Friday, 25 November 2011

Ramblings: Small Talk




There was a gentleman talking on the BBC news this morning about manners and courtesy. I’m all for it. I love good manners and agreed with all his points that the demise of correct address is a sad thing. There isn’t a replacement for a simple “thank you” and the casually muttered “my pleasure”, “have a good day” or “call again” aren’t an adequate substitute. There’s nothing like being treated with a little respect. I won’t go on to expound on this issue as I’ll probably end up sounding like an elderly lady reminiscing about the past when things were so “good” (like a life expectancy of 50, smog, Spam, bigotry and rife T.B.) as I think in many ways this is often nostalgic nonsense. I want to address over friendliness.
People talk about the South of England as being unfriendly, bemoan the lack of cheerful chitchat in the streets of our English towns and complain about surly foreigners when they travel abroad. Personally, I’m all for it. As long as you’re polite and respectful then I’d rather you weren’t too friendly. I really don’t have the time or the energy. Frankly, quite a large percentage of the general public bore me too. Why would I want to talk to them?
A common mantra of mine when shopping with Paul is: “Don’t engage!” I hiss this discretely at regular intervals. It saves a lot of time. Thirty minutes spent talking to a mothball scented old lady selling tat on an “antiques” stall often gleans little but an aching back and a dull headache. They’re like assassins, pouncing like ninjas on the slightest of eye contact or the merest lingering glance at a piece of chipped china. Anyone who has attended antiques fairs will understand what I mean and will have left wilting and parched, wondering where the last two hours went; then shuddering in recall as they remember the monologues they endured.
I once had an over friendly neighbour. She was lonely I imagine, being elderly and living alone. I wasn’t lonely, lived with a hard to manage alcoholic and had a wayward dog, a full time job and house to keep. She appeared to me initially as an eye. I was smoking on the back door step, recovering from the bleach fumes after a tiresome morning mopping and trying to put some order into the house we’d recently moved into and enjoying the peace. I’d spent two hours on my hands and knees trying to restore some lovely but battered red quarry tiles. I was streaked red with Cardinal polish.
I heard a disembodied voice and looked around in alarm. I finally spotted an eye staring at me through a knot hole in the fence about 4 feet from the ground. Thus my relationship with the spritely 96 year old neighbour began. I shall call her Mabel. Mabel was very fit and apart from slightly bowed legs and a stoop, had all her faculties. She would stand on a rickety stool and clean her own windows, trail to the shops to fetch tinned salmon and peaches, or whatever it is old ladies eat, and spend hours at the front gate chatting to all and sundry.
My house was a small 3 bed room detached with original art deco features under all the 1970s cover-ups. I was charmed to have found it and was working hard to try and restore some style to it. I was charmed to have a genuine art deco neighbour too; not quite an ex- flapper or a war bride, but I had high hopes. Maybe there’d be interesting stories about intriguing jazz clubs, gramophones and using gravy browning to make ingenious fake stockings during the war. I longed to know about rationing and about the bleak 40s and more hopeful 50s.
Mabel launched into a long monologue and two hours later I had her life story and some hard to remove polish stains. I’ll summarise and pick out the interesting bits. She went to Monte Carlo once. That was it. No war stories, no one was bombed nearby. It wasn’t too tough for her. She stayed at home and cooked and cleaned, her husband went to work and her daughter grew up. That was it. She had something to say about Monte Carlo. She had gone into a casino there with her husband and the croupier was a Jewish woman. This was regaled with a gasp, followed by a pause for me to express my shock that a croupier could be a) female and b) non-gentile. I always struggled with this bit. I wasn’t shocked.
It was about 2 months before I actually saw Mabel in the flesh. Until then she was a mere ocular vision; a disembodied rheumy eye peeking through the fence. I’d heard her a lot more. I had hours of tedious anecdotes swimming round my brain and an equal amount of time lost in which I could have been buffing floors or going over grimed up stained glass windows with cotton buds and vinegar. I was averaging two hours a week of Mabel talk. She mentioned the Jewish woman every time too. I failed to gasp every time too, which is maybe why she continued to repeat it. Her charm soon faded.
I’m sure I provided a service and she definitely had no malice. I’d have helped her out too if there’d been a need. She was still going strong when I left years later. By this time I’d perfected a kind of limbo dance out of the back door which often proved Mabel-proof. It’s hard to get past a 5 foot tall woman with a range of eye holes in a fence when you’re six feet tall and clumsy but I managed it.
I talk to my neighbours now. I bemoan the bad service of the bin-men, berate the weather and bad mouth the woman two doors down who’s certainly a little bit wayward. What’s the beauty of all this though? It takes two minutes. I’m happy with this.
I was startled once whilst shopping in a city in the North of England. I’d never been alone in a city in the North but knew the reputation was that they were friendly places. I’d picked up a jacket and was admiring it when a woman stopped and said “Nice jacket, love, but it’s not you.” She then kindly pointed out a hideous thing she thought was me and I backed away blushing a little to myself, mumbling my thanks. It then happened again in another shop and another. Then a shop assistant tried to engage me in a conversation about a particular style of garment. Everywhere I went they all chatted to me. I was stunned. Surely a bit of friendliness is ok but I don’t need a personal shopper. O.K. I do, but I’d pay a professional. Amatuers don’t cut it for me. I hot footed it back Southwards sharpish.
I was admitted to hospital in Merseyside, briefly almost two years ago. Like most hospitals there was a hidden area where people went to smoke. I was a little battered and wobbly and my social skills were poor but I certainly needed nicotine. I was an in-patient for a mere three days but in that time I had enough depressing life stories from the fellow smokers to write an equally dreary novel. My expectation was maybe a brief nod, at best a smile. Instead I got asked “Where are you from?” “What’s wrong with you?” “What are you doing here?” All perfunctory measures designed with the purpose of then pouring about a tragic story about addictions, still births and abuse. Friendliness was definitely not required on this occasion unless it was from a medical professional bearing something sharp. I was feeling withdrawn, wonky and frail. I hadn’t got the capacity.
Finally, I experienced the worst in the ranking of “over-friendly” incident this last weekend; the train bore. I sat down at a table, opened my book and donned my specs. I had 40 pages left and the ending was uncertain and definitely compelling. A man in Lycra sat opposite me. Lycra is rarely a good look, especially if you’re a little...well...lumpy. He had a haircut which could have meant one of two things 1) I have an abusive mother who I am powerless over who cuts my hair with a bowl 2) I’m a bit wrong.
Luckily the train journey was only 20 minutes long and once we’d established that my blatant hints that I didn’t want to talk were being ignored I was forced to sit back and learn a lot about cycling, football, the TV program “Top Gear” and War films of the 1970s. Oh joy. I pondered to myself: “Is this what it must be like to be a straight woman?” If it is, thank you to whichever force of nature or alteration of gene structure made me gay.
My revulsion at invasive small talk is not about privacy. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know I have very little sense of that. I’ll tell anyone anything (almost) provided they ask nicely. I think it’s my boredom threshold. There may be a day when I’m old and doddery or lonely and sad and I want to chat too. In that case, I’ll demand my due in return. Be warned. I have a hell of a lot of anecdotes. It could take some time.

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