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26 May 2020updated 02 Jun 2020 8:16am

From the NS archive: Hilaire Belloc’s guide to not talking on trains

2 August 1924: Stratagems to initiate – and block – conversations on the railway.

By Hilaire Belloc

The Anglo-French man of letters Hilaire Belloc was a person of many parts, and prolific in all of them. As well as a poet he was an orator, satirist, correspondent, political activist and soldier. The bellicosity of this last profession he transformed into long-running feuds, most notably with HG Wells. Best known for his humorous “Cautionary Tales for Children”, he brought the same sprightly glimmer to this light-hearted piece about train-carriage etiquette.

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In the matter of talking (and not talking) to people in trains there would seem to be two branches, according to whether one wants to talk in trains and be talked to, or whether one doesn’t. So that the subject naturally divides itself into two sciences, or arts, which may be collectively called “silentiarum vel gabbalarum cultus” – the art of making people talk to you although they don’t want to – and the art of making them stop talking to you when they do.

We will begin with the simplest side, which is the art of stopping people who want to talk to one in trains. The amateur’s way, which for my part I greatly despise, is to answer briefly, growl, frown, continue reading, begin writing jerkily upon the margin of the paper, and so on. You have all done it. It is ill-bred, uncharitable, leaves a bad atmosphere in the carriage and, what is worse, is often unsuccessful. There are other ways.

The first and best (but it needs what parsons call “character”) is to reply by contradictions. The enemy says, “It looks as if it were going to rain.” You answer as offensively as you can, “Not it!” The meekest man will bridle up and say, “Oh, you don’t think so, do you?” Then you answer, “No, I don’t!” and the chances are he dries up.

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Another way, more dangerous but exceedingly useful, is to feign madness. You need not go so far as that peer who, now not long since, would, when anyone spoke to him in a train, pull out a large Norwegian knife and begin to strop it lustily upon the window strap. It is enough to answer intriguingly.

The enemy says, “It is going to rain.” You put on a cunning idiot look, you lisp and say, “Ah, that’s right!” with which you smack your lips and roll your eyes. It should frighten him off. If the first check is not enough and he tries to go on nervously by asking whether you mind rain, lean forward to him with a meaning look, wink and say, “No, I like it! – and there’s a reason!”

I have no room to go into the four other classic methods of stopping conversation in trains, for I have now to deal with the sister art of luring into conversation those who are determined not to talk at all. The first and sovereign method is not of my own experience at all, but was told me by another.

It seems you can nearly always get the poor blighter to break silence, however determined he may be not to talk, if you have a companion; and the method is to say to this companion (if you have no companion, any honest-faced stranger will do), “I am glad they have put Wembley on the site of the old Crystal Palace.” Your companion must answer that they did not know where Wembley was but that they are glad to hear it. (If you are handling a stranger, he will deny your statement.) Then must you begin to curse and to swear, and to say that you are absolutely positive, and that you were there only yesterday and part of the remains of the horrible old conservatory were still standing. It is impossible for a Trappist to stand up against such an attack. The most silent man will burst out against your monstrous lie. Then it is for you to play him. Allow yourself to be gradually convinced, but do not gaff him into your basket until he is tired out. Get a run for your money.

Another way is to stretch out of the window, clutch the door, stare forward and shout, “Oh, my God!” It does not work unless you put your head right out of the window. The dupe will think there is going to be an accident and will ask you in alarm what is the matter. You must then affect relief and say, “The danger is past!” making up I know not what lie, but having thoroughly shaken him up. The chances are that he will go on talking, and you must lure him to this by a detailed description of some interesting accident of which you will say that you were a witness, although you were not. He will then tell you that his uncle was in a railway accident. This also will be a lie. But you will go on to ask him whether he remembers accidents in the past, and the fire will be well alight and burning merrily.

Another way (so contemptibly easy that I hardly recommend it) is to feign sudden illness. People in trains, unlike the rest of the human race, have very kind hearts. You need not shriek; a few groans are enough, and who knows but that the fellow may have a flask upon him? When you are better, you will find yourself fast friends in full conversation.

Yet another method, savouring somewhat of the first, but in a chapter by itself, is to sit down comfortably after the train has started for a long non-stop journey (as to Bath) and say, “Well, that’s all right! A fair run to Swindon!” There is no living man – no, not even though he were dumb – who will not be moved to speech by this trick. On hearing that the train will not stop at Swindon you must make a convulsive gesture to catch the little chain which runs through the carriage and costs £5. The enemy will certainly seize your wrist if you are slow enough. Allow yourself to be persuaded. Tell him in great detail the dreadful consequences that follow your failing to meet your aunt at Swindon. You will have a long and pleasant conversation all the way to Bath. You will be the more certain of this happy issue if you make the story turn upon money. For appetite, avarice and fear are the three motives of the human race. Appetite is often lulled to sleep, fear you may not be able to excite, but to avarice you can always appeal by bringing in some talk of money.

And this leads me to my last method. You can always provoke conversation in trains by the prospect of gains whether it shines or whether it rains. If the stubborn man will not yield to a hint of gain in stocks, try horses. If he will not yield to horses, tell him about a reward (offered by the railway company) for anyone who will spot cracked walls along the line. If that fails, talk of some way of doing the journey cheaper. Anyhow bring in money and you will milk conversation as by a sort of physical necessity of the noble, human mind, which is always charged with an overburdening consideration of money.

I say “my last”; but I wish to add one more. Ask your opponent for a match. When he has given it to you, let it go out and ask for another; then ask for a third. There will be objection, apology, and you will be a witless man if you cannot hook such origins on to a really interesting discussion upon the fate of the soul, the future of Great Britain, cancer, or whatever else may take your fancy.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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