In a Train with Funeral Party – February 1924

I walked almost the whole length of a long train before I came to a third-class compartment that was not marked “Smoking.” There was a woman already seated in it, and she remarked as I sat down, “Although it isn’t a ‘smoking,’ this smells vilely of tobacco smoke, and look at the floor!” I then related to her an incident of my journey up that morning.

At one station there entered a little company of passengers, obviously of what are termed working-class. There were two men of middle-age, a youth and a girl in their mid teens, and a small boy of five or six. They were all dressed in black, from which I inferred that they were on their way to a funeral.

The men wore black bowler hats stuck on the back of their heads, leaving visible a well-oiled fringe of hair adorning their foreheads. The youth’s cloth cap was of black tweed, and all the males sported black ties with the exception of the wee boy, whose black tie was spotted with mauve stars. The girl, also in sombre mourning attire, was drawing on a pair of shiny black kid gloves.

I had imagined that this class of glove could not be bought in the ‘twenties of the twentieth century, but a few days later I walked beside a woman in black who was also drawing on gloves of that shiny black. These to me are strongly reminiscent of Sundays of very early childhood, when I whiled the tedium of the prayers in church by examining all the details of my mother’s veil and gloves on the book board before me, and marvelled at the tiny points on the finger tips of the lady’s gloves in the seat before us; for in those days gloves were worn so tight-fitting that frequently the fingers could not be pressed into the tips of the glove.

I never see black kid gloves but they conjure up a vivid image of that Ayrshire kirk, and the pew in which I smelt the distinctive scent of warm kid, watched the slow tear being wiped from beneath a heavy crape veil with a black-edged handkerchief, and looked up fearfully at a terrible man in a black cloak spreading himself out like John Knox, and in a loud voice, scolding us all for our sins till my childhood sobs burst forth, and I had to be taken on my mother’s lap, closer to the strange Sabbath scent of kid and crape.

Such is my black memory of the kirk of my fathers. Lugubrious as it was, I think there was something pleasurably exciting in the solemn pageant of the kirkyaird and the intimate drama of the pews. Besides, was not I wearing my best clothes? And there might be a “sweetie” if I fidgetted too much.

All these scenes passed before my mind while the girl opposite to me was pulling on her black kid gloves — none too tight for her. The only melancholy face in the company was that of the youth — and immature manhood has the privilege of sadness. His elders were distinctly merry, one of them particularly jovial. They took out their pipes and lit up. (“And you never objected?” exclaimed my travelling companion of later in the day. Well, no, why make myself disagreeable?).

Then as pipe and talk became more intimate and sociable, they spat freely on the floor, especially the jolly man in the tight black suit, and the bowler far back on his oiled head. He was evidently blessed with a chronic jollity for his face was all marked with laughing wrinkles. Next, he took out a large paper bag and handed it round to the company. In fright or shyess I held my newspaper closer to my face (I was seated in the corner opposite to the jolly mourner), and the danger passed.

But not for long. After a few more draws at his pipe, and more expectoration, he stood up, took a step forward, and held out the bag to me: “Have one, missus?” he said; “take one or two; take as many as you like.” And his face was wrinkled all over with friendly smiles. What could I do but put in my hand and clutch two or three peppermints, smiling my thanks? He nodded back, a curt but sociable gesture, and the incident was over.

“And didn’t you complain of the spitting? How disgusting! I should. It was your duty to remind them that they were in a non-smoking carriage. And they never asked if you objected! Augh!” These were the indignant comments on my little story.

Well, no doubt I would be within my rights in objecting to smoking in a non-smoking compartment, and I dislike the filthy habit of spitting on a carriage floor. But I love human beings more than I hate their objectionable habits, and I wouldn’t for any passing discomfort — and I really experienced none — have snubbed that vulgar little, jolly, kindly man; and the dear wee boy in black, and the youth with the melancholy face, and the girl drawing her black kid gloves, they were all so intensely human and interesting to me.

And this is a question I should like to put fairly: Would a “gentleman” or a “lady” — define them as you please — let us say members of the “upper” and cultivated classes, would one of these in similar circumstances have passed a chocolate box and given a friendly smile to a modest fellow traveller in the opposite corner with a newspaper in front of her face?

Life is a daily compromise. If we all insisted on putting each other right there would be constant warfare. I’d rather it were some other who put the smoker out of her compartment.

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3 Responses to In a Train with Funeral Party – February 1924

  1. Reblogged this on bridgesburning and commented:
    Gretchen is one of my must reads. She wrote a regular newspaper column back around the twenties. This one in particular is applicable today in a lesson or two. Her interest ‘was intensely human’ and I can’t help but think a little more ‘human interest’ would be a good thing.

  2. Ah, the good old days. Sometimes not so good but good to be alive.

  3. Darlene says:

    A wonderful lesson in tolerance, something that is missing these days.

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