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Talking to Strangers


“Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”  (Whitman, Leaves of Grass.)

Rereading the Lyrical Ballads recently, I have been impressed by how many of the poems were occasioned by chance meetings with strangers: an old huntsman, a mad mother, children, a leech gatherer, shepherds, an ex soldier and, of course, an obsessive compulsive mariner. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were long distance walkers who do not seem to have been reluctant to open up to people met on the road. I guess our modern equivalent might be to risk conversation with someone on the train, or to share a smile with the person squeezed up next to you in tourist class. I once learned, while waiting for a Ryanair jet to take off, the whole romantic history of a woman struggling to escape from her possessive Italian fiancée.  Whereas trying to write about relationships which are “close” to us may be deeply problematic (I think of Auden’s comment on being asked to write his autobiography: “Well known to everybody except himself.”) these kinds of casual encounters which I’m interested in give comparatively clear, because briefly objective, illuminations into the truth of other people’s lives. Offering, last week, to help a Polish girl struggling with outsized packages up a tube station escalator and then onward towards her all night bus home from Victoria coach station, I learned something of the lives of potato pickers in Lincolnshire. Perhaps women are rather more open to such passing encounters than men? I am often surprised by the casual exchange of quite intimate information over the check out counter.  My wife, who used to work as a nurse, often came home with little vignettes as offered to her by patients waiting to see a consultant; feeling vulnerable seemed to prompt them into offering insights into what was really important in their lives.  One nervous lady wanted to chatter about her pet fox while a taciturn old stockman, having no family to boast of, offered snapshots from a wallet of his favourite cows.  Then there are those glimpses of strangers in the poems of, say, Robert Frost or Edward Thomas, whose conversation with a passing ploughman yields a picture of loss as understated but striking as any description of trench warfare:     ‘Many lost? ‘/ ‘Yes, a good few. / Only two teams work on the farm this year. / One of my mates is dead. The second day  / In France they killed him. It was back in March, / The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if / He had  stayed  we should have moved the tree.’  As priests both Manley Hopkins and RS Thomas were clearly surprised by startlingly unspiritual encounters with their parishioners.  Sometimes, as in Muldoon’s Brownlee or Les Murray’s vagrants, we are left to pick up traces of lives which have already been shrugged off.  Instead of saying “Look at me! Listen to me!”  such poems seem to be saying “Look at this interesting person I  chanced to meet with!”  We have all had heart to hearts with strangers when travelling abroad, none the less touching for lacking the nuances of shared language.  I’ll end this ramble with a recent encounter of my own, with an old man walking his dog in a Suffolk field who suddenly began to relive one of his National Service experiences…


A Good Shot

“…on guard.  Everything gone quiet.

Or like the crickets in that field, not quiet,

sort of simmering. We had orders to shoot

on sight. Suddenly I see one coming up the street

towards us. Shoot! screams Harry in my ear. Shoot!

(though, after, he said he was glad it was me not him

with the gun) ForGodsakeDerekhe’sgota bomb!

I had him in my notch by now, growing

bigger by the second. Course, brought up on a farm

I could have knocked him over easy as that.

Then I thought (out of the shadow: dhoti,

head cloth, carrying, was it, a dish?) what if

he was just an ordinary chap like you or me

with a wife, a child, fetching them some food?

Sighting the crosspiece of a telegraph pole

above his head, BANG! I took a chunk out of that.

You should have seen him run. There was hell to pay

with the C.O. next day. Should have shot the bugger.

Would have saved us this Enquiry, he said.

But I’m glad I gave him the benefit…” Shotgun

broken over one arm, he whistled for his dog,

went on up the road.