When you’re doing publicity for a book, as I am right now, one of the tasks that comes your way is to give lying answers, meant to make you seem like a better and more interesting person, to questionnaires in newspapers and magazines. These feature in sections with names such as “A Day in the Life”, or “Five Minutes With . . .” and you often have to give your answers over the phone. One of the standard questions is: “What is your New Year resolution?” To which, trying to be a funny bastard, I always reply, “United Nations Resolution 242, the one that calls for a homeland for the Palestinian people.” I can sense the poor intern at the other end of the line rolling his eyes as I say this.
Having a New Year’s resolution is something I have intermittently tried to put into practice. One year I resolved to “Take more taxis” and that has worked out pretty well, but the resolution I have adhered to the most over the decades is “Wave at more people”.
I was introduced to waving as a child by my father. As we waited on a railway platform, he would urge me to wave at the guard of any express or freight train that went past. The first hint of the complexities of adult nature came to me when I suddenly realised that Joe, my dad, was a train guard, too! Then I wondered if all train guards didn’t have a pact to encourage their sons and daughters to salute them, perhaps in an ongoing war with train drivers who they thought were very up themselves.
Nonetheless, to this day, I remain very keen on waving. I still salute passing trains, and also passengers on riverboats, racing cyclists, police officers on horses (but not ordinary police officers) and pilots waiting at the airport stand to start their engines.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of motoring journalism and one summer I was testing a new car with a long drive down to the south of Spain. Crossing over the border from France, I took to the narrow Iberian mountain roads and passed through a small village where I saw a man standing on a corner. The driver in front of me, presumably a local, tooted his horn at the man, who waved back enthusiastically, so I did the same, and again he waved back with vigour, a big smile on his face. I think about this man quite often. I wonder if he remains unsettled by the idea that he knows somebody who drives a 2006 Kia Magentis with UK plates but has never found out who they are.
It’s a bad idea to salute those sinister, black-windowed vans that ship prisoners to and from the law courts. You’d think the people in the back would be glad of a friendly wave as they begin a long sentence, but some of them turn out to be very bad-tempered individuals indeed, with surprisingly loud voices that enable their disturbing obscenities and threats to be heard clearly through the walls of the van.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater