Have you ever been on a commuter train heading into London between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday morning? The trains, you see, are completely crammed. I won’t bother going into the historical-political reasons for this, you’ll just have to accept that they are crammed, they are overcrowded, and they are full of people wearing suits and carrying free newspapers and iPods.
Nobody. Says. A. Word.
God help you if you start a conversation. Especially if it’s with someone you know by sight, from getting on this train together daily for the last four years, someone you could recognize in the dark by the scent of your respective deodorants if you had to. No, you must not, under any circumstances, talk to people like that.
Not because they’re horrible people. They’re no more horrible than you. They’re probably very nice people. If you’d known each other at school, you’d probably be inviting them to your summer barbecues or winter Christmas drinks parties. You’d meet up on damp Wednesday nights to go to the pub quiz, where your team would come in second and sometimes perhaps win. The prize would be tickets to the Thursday night pub quiz.
No, the reason you must not talk to these people is because of the potential consequences. It’s the fear.
Pity we English. We are cursed with bad weather, and an irritating habit of talking about it all the time. But only to people we know already. We don’t talk to strangers. Not until we’ve been introduced. And even then, only in particular circumstances.
We English, you see, are masters at ignoring people we sort-of know. We have perfected the art of avoiding eye contact in long corridors, so that we don’t have to acknowledge mere acquaintances.
Douglas Adams defined this. His book, The Meaning of Liff, called it “corriearklet,” as follows: “The moment at which two people, approaching from opposite ends of a long passageway, recognize each other and immediately pretend they haven’t. This is to avoid the ghastly embarrassment of having to continue recognizing each other the whole length of the corridor.”
Welcome to England. Welcome to the land of corriearklet masters.
INT. TRAIN CARRIAGE—DAY.
Inside a packed commuter train. Most people are standing, but still a few empty seats remain. The train is pulling in to a station. We see rain streaks on the windows. The doors open and one or two people get off, many more get on.
It’s all too horrid to contemplate, so there’s only one way out. Avoid conversation.
MILES is the first of the newcomers. He wears a dark suit, white shirt open at the neck, and a thin, bright yellow raincoat. He sees two empty seats opposite one another, and hesitates for a moment. The crowd of newcomers is bustling in behind him. He only has a second to decide. He moves for an empty seat and sits down.
Behind him, there is much jostling as the rest of the commuters enter. A woman, about the same age as MILES, wearing a similar dark suit and carrying a bright red handbag, hesitates for a moment when she sees the remaining empty seat opposite him; then she sits in it.
Sound of the doors closing, and the train moves off. Silence in the train carriage for a moment. MILES and the WOMAN are momentarily occupied with arranging themselves in their seats, shifting their clothing so that they are comfortable. Then, quite by accident, they make eye contact.
MILES: Oh, hello.
Heads turn. The WOMAN stares at him in disbelief.
MILES: I’ve seen you on this train before haven’t I? You live just round the corner from me, don’t you? We walk into the station at about the same time. And you always get off at London Bridge. I often see you on the way home in the evenings, too.
He extends his hand.
MILES: My name’s Miles.
The WOMAN takes his hand gingerly.
MILES: Nice to meet you Susan. So, what is it you do near London Bridge?
SUSAN: I work at the hospital. Admin side of things.
SUSAN is deeply troubled to be getting into a conversation, but she doesn’t want to appear rude by getting out her iPod or her free newspaper. So, with her hands tightly folded on her lap, she continues chatting with Miles as the train rumbles northward through the miserable suburbs. The other passengers remain studiously silent, ignoring this public display of convivial neighborliness. They study the rain-streaked windows and flick the pages of their free newspapers upwards, so they can bury their faces from sight and avoid this conversation. None of them has any intention of joining in.
MILES gabbers on.
CAPTION: Two weeks later…
The pasta aisle of a supermarket. MILES turns the corner, pushing a shopping trolley. He is wearing the same clothes as before, but this time he wears a scruffy looking tie. We switch to his POV. We see his hands on the trolley handle, see his view of the rows of pasta.
MILES’s INNER SELF: Hmmm. Spaghetti. Had spaghetti last time. Bored of spaghetti. Then again, can’t have bolognese with fusilli can you? Just wrong.
Our vision momentarily flicks to far end of the aisle. There is a flash of bright red.
MILES’s INNER SELF: Christ! It’s that girl I spoke to on the train! Gets-off-at-London-Bridge girl. God, what’s her name? Oh shit. What am I going to say to her? I can’t remember anything she told me. Ah, tagliatelli. Could try that. Blimey, expensive isn’t it? Ah! She’s coming this way!
What the English fear, more than anything else in the world, is having to recognize such new vague acquaintances, over and over again.
We see the girl again—more clearly, because she’s closer now. She is apparently deeply engrossed in scanning the rows of pasta sauce on the other side of the isle.
MILES’s INNER SELF: She hasn’t seen me! Thank God!
MILES crouches to the bottom-most shelf. Here are the cheapest, most ghastly packets of pasta you’ve ever seen. Through MILES’s eyes, we scan them extremely carefully.
SUSAN hurries past behind us. No words are exchanged.
MILES’s INNER SELF: That was close. £1.80 for a packet of tortellini? That’s outrageous.
We now withdraw from MILES’s head, our POV rising up and away from him. Below, we look down on him, still crouched by the pasta. We see SUSAN’s bright red bag rushing for the checkout, rushing toward escape. Both of them know the embarrassment of their predicament; both of them are thinking of ways to avoid the other’s gaze on future train journeys that they will undoubtedly share. Now, if they stop to think about it, they know their behavior on the train was a dreadful mistake, a violation of commuter etiquette that they will regret many times over in the coming months and years.
This, my friends, is what the English fear most. Not the act of meeting new people. Not the adventure of making new friends. Not the challenge of conjuring up interesting conversation. None of these things.
What the English fear, more than anything else in the world, is having to recognize such new vague acquaintances, over and over again. Having to repeat the ritual. Being stuck in a conversation in the pasta aisle when you have nothing to say and really, you just want to buy your spaghetti and go home. Having to acknowledge these people from the far end of a long corridor, and then being forced by convention to engage in complicated corriearklet. By both parties. And the embarrassment of knowing that, having performed corriearklet once, it will be required at future encounters. Embarrassment growing on a logarithmic scale.
And God help you both if you happen to sit opposite one another on the train again. How would you then explain all the corriearklet in the supermarket?
It’s all too horrid to contemplate, so there’s only one way out. Avoid conversation in the first place. Don’t see, don’t acknowledge, don’t greet, don’t say hello, don’t even remark on the miserable Friday morning pissing rain. Don’t, whatever you do, get to sort-of know anyone.
Don’t. Say. A. Word.
Open your free newspaper, or perhaps look out of the window. Observe the weather. Try to think of new ways to describe it. To the people you already know.