I am at that age now. Little things really piss me off. Little things that seem to encompass bigger things that properly trouble me. So, I was on the train to London with a friend of mine, we had both been tutors on a jazz summer school in Cardiff and were on our way back to London. I’ll come back to this course in a minute. We were in The Quiet Coach. There are rules associated with The Quiet Coach. Nobody makes phone calls, and nobody listens to anything on those headphones that let the top end of the drums out in those little slipstreams of noise that seem to claw at the edge of ambient conversations.
People on the phone often speak at a volume that is inappropriate for their surroundings. This is complicated, because the surroundings, as far as they are concerned, consist largely of the person they are speaking too, who is somewhere else, usually in a similar situation. Two people, on two separate phones, ignoring what is around them in order to speak to each other. Ironically, they are often saying “I’m on the train, I’ll be a bit late” – they are talking about where they are but at the same time totally ignoring the reality of where they are. By the same token, headphones block out the sound of the surroundings, but not the sound of the headphones in the surroundings if one were to be listening to them from outside one’s own head. This seems to me to be a bit like the small child who covers his eyes and then assumes you can’t see them. Invariably one is dealing with someone who imagines themselves elsewhere.
So my friend and I are chatting, having a bit of a catch up with each other’s news. A woman gets on, and sits next to me, and so we are now three at a table. She is already annoyed, because that is another rule on trains. Everybody deserves two seats each, and now we only have four seats between three. There is a seat that is unoccupied. Undeterred, we carry on having our conversation, at what I would describe as a discreet level. I am trying to keep the lid on my swearing. It’s very quiet swearing when it does escape and, unlike the sound of leaking headphones, it is not a constant hiss but just a couple of odd punctuating gestures.
The woman gets up. She says “excuse me” without looking at either of us. This is fairly standard train behaviour, bog standard toilet trip I reckon. So I reciprocate by not looking, we understand each other, it is a routine relentlessly played out all across the national network. I get up to let her out. As she passes me, she mutters “Quiet coach!”, taking care to not look at me a second time, her raised nose cutting the atmosphere, as opposed to the knife more commonly used in this particular scenario. I feel as if I have drawn genitalia on her wordsearch. There is definitely what I would call a “moment”, passengers try not to look at what’s going on, but it’s too late, and so eyes begin rolling heavenwards, the admonishing glare over the reading glasses routine makes an appearance and, having looked up from their books and conversations, people are trying to find a way of looking back where their heads move so slowly that nobody notices. Essentially, she has disturbed the solemn meditation of the Quiet Coach inhabitants far more with her little hissy fit than our conversation ever could.
Looking over this, I realise I might seem unreasonable. This woman may have things going on in her life that we didn’t know about. I would certainly hope so, because a life consisting solely of wordsearch is no life at all. I don’t blame her for wanting some silence, or preferring it at least. If she had just politely excused herself and moved, that would have avoided all of this, this whole blog, the rolling eyes. It’s the fact that she felt entitled to the silence, and that we had violated her privacy. We needed to be punished for her lack of silence. A train is not a library
There are no rules about conversation, this is all laid out in a message delivered by the train manager whose mouth is usually too close to the microphone. Human conversation is allowed, because unlike the use of headphones, in conversation we remain connected to our environment, and able to judge what is normal conversation accordingly.
We are all getting used to this idea that living in a predominantly wealthy country in peacetime means we should be able to control our environment, or at least restrict it to ourselves and our interests. To shrink it to our bespoke specifications. A train is full of people trying to do this, and we all do it to some extent. If I wear headphones, I take blocking out very seriously. Noise cancelling headphones block out the sound to the wearer, but also to the surrounding environment. Effectively, I can block out their complaints by not giving them reason to complain. It’s so good i even block myself out. To not be in a place just because we are there is the ultimate consumer luxury.
The way we listen to music has moved away from speakers, and therefore from social listening, towards headphones and through phones or laptops. Music through a phone or a computer’s speakers is like a reminder of the music, an advertisement for its existence. It’s like claiming to have seen fish in a lake because there were bubbles on the water’s surface. More music is made on computers now, an illusion of ensembles can be fired up on cheap or free software in seconds. This is not a bad thing, and has produced lots of quality music. Aphex Twin’s music seems to come straight out of the technology that makes it, yet has a kind of human feel because of how honestly artificial it is. And the notes are either pretty or ugly, and he really knows the difference.
So back to this course. I’ve been teaching here, on and off, for about twenty years. People are there partly on holiday, partly to get better at playing jazz, partly to listen to music and largely to drink. This applies to both tutors and punters, and the relaxed atmosphere belies an intense exchange of ideas in all directions, everybody learns from each other, and not only about music, but about what we do when we aren’t around music. Another friend of mine, who was on the course with her son, pointed out to me how nice it is to have people from all different backgrounds, locations, levels of musical experience and ages shoved together into ensembles in the attempt to find common ground in music and perform together. There is an opportunity to find out what is possible with a situation where so much is unknown, indeterminate and, for a while, often chaotic.
This seems to me the antithesis of The Quiet Coach. The Quiet Coach is not the same as the Long Walk, or other similar varieties of Time To Think activities. The Long Walk, apart from exercise, takes us into a space where we shrink and everything else can get very big, and we don’t get to choose on a whim what it is. We go to it. Conversely, bringing the world to us, with an almost infinite choice, headphones tend to make us the centre of everything, our choice of music, of films, of tv, all available, all free, all
I know this is very old news. I know I am writing this on a computer. I know the world is moving towards a crowded community of solitary people in solitary pursuits. What used to be everyday social interaction has now become something that people write blogs about. I’m under no illusions; I’m not great at social interactions with strangers on trains or anywhere else, and the seclusion of The Quiet Coach is one of my favourite haunts. But as the huffy woman walks past, and some of us exchange glances, there is a moment where strangers on a train seem in some kind of unspoken agreement that she’s a bit of a pain in the arse, and that the violation of her favourite haunt was a cause for celebration. Maybe she is recounting this story to someone right now, and that means that at least she will have to speak to someone. Or maybe she’s just putting a post on Facebook, writing a blog (perhaps with a little embroidery to accentuate certain parts of the story), or quietly adding another little incident to her roster of Annoying Things About Life Past A Certain Age. Perhaps, like me, she’s doing all three.