30 March 2006

Public virtues, private vices

I was engaged in conversation in Blackwells sales area at the Oxford Literary Festival by an elderly gentleman from Didcot. Perhaps he took me for a member of his generation (like my mother in law referring to 'people our age', her meaning clear as she and I were the only people in the car at the time). I was looking at a book on great British bus journeys, and in particular the map indicating which journeys were described in the book (to see whether any of them took in the places of my childhood: one did), while waiting for Philip Marsden to finish signing books.
I found myself being quizzed, in a perfectly friendly manner, about my travelling habits. Did I travel often by bus? Did I use a bicycle? I explained that I try to use the most appropriate (most environmentally-sound) mode of transport for each journey. I tried to elaborate, but somehow the conversation had got on to the Uffington White Horse.
In Oxford, bicycles rule, but buses sometimes seem to be in the majority. Today I rode one to and from the park-and-ride car park on the edge of the city, having demonstrated the previous day that with a return ticket costing £2 against £1.60 for a return it was not worth a two-mile walk from Christ Church to the car park if a bus ride into town had been necessary for reasons of time.
At the bus stop, I was joined in the queue by a young man - suit and tie, but more like an estate agent or salesman than a solicitor or accountant - who was speaking, I imagine to a friend, by mobile phone. The subject was the car he proposed to buy. Did I want to know about this? Of course not, but I was treated to it all the way to the end of the journey (fortunately only about ten minutes).
In the seats in front of him sat two girls in their twenties, speaking a Slav language. Had the mobile phone man been speaking Russian or Polish he wouldn't have bothered me a bit, as I know very little of either. Indeed, the same goes for every language in the world except English, a small part of the French language and tiny bits of German and Spanish. These days England is such a polyglot society, many mobile phone conversations fail to irritate simply because they are incomprehensible. Only those conducted in English represent an attack on my peace and quiet.
I form an ambition to learn a foreign language so I can conduct mobile phone conversations in it. Then I realise there's little point as I could not be sure the person to whom I would wish to speak would be able to understand. What about carrying on imaginary conversations, just to perplex fellow travellers? I could learn pieces of literature off by heart and recite them into an unconnected telephone.
Fortunately, the bus arrives at the car park before I get any further into this completely pointless project.

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