Chat in a northern park
Why the heck is everybody so chatty? Don't they know there's a recession on? Or if there's not, we're probably about to have one.
In the North of England, roughly in the centre of the British Isles, everyone actually speaks – well not everyone, but most.
I have the uncharitable belief that people only converse to find someone who is even more miserable than they are. There is often a bout of verbal jousting, a sort of conversational foreplay, to discover who has the direst woes. People are looking for serious health issues or financial meltdown. Even a broken bicycle would cheer them up or a leaking radiator. They soon move on when you tell them you're doing fine thank you. They become wary of anyone who doesn't have at least one malady and slope off to find someone who is prepared to tell the truth.
A dog walk round the park can take nearly an hour (and it's only a few hundred yards), not because I've knackered hips and there are a couple of gentle slopes to negotiate, no, it's folk wanting to talk, even if it's chucking it down. In the space of half an hour the other morning I'd learned from two total strangers that one bloke's son was having marital difficulties in Sydney, Australia, 'he's made his bed.......', and a woman's washing machine was on the blink. 'My Granny managed perfectly well with a slab of stone and mangle,' she tells me. 'Eh, those were the days.' Just for the record this is one lady with whom I share a particular affinity. The first occasion we met she was wearing her dressing gown while walking her dog. Coincidentally I had sneaked out in pyjama bottoms. It was early – 6 something – and obviously neither of us expected to encounter anyone else. She had probably been walking her dog like this for years – until we moved back and she was unfortunate to run into yours truly wearing 'Rupert Bear' flannelettes. It gave is both a smile if nothing else.
Actually, people want you to agree with them. They want to feel a problem shared. If you tell them your washing machine has worked perfectly for a decade they don't like it. You're just showing off. It's better to lie and tell them you just had a flood. That way lies not antagonism but empathy and the chance of a lasting relationship. Engaged in conversation is the term.
Being engaged is OK I suppose, but it can lead to marriage. And then, if you add conversation it's almost too much to bear – it might go on for decades. No, it's perhaps best to surprise someone. Offer up something wacky. This way you'll either part company quickly and you can get home to your porridge or have a meaningful discussion, about for example, about why camels don't get sunburn.
Dogs are a great bringer-together of people. Even if you think someone else's was spawned by a deformed rat, you don't say so. This peculiar-looking thing is their beloved pride and joy. They have seen through the external irregularities and recognize the beautiful beast within – at least till it poos on someone's garden and they have to go and clear up. Which they usually do.
If all dogs were svelte beauties suited to the canine catwalk and nobody had any problems, my morning walk would be both quicker and quieter. But do I want that? Yes, when it's raining. No, on the odd occasion the sun shines in the Pennine north.
Actually I'm OK with a brief conversation. I can usually come up with something witty or relevant. It's when the chat goes on for a bit that my shortcomings begin to surface. I'm not very widely travelled or worldly experienced but have done enough to be able to talk a little on most things – at least join in a bit without coming over as a feckless dunce.
Sometimes you come across a 'one-tracker'. They only have one thing to talk about. Take my Dutch mate. All he wanted to talk about was cars, and a particular model of Japanese sports car at that. Whenever the conversation looked like drifting away he would drag it back. 'Look at that lovely apple blossom,' I would say. 'Yes I parked under a tree like that in the south of France once. I was on a driving holiday.......' There's only so much I can expound on Japanese sports cars, and a lot of that revolves about how I can't afford one. But undeterred he rambles on about how he's just got the latest halogen headlights - meanwhile, I drift off somewhere deep inside my dim grey matter wondering if my car door will open because some lout kicked it while I was doing my weekly £3 shop in a German supermarket.
The formal park in which I converse was laid down by the wealthy, benevolent Newall family in Victorian times. They also built factories where people got smeared with grease 60 hours a week before grabbing a few minutes watching the brass band play in the brass band stand in our park. The factories are largely gone but the skeletal band stand remains surrounded by meandering paths, rhododendrons and manicured lawns - or is it grass? When does grass become a lawn, or vice versa? I must seek opinion on my next walk, someone will know. Unless it's my Dutch mate.......... 'yes, I once stopped for a picnic next to a lawn. I was on a driving tour of Germany and..........'
By night the youth of the town see who can throw a fast food carton the furthest so, particularly on Sunday mornings, there is a bit of litter about. The dog enjoys the smells and on one occasion emerged from the bushes looking particularly pleased with himself with a full burger bun in his mouth. It looked like a set of comedy lips. Yes, me and my fellow walkers tread a messy, sabbath-day path. (Revolting, rotting rubbish – there you are, litteration!) Fortunately there are park staff in high-vis jackets who trundle around on a mini tractor and soon return the park to it's ornamental splendour. It's the circle of life really. Someone throws something on the floor, someone else picks it up.
The canal runs through our little town. The Rochdale canal. Now, anything associated with Rochdale needs a good PR team to sell it, but the canal here is looked after and enhanced by local volunteers. Village folk who have a real pride in the area. I joined them a couple of times. I've been too busy recently but I'll try and get back again. I worked alongside a chap chopping back some bushes along the tow path so locals and visitors could walk along without getting an eye poked out by a stray branch. It turns out that he is the brother of the bloke who lives next door to the little house we bought as an investment. Investment, huh! It's the only house outside Damascus that has gone down in value over the past 6 months - so probably a good topic of conversation on a dog walk to cheer up somebody whose oven has just exploded.
My tree-chopping association typifies another aspect of village life, even a large one like ours (that's village, not tree). Everybody knows everybody, if not directly, at least once removed. My wife's mate has a large extended family and it appears that everybody is married to one of her relatives. Or separated.
It seems that the more you get to know someone the less you know about them. We've been away for 25 years but almost every time she ventures out my wife encounters someone with whom she was at school. Despite physical 'developments', they recognize one another instantly and another friendship is rekindled. The very responsible practice nurse at the doctors with whom we registered is the daughter of one of Jan's school pals. Last seen scrabbling around the local park in a shell suit, she's now a sensible grown up with whom local folk trust their health and who will spawn the next generation – or has already started, I'm not sure. I was too polite to ask – particularly as I was wearing an over-tight blood-pressure bandage and she was waving a needle around.
While we've been away the village has been thriving and regenerating, nurtured by these friendly folk in the Pennines. There is a whole new group with whom we can discuss camels and kitchen appliances on our walks in the park – and it's great.
My wife was historically more involved with the village than me. I was sent away to school. This meant I largely lost touch with all my young friends. We went our separate ways and I regretted not having a bosom to come home to - if you get my meaning. But even I can see that some things haven't changed intrinsically. The physical structure is similar, if more houses have been built to swell it. Even one or two shops have the same name as 25 years ago. One in fact has the same till! It's the takeaway I used to frequent when fatty food of uncertain origin was not deemed to be life-threatening. Goodness knows why I remember the till, but I do, and commented on the fact to the proprietor who it turns out was a junior member of staff during my day. He's now the boss and shovelling cash into his ancient machinery – he's made a lasting success of his business, certainly not a conversation topic in the park. The hacked-off elephant's leg tastes just as good and the boss is still an amiable, chatty soul. At least some things haven't changed.
Above the village looms Blackstone Edge, a section of Pennine moorland. A road snakes over the top towards Yorkshire, a road only taken out of necessity by the people of our village. Lancashire folk would rather stay in Lancashire. They would also prefer that Yorkshire folk remain on their side of the hill. Despite having things in common, like no more mills and Indian takeaways, the skirmishes of the Roses continue in a friendly banter sort of way.
Having spent some time down south (England, not Africa) I know where I would rather be. 'Down there' (a euphemism if ever I wrote one) it's not easy to engage someone in conversation and if you do there is too much one-upmanship. I often felt to be speaking with someone's husk, as if the person within needed to be protected by a materialistic veneer. In the north it's the opposite, people often charge right in with their direst vulnerability – and usually there is sincere sympathy and no nonsense advice in return.
We can talk via electronic device these days. In fact couples have been known to text each other from within their own house. Son's and daughters are summoned for supper via email from the kitchen, the nerve-centre of domestic communication. But thankfully the art of chat is not dead. Just take a walk round the park with a dog. Sure, there are regulars who update you on misbehaving appliances, but you may come across someone new. A lurker in the bushes who could easily pop out and start a conversation about the unlikeliest subject.
One thing I never saw many years ago was a deer. But I came across one the other day. It was just standing near the football fields where the dog was having a romp, probably amazed that a dog could play football at all. It had the casual air of a deer who has escaped the cull on a highland estate, relaxed in the knowledge that folk who bemoan their dodgy ovens are unlikely to be armed with a rifle. It just stood patiently on the touchline awaiting an invitation the join in with the locals – much like us really.