SO I'm minding my own business, grazing through a chunky tome on a bench in the Botanic Gardens.

Behind me is the opaque arced swoop of the Kibble Palace and ahead, green grass halted by speckled flower beds followed by green grass.

"That's a thick book," says a voice behind me. Behind me? But there's about two feet of space between the back of the bench and the glasshouse. Where is this voice coming from? Reading has always been a sort of heaven, is this the voice of God?

I look over my left shoulder and it is not God, or perhaps it is. I wouldn't know her if I saw her, I expect.

Behind me, and inching along between the panes of the glasshouse and a small iron railing that runs behind my bench, is an older lady and she is interested in the girth of my novel.

I have to confess to be cheating. It is a thick book but it is a thick book of short stories. The complete short stories of Muriel Spark, I say. Pulling me back from Southern Rhodesia, as it then was, to the west end of Glasgow, we exchange a few words before she makes it safely over the railing and makes to head off. There is an about turn and my knowledge of Jeanette Winterson is enquired of, speaking of Edinburgh authors, before a final parting.

Rather than read, I spend the rest of my short break from work wondering where she had come from and why she was in that small space between the glasshouse wall and the iron railing.

Exchanges with strangers might not be for everyone but, for me, they are one of life's delights. I will routinely find myself chatting to new people on the subway platform or in shop queues or at traffic lights on my bike, cyclist to cyclist. Although the other person is not always as willing a participant as I am.

Last year on a holiday in Cape May, New Jersey, the guest house's only breakfast option was a 9am family-style affair, everyone around a shared table. This fact was met with horror by almost everyone I mentioned it to but it was such a enlivening way to start the day - finding out about new people, new life experiences.

Small talk is an oft derided and undermined skill but I have always loved it.

In London some anonymous but starry-eyed social entrepreneur created badges to be worn on the Underground demarcating who was up for eye contact and some chatter to pass the journey from who was not.

These were greeted with horror from Londoners who could think of nothing worse than prattling to each other over the bellow of the trains.

There were amused reports last year of Finns taking lessons in small talk. In Finland chatting to stranger is not the done thing. One small talk tutor told the Wall Street Journal her advice to students is, "Lower your standards; not every conversation you have has to be clever."

You can comment on, she said, "Even the weather." What a job of work that "even" is doing. The weather, here, is a standard conversational trope yet there a last gasp desperate bid for fleeting connection.

Talk about the weather? I'll talk about the weather - it's a temporary, albeit partial leveller, a thing we all understand. We are all rained upon, we all feel heat and cold. Where it becomes interesting is our varied experiences of the warmth and the chill, our preferences for a cool breeze or muggy air.

A chat about the weather helps you be part of something while demanding of you very little for that participation. Small talk about the weather is easy, and isn't ease something we need in life.

That ease is more difficult and more important now than it ever has been.

"How are you?" has taken on an underlying sting. It is not possible to give the standard, polite, "Fine thank you, and you?" because few, if any of us, are fine. It feels crass to be fine in a pandemic and clearly a lie.

There's also, I feel, more of a need to connect. So many of us are working at home and living alone with fewer work-based or social human interactions.

All those words stored up, all day every day, others wasted on pets and pot plants that only occasionally speak back. It feels that over the past few months people have been more willing to pour forth their thoughts and feelings.

Casual, passing interactions become an hour-long, wide ranging discussion that makes you feel reconnected to the world again. You start with some slight remark and end up talking about your pandemic experience, your privileges and pains.

Where there might previously have just been silence, casual passing interactions happen. "I can't remember where I parked the car," I've said to three people this week - I really should write it down - and had fleeting, laughing, brightening exchanges each time.

I worried the chatting might end with the introduction of masks, so impersonal a barrier, but no such thing has happened. I ended up having a distanced chinwag in Tesco's fruit and veg section with a woman who laughed at my shampoo advert style head flicking as I tried to get the hair off my face without touching it.

This proved a useful connection as we met again coincidentally in the baking aisle where the last bag of icing sugar, on a top shelf, was well out of my reach but within hers.

When restrictions keep us apart from friends and loved ones and colleagues, the chance to have a chat with an otherwise anonymous human can mean so much. I'm not always interested in a chat, I don't always have the time, but I try to remember this might be the only interaction someone has in their day and make it a good one.

We're in a new age of small talk, a time of openness to fresh connections, however fleeting. Every venture outdoors is a route to conversation and information.

The city is a pinball machine and I am propelled through it by the encouraging smack of small talk.

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