Why should the Leveson Inquiry be denied the two high-profile commuters’ gossip ‘about personalities’?
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry the other day, Jack Straw revealed that he and Rebekah Brooks would often gossip “about personalities” when they bumped into each other on the morning train from Oxfordshire to London. Given that bumping into people on trains is rarely an occasion for mutual joy, I find myself wondering quite how these brief encounters actually played out.
“Is that you, Rebekah?”
“Ah, Jack.” Rebekah lowers the Guardian she has been hiding behind. “We must stop meeting like this. People will talk.”
The Justice Secretary leans over to kiss his friend in greeting, but she goes to retrieve something from her handbag at the same moment and he ends up kissing her shoulder. “For a moment there,” he says, “I wasn’t sure it was you because you had your head in The Guardian and not The Sun!”
“Well, you know how it is, Jack. Have to know your enemy.”
“Quite. Anything interesting in the papers? Any good gossip?”
“Not sure yet, Jack.” She pats a pile of papers. “Was hoping to get them all read by the time we reach London.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Don’t let me disturb you.” He opens his briefcase. “I’ve got work to do as well.” Rebekah lifts her paper again. “You wouldn’t believe how busy things are at the Ministry of Justice at the moment.”
Rebekah sighs, and lowers her paper.
“All sorts of problems with the Freedom of Information Act. And I’ve got the BBC breathing down my neck about Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time… But listen to me, wittering on. Don’t let me keep you from your work.”
The paper is raised once more.
“Did you hear about Britney Spears?” Jack continues. “Apparently she has had another meltdown. Shaved her hair off and everything. Ali reckons that…”
And so on. In a curious way, Mr Straw’s admission seems rather dated — their meetings petered out in 2009 — because if they happened now they would be all over the Twittersphere before they even reached Combe. Nick Hornby discovered this not long ago when he bumped into Ian Hislop on the train. His iPhone pinged almost immediately: a Google alert to tell him his name had come up on Twitter: “Just seen Nick Hornby talking to Ian Hislop on the train.”
Like Mr Straw and Mrs Brooks, I live about an hour’s train journey out of London, and I’ve come to learn that there is a certain etiquette about acknowledging people you know on the train, especially if you catch the rush hour one which has all the pin-striped fathers from your children’s school on it. A nod will suffice. And no one takes offence because everyone treats commuting time as work time these days.
Another alternative is to clock who is on the platform and then position yourself at the opposite end, but not to look too conspicuous about it. Read a paper or something. It’s like that scene in The Great Escape where Hendley, played by James Garner, whispers to the blind Blyth, played by Donald Pleasance: “Half the guys who missed their trains are piled up here. Ashley-Pitt, Roger, MacDonald, Nimmo.”
Incidentally, when my relatives visit from the North Country they break all the rules. They actually talk to strangers on the Underground! I know. Appalling behaviour. But I can’t seem to stop them.