It is a curious fact that in Edinburgh, it can take some time to find oneself on speaking terms with other bus users--about 18 months would be a conservative average. It makes sense when you consider that Edinburgh has long and often been associated with the phrase: ‘you’ll have had your tea then’. This is usually taken to reflect the Scots’ reputation for being careful with their money, which apparently becomes an art form in Edinburgh (though to be fair, I think it may be more an indication of caution than cupidity).
A good example of this prudence has been demonstrated by our own Hamish and Dougal (characters from the Radio 4 programme - ‘You’ll Have Had Your Tea’, a spin-off of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’) who I see most mornings on the bus. They are so unfailingly cheerful and entirely lovely I tend to think of them more as Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, but we have only recently reached a nodding acquaintance...and it has taken two years to do it. I am not certain I want it to advance beyond this as I so enjoy their morning conversations, which are like the Today Programme-- if the Today Programme was broadcast from Brigadoon.
Do not think that this seemly reticence means the good citizens of my adopted city are unfriendly—far from it. But there is a certain reserve, which may just be natural courtesy: one would not wish to be too forward and shock the horses. So we will greet each other most pleasantly at the bus stop for many, many months before conversation is initiated—generally with an observation about the weather. And of course, one’s familiars on the bus will merely nod, pleasantly, in greeting. In exceptional circumstances this will expand to encompass a few words on the situation in hand...but the following day it will be nods and wordless smiles again, as everyone overlooks any unseemly attacks of garrulousness.
One is much more likely to fall into conversation with someone who is not a regular, or is only seen sporadically. This comes under the ‘ships that pass in the night’ heading. Conversation is fine, but only if you are not hastily committing to having to do it every day. If only we applied the same caution when selecting a mate, I hear some of you saying to yourselves...
There are two exceptions to these rules of silence: one being if you take your dog on the bus. I have never seen anything to match the ability of a dog to inspire strangers to fulsome forwardness. All inhibitions are shed in the face of a friendly dog and much as I love my hound (who makes only occasional visits to the big city, but happily slips into the role of full-on metrosexual whenever he is in town), I find the wildly sentimental attitude of your average Briton to animals disturbing as well as puzzling, from the nation that invented fox-hunting. I feel fairly certain that most of my countrymen, if they were holding a bowlful of water on a hot day and forced to choose, would give it to a thirsty Andrex puppy rather than throw it over a spontaneously combusting OAP.
The other exception to the no conversation rule is weather related. All bets are off, all reserve abandoned in the face of extreme meteorological events. So in this week of wild, autumnal storms (which left me expecting to find flying monkeys in Princes Street Gardens and Munchkins running Starbucks--the streets and pavements of my neighbourhood were so covered in leaves it looked as if a scout troop had been given LSD in their ginger beer and let loose with weed-whackers), when a charming stranger turned up at the bus stop with his even more charming black labrador, conversation was more or less guaranteed. It turned out his lovely dog (rather unimaginatively named ‘Isis’, for all you Downton Abbey fans) was a guide dog puppy, who unfortunately failed her exams and was rusticated from guide dog school. (I managed not to ask if Isis suffered from self-esteem problems or if she had been offered counselling).
As you may imagine, every person who got on the bus had a word to say...to the dog.