In the past couple of weeks my manipulation of the pages of broadsheet newspapers has improved markedly. Page-turning, page-creasing, page-skipping - you name it. This has been facilitated, primarily, by the lengthy train journeys I have endured, which have involved sitting in a confined seating space, usually next to a complete stranger. Being a (perhaps overly) considerate individual, I am always weary not to encroach - even momentarily - on my fellow passenger’s personal space. Time was when I assumed this consciousness stemmed purely from a respect for others; however, I have come to believe that my heightened sensitivity can be attributed to a trenchant subscription to a few lines I once read in a 1970s social commentary on British life. I found the work - which is more a series of pastiches exemplifying aspects of the English stereotype than a thesis of notable anthropological merit – on a shelf of unwanted books in the English classroom in Sixth Form. It has since found a home sandwiched between Tristram Shandy (italics) and Gary Lineker’s Favourite Football Stories (italics) on my shelf of rarely-consulted yet proudly-owned literature. The comment which has impressed itself upon my mind and left a blueprint upon my behaviour proposes that
‘The British are not an insensitive nation. On the contrary, they are hypersensitive, unbearably sensitive, sensitive to the point of touchiness.’
My adherence to this observation is such that I take pains not to impinge on my neighbour’s seating space; in some instances I have gone so far as postponing my reading in opting to maintain formal-like relations with my on-board neighbour. These tend to be non-speaking relations, by and large, but that is not to say non-communicative: I am given to inferring something as unremarkable as a mild cough or splutter as an intentional narrative, fixed at that specific place and time. So when my fellow passenger’s muted cough coincides with my page-turning, I assume he/she is discreetly expressing his/her dissatisfaction with my angular lower arm movements and my rustling and crumpling of page 18.
There’s a line to be drawn between privacy and obstinacy. And perhaps that is what many passengers imagine – a line! – invisible to the naked eye, extending from the shared armrest, dividing the space afforded to the window seat occupant and that of the aisle seat user. Not dissimilar, as Anthony Glyn would suggest, to the hedges which abound the English country (and suburban) landscape:
‘John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century diarist, wrote: “Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind than an impregnable hedge?” The question could only, of course, have been asked by a Britishman. […] Most of the precious hedges in England, however, do not divide one field from another, or protect the soil against erosion, or act as wind breaks or fertilising agents. They are grown round houses, town, suburban, or country houses, and their sole purpose is to keep the world out and preserve the privacy of the occupiers from prying eyes and passers-by.’