Saturday, 18 January 2014

There's nowt so queer as folk

I suppose, if pressed, we could all recall eccentric characters from our past; the kind of characters who'd happily populate the pages of a colourful novel. This country, after all, has something of a reputation for producing them. Writers like Alan Bennett (not a stranger to the odd English eccentricity himself) has something of a penchant for them (think The Lady in the Van and The Madness of King George).

A very good place to encounter such Great British eccentrics is, I find, the London Underground or the Electric Sewer, as I prefer to call it. On one memorable occasion many years ago while travelling to school on the Northern line I shall never forget the sight of a large, well dressed, middle aged lady clobbering the man sitting next to her with her handbag. A couple of years later while returning from school on the Central line I can recall a young man in sunglasses addressing the entire carriage, which was full to the gills. "Stop thinking about me," he demanded rather threateningly. "Stop it," he continued, "I know you're all doing it. Stop it now!" The English reaction to this hugely embarrassing situation was typical. Newspapers were unfurled and their owners were immediately shielded from this embarrassment by a wall of newsprint until, like a bad smell, it had dispersed. More recently and perhaps alarmingly, a very smart gentleman with a leather attache case sat next to me and immediately struck up a very peculiar line of conversation. "You look like a very good listener," was his opening line, to which I smiled nervously. I then began to hear all about his extraordinary ability to design motor cars through some form of telepathic gift that he had possessed since birth. "I can tell you're the listening sort," he said. "Most people would have told me to fuck off by now." It could almost have been Peter Cook. But sadly, it wasn't, and I don't think he was playing for laughs. It's probably the only time I've got off a train before my stop, just to get away from a fellow passenger.

But perhaps the strangest person I've ever come across for rather different reasons was a lady my mother used to know. Her name was Cynthia and she was widely acknowledged by those who knew her as being profoundly psychic. I only met her briefly on a handful of occasions, but I have to say that there was something quite unnerving about this gaunt looking woman with remarkably thick glasses; something you couldn't really put your finger on. When it comes to the murky world of psychic phenomena, I'm something of a cynic, but this woman would blurt out stuff that was plain spooky. On one occasion shortly after my grandmother died my mother and her sister visited her for tea, and over tea and biscuits, this woman began talking about my late grandmother. "She's here now," she said and began to give very specific instructions over items in my late grandmother's house that were not cited in her will. My mother and sister were utterly dumbfounded, as every single item named and described by Cynthia (and there were quite a few) actually existed in my grandmother's living room. And let me assure you here that my grandmother had never so much as met Cynthia.

Some months later, my mother being inquisitive went to visit Cynthia again for tea - this time taking with her a sealed envelope containing an old sepia photograph of her mother's brother. Nonchalantly, she presented it to Cynthia and asked her if she had anything she could tell her about the contents of the envelope. Cynthia took it in her hand, didn't even look at it, and then returned it. "All I can tell you my dear is that his name is Solomon, and it's terribly sad." The photograph was indeed a portrait of Solomon Barzinsky who had, like so many of his generation, joined the army to fight in the First World War and had been killed by a sniper in 1918. He was no more than 18 years of age, and yes, it was terribly sad.

In retrospect, had it been me, I'm sure I'd have felt a great deal more comfortable sitting next to some nutter on the London Underground who claimed to design cars telepathically, than being completely spooked by this kind of stuff.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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