The next post will be on or before Sunday 4th February


Three days ago I returned to Greece from a busy fortnight in the UK by taking the bus to Heathrow from Oxford. The service is phenomenal and they go every half hour during the day, almost as if, and it is a strange hallucinatory fantasy, at least three quarters of Oxford is permanently in foreign transit. The driver who was in his mid 50s was a perky, affable, bespectacled bloke with a gentle and respectful banter and I shall call him Reg. As it got to 5 minutes before departure another man about the same age ascended the bus with a coffee in a plastic cup and explained that he had left a burger behind in the bus station cafe, on account of hot food being prohibited on the coaches. Reg advised him he had a few minutes left so why not bash back and bolt it down whereupon the passenger, let us call him Kevin, said no, no he hated bolting his food and in any case it had been downright foolish of him to order the food so close to departure. Kevin then went on in a grave yet markedly lyrical tone to admit he was his own worst enemy and all the fault in this context was his.

I took a sideways look at Kevin and noticed that his default expression was an outwardly sweet smile, a nascent smile that is, indicating a permanent potential amity to all of mankind. He was of slim build and wore matching denim jacket and jeans, both of them black and a good snug fit, something worthy of remark given that plenty of men in their mid 50s have as much dress sense as a prize bulldog. He had only been plonked down 10 seconds in his front seat adjacent to me, when he disclosed to Reg that he too used to be a freelance bus driver based in Oxfordshire but now lived in the Midlands where having taken early retirement he lived on his lodgers’ rents. After selling a one-bedroomed cottage near extortionate Oxford, Kevin had been able to buy a 5-bedroomed house in the Midlands and did Reg know that the first £4800 of those lodgers’ rents was tax free? No Reg didn’t know that and was considerably impressed. Kevin then asked Reg had he experienced deceleration difficulties at such and such a junction between Oxford and Heathrow and before long the pair of them were happily swapping anecdotes about arcane four lane highway dynamics, Reg in a wry and blameless manner and Kevin with a kind of singsong lyricism as if he was performing for an imaginary audience where the audience insisted on pristine and virtuous exposition. Of course, performing like this is usually the province of squashed and oppressed women, as parents tend to prefer their little daughters rather than their burgeoning sons to be squeaky clean and saccharine and compliant, and the technical term for someone where the condition is severe is called having an alterated ego.

Kevin was full of surprises though. He told Reg that he was off to Los Angeles for the weekend to attend a motorbike auction, two in fact, one of which had 1500 bikes for sale. My head swirled as I tried to comprehend the time taken to auction all those bikes and I briefly thought Kevin was lying about the numbers until I decided there must be about 50 auctioneers selling 30 each in some colossal LA warehouse. But Kevin’s real passion he explained was collecting old British bikes to which Reg retorted that he too liked the same things. He had himself for years commuted between London and Oxford by motorbike, but didn’t trust old bikes, however lovable, as their age meant they weren’t safe, were in fact potentially lethal. Kevin beamed and wryly agreed, and as I listened to them zestfully trading motorbike matters, and of course both of them were only interested in ones with huge engines, I decided that in Kevin’s case the interesting thing was the contrast between his macho hobby and his unctuous form monitor approach to human communication. On the one hand he was blameless to a fault with his polite and hygienic, nay antiseptic delivery, and on the other hand he loved to be roaring the highways with a motorbike the size of a race horse, in his tight and fetching leathers and with the associative echoes of monosyllabic and far from polite Marlon Brando. It took me back to some fifteen years ago when Annie and Ione and I would sit in the Country Kitchen cafe, in beautiful Alston, East Cumbria, sited on a favourite motorbike run from Newcastle to Scotland via the North Pennines as viewed via the exquisite landscape between Alston and Brampton. The café was often heaving with 20 or more bikers of both genders, most of them aged between 45 and 65 and all sumptuously accoutred in the priciest leathers and all looking faintly intimidating. But then as you hearkened to their conversation you realised that neither were they anything at all like Marlon Brando, but more like dogged pedants or even soporific clergy as they fulminated at length about such and such a bend near Nenthead and such and such a deceleration that would be required on the next stretch near Slaggyford. As further proof of their total innocuousness if you walked past them to the toilets and your leg was anywhere less than a yard from them they apologised very contritely several times for blocking your route. Later one in the know told me the bulk of them were well paid Newcastle head teachers, solicitors, lawyers, business managers, not the vagabonds or outcasts or anarchists of legend by any means. You needed real money to afford those huge bikes and all those pristine leathers, and like Kevin they were vicariously living the heroic and macho life, whereas the rest of the time they were kow-towing and behaving themselves and would not have said boo to a goose.

Reg then volunteered that he too was going abroad for the weekend. He and his wife and two old friends were heading for a legendary and romantic town they were all visiting for the first time.

“Where is that?” asked Kevin.


“Nice? Oh nice.”

I waited for either of them to chuckle at the sound effects as Kevin definitely hadn’t intended it as a pun, but neither of them noticed it and in Kevin’s case it was evidently because he was perennially itching to be a fount of information.

“When it comes to eating out there I can give you a handy tip. Ask the hostesses on the plane for their recommendations. They go there all the time and they always know all the best eateries.”

At this point I was seriously tempted to intervene in this gripping two hander, with the logic that something like the Rough Guide to France or Lonely Planet would surely have a shrewder take on the range and quality of Nice’s restaurants, than the impressionistic views of exhausted airline employees who spent occasional overnights and never stayed three consecutive days in any place. But wily Kevin stole the limelight then by resorting to the infallible authority of his best beloved.

“My girlfriend used to be a trolley dolly, and she and her colleagues were a mine of information for their customers. They were always giving the passengers expert tips and stopping them getting ripped off in these overpriced brasseries and whatnot.”

For a moment I was genuinely stunned. Believe it or not after half a century of flying I had never once heard that designation ‘trolley dolly’ and even had to take a second or two to work out what it meant. Once I did understand, I saw it all as part of the picture, because surely only someone wonderfully estranged from any abiding personal authenticity could talk about his girlfriend in that facile rhyme enclosed in those cutely demeaning quote marks. Translated in its kindest terms it read ‘an airhead glamour girl who simperingly pushes a food and drinks trolley’ and must surely be one of the most pejorative images available for any woman doing any job on earth. Even a woman bricklayer in one of the poorer states of India, say Bihar, would be less mocked by whatever descriptive shorthand her unfeeling male compatriots threw at her.  Admittedly Kevin was referring to his girlfriend in the past tense and it might well have been that she then had used the same term herself as an ironic jest, as if to drily admit that that was how half the passengers, at least the leering and often boozy males, perceived her. But Kevin here did not speak on the side of his girlfriend, but in the collusive and vicarious impersonal voice of one who neither passes judgement nor does not pass judgement. The saccharine man who had his nascent smile always ready for whatever encounter he chances on next, that same sweet man was also at times a macho motorbike fiend, and if you look at it in terms of mechanics and resolve the force lines  between Kevin qua cheery hale fellow well met, and Kevin qua Marlon Brando, you get the resolution which is Kevin the misogynist who successfully buries his misogyny and only reveals it to his unhappy girlfriend in critical heartrending moments and in random phrases on airport buses as he heads off to LA and his auction of 1500 massive motorbikes.

But why, I can hear you ask, should anyone make such a meal of a timid caricature of a prancing, preening Englishman like Kevin?

For a simple and compelling reason. Just suppose the bilious nightmare that always grinning Kevin had been your Dad for life, or your husband of 20 years, or your industrial line manager for 3 decades, do you really think that you would have lived to tell the tale?

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