It's good to talk

ONLY connect. I’ve never been sure what the oft-quoted, last words of EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, were supposed to mean. It’s widely, and most obviously, thought that they refer to personal relationships though, these days, many of us will have shouted them at our computers when marooned in a remote area.

At any rate, they sprang to mind this week when behavioural scientists suggested we should make more of an effort to speak to strangers on our daily commute or in, say, the supermarket.

Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, and Juliana Schroeder, of the University of California at Berkeley, found that having a conversation with a stranger “may leave you feeling happier than you would think”. This “reaching out” in such atomised times seemed to be appreciated rather than resented on most occasions.

Further to this, Virgin Trains is experimenting with designating all coach C’s on its west coast services as the “chat coach”, while Arriva is distributing “conversation starter” cards on its buses and encouraging passengers to “share a smile”. No chance of that being misinterpreted, I suppose.

I must say I’m in two minds about this. In fact, no, I’m not. I’ve just thrown one of my minds out. I’m against these forced initiatives, even as someone who strikes up conversations with strangers all the time. I prefer a more organic, natural, free-range approach.

The fact that I’ve latterly become a gabber has come as a surprise to me. I used to be famous for my silences. Coming across a diary from my twenties recently, I found that I once went 33 days with no human contact.

In recent years, I’ve regularly gone seven or nine days. Some mornings, I get up and just record it matter-of-factly: five days, no human contact. I always laugh when I read articles about people being increasingly lonely these days, the experiences cited making me say: “Loneliness? You don’t know what loneliness is!”

Working from home has left me so desperate for conversation that you cannot shut me up when I get the chance to gab. Watch me chasing the poor postie down the road, shouting: “Hang on, I have another amusing anecdote for you! What do you think about the weather? Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls: yay or nay? Please help me!”

I think talking to strangers is a Celtic thing. You really notice it in Ireland, whereas the Scandinavians and other Teutons are infamously unfriendly to strangers and never speak to each other, even when encountering a colleague out of the office.

At the very least, as far as train journeys go, I certainly believe you should talk to those neo-Thatcherites who put bags on the seat next to them. You should say: “I hate you.”

Mind you, you wouldn’t want nutters talking to you or, indeed, to start a conversation with someone who turns out to be a nutter. I’ve never understood why successive governments haven’t forced such folk to wear big hats with the words “I am a nutter” written on them. That way we would all know where we stand – ideally, far away from each other.

Let’s face it, other people are difficult. They’re not always “hell”, as in the adage from Sartre’s play, and indeed they can be heaven, at least until you marry them. But it seems to me that, if you’re standing at a remote bus stop on a day of blustery weather, it’s simply peculiar just to ignore each other.

You can cheer each other up, make the day a little lighter, experience a bit of solidarity. All right, I’ll shut up now.

Rab McNeil: Why it will take me until 2049 to do anything about climate change

Liberal slavery

IF hell really is other people, then surely it’s good news that we’re producing fewer babies. The number of newborn oafs produced in Scotland has fallen to the second lowest since records began, which you’d think would be a cause for celebration but no, as usual, it’s led to a lot of hand-wringing.

I get some of this. It’s about who’ll look after our elderly, do the rotten jobs, and so forth. But this makes me uncomfortable. Breed more slaves!

Part of me thinks there probably are enough people to do these jobs, and that they might do so if the work was better paid. Instead, we get poor sods from abroad to come and do them. You have to salute such folk.

A meme, if that is the word, of our times was that anti-Brexit woman in the audience on Question Time saying: “But who will serve us in Pret?” Operative word: serve. Liberal authoritarianism has been noted as the key characteristic of our time, but we can add liberal slavery to it now too.

Apart from all of which, it’s not clear why folk are having fewer bairns, though the fact that they’re a pain in the neck may explain it.

Food war

FOOD is quite important to you Earthlings, and I understand that you take it seriously. However, I was surprised to read that it had lain behind the feud between US President Donald Trump and one-time Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

According to a new book, The Real Deal: My Decade Fighting Battles and Winning Wars with Trump by George Sorial, written with former Press and Journal editor Damian Bates, the parting of the ways was signalled when epicurean Eck insisted on a swanky French restaurant for a meeting in New York, while Donald just wanted something “regular”: regular fries, regular dod of meat etc.

Mr Sorial, outgoing executive vice-president of the Trump Organisation, recalls “ridiculous” calls from Scottish officials and goes on: “There was not a word of English on the menu. It was so fussy … All Trump said after studying the menu was, ‘All I want is a shrimp cocktail and a steak’.”

Gosh, one feels for the boy. I guess Eck was trying to impress the Trumpster, but it sounds like he ended up with egg on his face, which Trump would happily have told the chef to scrape off, fry up and serve with some chips and a regular burger.