This is one of those stories that somebody on social media will shout at me and say it didn’t happen. Well, it did.
When I moved down south, I didn’t have a car, didn’t even drive. So, I used to jump on a train every few weeks to visit my parents who were still living in my hometown. It was a three-hop journey: Cambridge to Peterborough, Peterborough to Newcastle, and then a Metro ride to the family semi-detached pile.
I always took a rucksack. The one that I’d taken around Europe Inter-Railling, the one I’d worked around the US with, same one that I’d tour Australia a year later with the ultimately-to-be Mrs Sciencebase, and then again backpacking in Botswana and Zimbabwe back in the early ’90s. I’ve still got the rucksack.
It is fairly spacious, looks very battered these days, but wasn’t quite so battered the time I was pulling it out from the luggage storage area on an Intercity 125 as we pulled into Newcastle on one of the aforementioned trips back to the homestead.
As I was manhandling my luggage, the train was slowing quickly. An elderly American gent who had been sitting with his wife and another American couple in their requisite pastel-shaded polyester slacks, shirts, and blousons, as well as attendant golfing type hats offered to help. “No, it’s fine, thanks, I can manage, I responded,” struggling to get the bulging back full of what was basically a laundry todo incarnate for my mother.
He turned away, appeased and retorted to his friends that, “Oh, look Newcastle…as in carrying coals to”. Gentle giggles from the other American gent, and a sniff from one of the wives not at all impressed by his knowledge of British idioms. The other woman, presumably a former mining engineer, then asked the group and pointedly looking at me as she did so, knowing that I was obviously about to disembark asked “So, is that coal bituminous?”
Her accent was so rounded, so American, almost Pythonian in the Idle sense of the philosophy restaurant and the weird scientific poignancy of the question startled me somewhat. Was I being pranked in some weird Candid Camera style jape? Was Jeremy Beadle about? It was several years before Harry Hill. I’d done a coal module with Harry Marsh in my chemistry degree at Newcastle, inevitably, you might say, despite the Thatcher years. But, did I know? No I didn’t.
I flung my now safely dislodged rucksack with its malodourous offering of sweaty cottons and woollen socks over my shoulder leaped from the train and dashed head first for the barriers that would lead me to that final Metro hop to the coast.
Bituminous? Why? Why were these four unassuming Americans with their knowledge of my hometown’s most famous idiom so intrigued by the type of coal it might have been that was being taken. Had I been hallucinating? Was I part of some live-action re-enactment of a Monty Python sketch that had never been screened? Obviously not.
Oh, and it would have been bituminous, I think, not lignite and most probably not anthracite.
I ran this a ten-part-thread true story on Twitter, each par was edited down to fit the twitter character limit.