If you live in a big city like London, you rarely even talk to your neighbours, let alone strangers in the street. This wasn’t always the case. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my Mum chatting away to other ladies on a bus. Sometimes, the conductor would join in the conversation, and pretty soon people further away would be twisting around in their seats, hoping to get a word in too. Shopping took forever, as Mum would chat about the same stuff to every shopkeeper, as well as to all the other customers in the shop. I would stand pulling at her sleeve, wondering what the hell they were all going on about.
Some time later, this all changed. And I never really understood why.
By the time I was in my thirties, approaching strangers was considered to be weird. You might get someone at a bus stop ask you, “Have I missed a 29?” But that would be about it. If someone saw you smoking, they might cautiously approach you for a light. Once the cigarette was lit, they walked away. If you needed to ask for directions, then you would generally seek out someone in uniform, like a policeman, or lollipop lady. But never a stranger, and definitely not a woman on her own. I once spent many hours on a long train journey, seated opposite an attractive woman of about the same age as me. We didn’t exchange a word throughout the whole trip. On arrival at a busy London terminus, I decided to do the decent thing, and offered to take her heavy case down from the rack. She looked surprised when I spoke, and curtly replied, “I put it up there, I can get it down.”
Many years later, I was descending a long flight of steps into an underground station. On the opposite side, I spotted a harassed young mum, struggling with a buggy. She was bouncing it and the baby it contained backwards up the steps, trying to keep a hold on her handbag and numerous shopping bags as she did so. I ducked under the rail separating us and grasped the footplate of the buggy, attempting to help her lift it up the steps. She looked alarmed. “Leave me alone please, and take your hands off my pram.” Her voice was raised as she spoke, and people around looked at me as if I was a criminal. I put the buggy back on the step, and returned to my journey.
I had well and truly learned my lesson about modern city life. After that, I spoke to nobody, avoided eye contact, and never once offered to help anyone again.
Then four years ago, I moved here to Norfolk. People started saying hello. Neighbours walked around the front and introduced themselves. Walking along the local High Street in Dereham, everyone nodded, or actually said “Good Morning” as I passed. Staff in shops engaged me in conversation, and even teenagers smiled as they went by. I was perplexed, and unsure what to do. Fifty-odd years of minding my own business was not easy to overturn. Then I got a dog, and it went up a gear. Dog-walkers talk. They don’t just bid you good day, they walk around with you for some time too. They talk about your dog, their dog, other dogs, and things like house prices, and where they used to work, or live. But then you keep meeting the same people. You find out their names, or at least their dog’s name. You begin to refer to people by doggy nicknames. Things like ‘Jenny two-dogs’, or ‘Mrs curly-haired Jack Russell.’ Very soon, it becomes all too apparent that you are running out of things to say. There’s always something fascinating like “I had my car serviced this morning”, or a search for tips on tradesmen, as in “Who services your boiler?”
One thing remains constant though. If in doubt, when all other conversational gambits have been exhausted, you can never go wrong with the weather. No matter how many times you encounter someone in the same week, you can rely on the weather to give you something to talk about. We English are experts at this, it’s in our genes. Never taught, never studied, we just grow up knowing how to talk about anything meteorological. Even something as mundane as rain has limitless options. “It’s raining much harder than yesterday.” “I think it will rain later.” “This rain might stop before dark.” All reliable standbys, and considered to be perfectly acceptable too. The recent heatwave has opened up some rarely heard opportunities for conversational gems of course.
I passed a lady today, on the path by the river. I don’t know her well, but have seen her occasionally, with her small terrier. We once spoke briefly about the mud, and the flooded path. Today, she looked at me, blew out her cheeks, and said “Too hot for me today.” I smiled, then replied “At least anything is better than rain.” Then we continued on our way.
That was a very English conversation, believe me.