask me if I had a vegetable plot (I do), but he did ask me where I came from. I told him "Bingley," and since he was clearly a Northerner himself, I assumed rightly that he'd know where this Yorkshire town was. "But you don't sound like a Yorkshireman," he said.
"Ah, well, that's because I went away to a boarding school in the south, and it put a stop to any of the Yorkshire vowels I had started to pick up at kindergarten in Bingley. My parents were not keen on those vowels." We both laughed. Weren't such expensive forms of social engineering absurd!
He had never lost his Lancashire accent. Why would he? But he told me with a touch of amused tolerance that his brother had. "His wife insists he speaks properly, you see."
For a moment I thought, "and this is the 21st century!"
Received Pronunciation (RP) – which some people still apparently think is the same as speaking "properly" – is the one British accent that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to gauge where the speaker comes from. It is a regionless form of speech, even though Northerners tend to associate it with the south.
Its origins, in the 19th century, belonged to class and education rather than geography. It is a kind of disguise. As drama students discover, "RP" is a skill that can be learned and assumed as the need arises – and if you are going to be in an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward play, the need will arise. But for talking over the breakfast table? Surely any accent will do.
Back in the 1960s, regional speech became so "acceptable" that it almost became a matter of embarrassment that one spoke "RP" – as if one were trying to sound superior. Now, theoretically, "RP" has less of a snobbish side to it than it once had. It is just one accent among many. But I have never found it got me a job or enhanced my husbandly qualities. And it certainly doesn't inhibit the to-and-fro of amiable chatter with strangers on trains.