It's 19.38, late summer by English standards, and I'm in full wet weather cycling regalia returning from yet another eternally long day at work. I have full panniers, one size is a bag of catfood, the other a couple of beer for Match of The Day, a television institution ( a bit like hockey night in Canada, only not hockey, and not Canada) in the UK. I'm also carrying the Darth Vader doll that I was awarded for coming third in the penalty shoot-out during our company away day - proof that Dick is not only brilliant and creative, but has a hilariously ironic sense of humour as well. Every time I remember to throw it away I am in work and do'nt want it found in a garbage bin by some keen eyed manager (Managers get enthusiastic about the strangest things) so it has travelled the 7.33 (delayed) and the return train for the last week or so.
I'm reading Sue Fox's Watching the English, which is a "whimsical and ironic" (what else in England?) examination of, specifically English, manners, and "what it is to be English". The first thought that crossed my mind when my friend Mike offered me this tome, was that if they do'nt know after two thousand years, there's little chance of blinding revelations now. However, I still feel a little displaced here, and any clues as to why may be valuable, so it is my current train read.
My book gets unpacked, and I settle in my seat dipping into WTE, a little impatiently now as Ms Fox's book, as Mike reported, is a bit repetitive. Her findings mainly seem to be that the English are terribly polite, reserved, and do'nt like talking about sex. Any typical social interaction, according to Ms Fox, is ruled by an innate politeness, with a dash of self-depreciating humour, and a peculiar type of reserve that avoids "scenes" at all costs.
My attention is drawn away from my book by the mixed smell of very strong cheap cologne and fading beer. I look up and an early thirties Englishman who is supposed to be typically reserved kicks my bike, and repeats the question he had apparently addressed to me, "Wha'y're reading that? This yours?" indicating the bike, "Oh, sorry, mate, is this your bike? Looks good. Cost you loads? Did'nt mean to kick it, like". His pal launches into another series of unrelated, comprehensible-only-to-a-drunk questions "You beating the system? hull, isit? you rise de ya, an all? no offense, mate,we're f**kin pissed just got divorced y'no warra mean? no offense, mate wyreya readin' tha, I'lltell ya whas English", he leans over and snatches at my book.
Next, the other lad starts rambling in a similar vein, except now he starts discussing with his pal his apparent long-standing desire to posses a good bike, and maybe he'll just take this one. He's leaning in close by now, hand on the back of my seat, pathetically attempting intimidation I think, and obsessed in a way that only drunks can be, by this one idea that he's going to somehow take my bike when we arrive in Hull.
This conversation is not going the way Ms Fox promised it would. According to Ms Fox, the most conversation I could expect from a stranger on a train is a desultory comment on the weather followed by perhaps a rather pithy remark about the lateness of the trains and how bad the tea at railway stations tends to be. I still have'nt contributed to the conversation, and feel it is my duty to do so, but I'm a bit out of my depth. The last time I experienced a similar situation was before we left for Canada, and I think I was more attuned to English ways at the time. I consult the index of Ms Fox's book - perhaps there's an appendix titled "By the way, there's also a sub-culture of arrogant Dickensian proletariat for whom normal rules of behaviour are as lacking as the word 'share' is in a cat's vocabulary ". Alas, no such appendix exists, so I have no recent reference with which to formulate a response.
But old, tired habits die hard, and automatically, the default setting kicks in "Piss off and leave the f**kin bike alone. I've been graftin all day and I wanna f**kin get some sleep. No offense lads, but just f**k off". This by the way is a complete act on my part, calculated bravado, but rooted in experience. It is an unfortunate fact that where reasoning would fail, appeals to common decency would fail, attempted chuminess would probably have failed, and cowering would definitely have failed in securing a peaceful train ride, in England a strong regional accent - particularly Scouse or Glaswegian, succeeds. The same sentences, delivered in a different regional accent, even that of our boys home town, would have only extended the intrusion.
With my accent it is different. The boys back off, sit down, express solidarity with the working man, tell me how Liverpool are the best football team, how they've been to Liverpool, got "hammered" and had a great time, and love Scousers. "No problem, mate, just havin a laugh". I respond gracefully "Yeah, whatever", close my book, close my eyes secure in the knowledge that my reputation for being tough will now protect the bike, and I dream of little puddy tats all the way back to Hull. It appears that I do know what it is to be English, after all.