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On Conversations In Trains Post by :dosmanos Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :2125

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On Conversations In Trains

I might have added in this list I have just made of the advantages of Railways, that Railways let one mix with one's fellow-men and hear their continual conversation. Now if you will think of it, Railways are the only institutions that give us that advantage. In other places we avoid all save those who resemble us, and many men become in middle age like cabinet ministers, quite ignorant of their fellow-citizens. But in Trains, if one travels much, one hears every kind of man talking to every other and one perceives all England.

It is on this account that I have always been at pains to note what I heard in this way, especially the least expected, most startling, and therefore most revealing dialogues, and as soon as I could to write them down, for in this way one can grow to know men.

Thus I have somewhere preserved a hot discussion among some miners in Derbyshire (voters, good people, voters remember) whether the United States were bound to us as a colony "like Egypt." And I once heard also a debate as to whether the word were Horizon or Horizon; this ended in a fight; and the Horizon man pushed the Horizon man out at Skipton, and wouldn't let him get into the carriage again.

Then again I once heard two frightfully rich men near Birmingham arguing why England was the richest and the Happiest Country in the world. Neither of these men was a gentleman but they argued politely though firmly, for they differed profoundly. One of them, who was almost too rich to walk, said it was because we minded our own affairs, and respected property and were law-abiding. This (he said) was the cause of our prosperity and of the futile envy with which foreigners regarded the homes of our working men. Not so the other: _he_ thought that it was the Plain English sense of Duty that did the trick: he showed how this was ingrained in us and appeared in our Schoolboys and our Police: he contrasted it with Ireland, and he asked what else had made our Criminal Trials the model of the world? All this also I wrote down.

Then also once on a long ride (yes, "ride". Why not?) through Lincolnshire I heard two men of the smaller commercial or salaried kind at issue. The first, who had a rather peevish face, was looking gloomily out of window and was saying, "Denmark has it: Greece has it--why shouldn't we have it? Eh? America has it and so's Germany--why shouldn't we have it?" Then after a pause he added, "Even France has it--why haven't we got it?" He spoke as though he wouldn't stand it much longer, and as though France were the last straw.

The other man was excitable and had an enormous newspaper in his hand, and he answered in a high voice, "'Cause we're too sensible, that's why! 'Cause we know what we're about, we do."

The other man said, "Ho! Do we?"

The second man answered, "Yes: we do. What made England?"

"Gord," said the first man.

This brought the second man up all standing and nearly carried away his fore-bob-stay. He answered slowly--

"Well ... yes ... in a manner of speaking. But what I meant to say was like this, that what made England was Free Trade!" Here he slapped one hand on to the other with a noise like that of a pistol, and added heavily: "And what's more, I can prove it."

The first man, who was now entrenched in his position, said again, "Ho! Can you?" and sneered.

The second man then proved it, getting more and more excited. When he had done, all the first man did was to say, "You talk foolishness."

Then there was a long silence: very strained. At last the Free Trader pulled out a pipe and filled it at leisure, with a light sort of womanish tobacco, and just as he struck a match the Protectionist shouted out, "No you don't! This ain't a smoking compartment. I object!" The Free Trader said, "O! that's how it is, is it?" The Protectionist answered in a lower voice and surly, "Yes: that's how."

They sat avoiding each other's eyes till we got to Grantham. I had no idea that feeling could run so high, yet neither of them had a real grip on the Theory of International Exchange.

But by far the most extraordinary conversation and perhaps the most illuminating I ever heard, was in a train going to the West Country and stopping first at Swindon.

It passed between two men who sat in corners facing each other.

The one was stout, tall, and dressed in a tweed suit. He had a gold watch-chain with a little ornament on it representing a pair of compasses and a square. His beard was brown and soft. His eyes were very sodden. When he got in he first wrapped a rug round and round his legs, then he took off his top hat and put on a cloth cap, then he sat down.

The other also wore a tweed suit and was also stout, but he was not so tall. His watch-chain also was of gold (but of a different pattern, paler, and with no ornament hung on it). His eyes also were sodden. He had no rug. He also took off his hat but put no cap upon his head. I noticed that he was rather bald, and in the middle of his baldness was a kind of little knob. For the purposes of this record, therefore, I shall give him the name "Bald," while I shall call the other man "Cap."

I have forgotten, by the way, to tell you that Bald had a very large nose, at the end of which a great number of little veins had congested and turned quite blue.

CAP (_shuts up Levy's paper, "The Daily Telegraph," and opens Harmsworth's "Daily Mail," Shuts that up and looks fixedly at_ BALD): I ask your pardon ... but isn't your name Binder?

BALD (_his eyes still quite sodden_): That is my name. Binder's my name. (_He coughs to show breeding_.) Why! (_his eyes getting a trifle less sodden_) if you aren't Mr. Mowle! Well, Mr. Mowle, sir, how are you?

CAP (_with some dignity_): Very well, thank you, Mr. Binder. How, how's Mrs. Binder and the kids? All blooming?

BALD: Why, yes, thank you, Mr. Mowle, but Mrs. Binder still has those attacks (_shaking his head_). Abdominal (_continuing to shake his head_). Gastric. Something cruel.

CAP: They do suffer cruel, as you say, do women, Mr. Binder (_shaking his head too--but more slightly_). This indigestion--ah!

BALD (_more brightly_): Not married yet, Mr. Mowle?

CAP (_contentedly and rather stolidly_): No, Mr. Binder. Nor not inclined to neither. (_Draws a great breath._) I'm a single man, Mr. Binder, and intend so to adhere. (_A pause to think._) That's what I call (_a further pause to get the right phrase_) "single blessedness." Yes, (_another deep breath_) I find life worth living, Mr. Binder.

BALD (_with great cunning_): That depends upon the liver. (_Roars with laughter._)

CAP (_laughing a good deal too, but not so much as_ BALD): Ar! That was young Cobbler's joke in times gone by.

BALD (_politely_): Ever see young Cobbler now, Mr. Mowle?

CAP (_with importance_): Why yes, Mr. Binder; I met him at the Thersites' Lodge down Brixham way--only the other day. Wonderful brilliant he was ... well, there ... (_his tone changes_) he was sitting next to me--(_thoughtfully_)--as, might be here--(_putting Harmsworth's paper down to represent Young Cobbler_)--and here like, would be Lord Haltingtowres.

BALD (_his manner suddenly becoming very serious_): He's a fine man, he is! One of those men I respect.

CAP (_with still greater seriousness_): You may say that, Mr. Binder. No respecter of persons--talks to me or you or any of them just the same.

BALD (_vaguely_): Yes, they're a fine lot! (_Suddenly_) So's Charlie Beresford!

CAP (_with more enthusiasm than he had yet shown_): I say ditto to that, Mr. Binder! (_Thinking for a few moments of the characteristics of Lord Charles Beresford._) It's pluck--that's what it is--regular British pluck (_Grimly_) That's the kind of man--no favouritism.

BALD: Ar! it's a case of "Well done, Condor!"

CAP: Ar! you're right there, Mr. Binder.

BALD (_suddenly pulling a large flask out of his pocket and speaking very rapidly_): Well, here's yours, Mr. Mowle. (_He drinks out of it a quantity of neat whisky, and having drunk it rubs the top of his flask with his sleeve and hands it over politely to_) CAP.

CAP (_having drunk a lot of neat whisky also, rubbed his sleeve over it, screwed on the little top and giving that long gasp which the occasion demands_): Yes, you're right there--"Well done. Condor."

At this point the train began to go slowly, and just as it stopped at the station I heard Cap begin again, asking Bald on what occasion and for what services Lord Charles Beresford had been given his title.

Full of the marvels of this conversation I got out, went into the waiting-room and wrote it all down. I think I have it accurately word for word.

But there happened to me what always happens after all literary effort; the enthusiasm vanished, the common day was before me. I went out to do my work in the place and to meet quite ordinary people and to forget, perhaps, (so strong is Time) the fantastic beings in the train. In a word, to quote Mr. Binyon's admirable lines:


"The world whose wrong
Mocks holy beauty and our desire returned."


(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: On Conversations In Trains

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