Hazel McHaffie

Screaming on the inside

Please indulge me for a few minutes. I need to vent my spleen somewhere.

As you know, I do a fair amount of travelling by train. I usually book my tickets well in advance and make sure I get a seat in the Quiet Zone. Quiet? You have to be joking. Excited hen parties, rowdy football supporters, high decibel families, school parties, even a garrulous bag lady who travels for the company … I’ve encountered them all. None of them seemed to think it at all incongruous to park themselves alongside silent others and totally disrupt their peace. Indeed more than once, when anyone has suggested they hush-up a bit, I’ve actually heard them defend their absolute right to take over the carriage: ‘It only means no mobile phones.’ The subtext: ‘Get a life’.

But this week my travelling experience reached new heights of absurdity. In eleven hours of travelling – all of it in the so-called Quiet Zone: shrieked exchanges, raucous laughter, blaring music, computer games sound effects, excitable stream-of-consciousness conversation in assorted foreign languages … need I go on? All-in-all the cacophony of a rebellious teenagers’ unsupervised party.

Thank goodness I had something fascinating and undemanding to read. The Girl with the Dragon TatooDuring the week I’d started Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with a view to taking it as my diversion. There’s been such a lot of hype about this trilogy, and Larsson’s posthumous fame, that I wanted to see if it really was worth all the fuss (Sceptic being my middle name). Well, it has its faults (and there were far too many characters to hold in my shrinking mind) but after the dull start I got involved with the weirdo female protagonist and devious plotting sufficiently to have to read on. Result? I finished it long before I got anywhere near the train.

But after that I needed something completely different. Ahah! Time for Self-Made Man. Self Made ManThe story of Norah Vincent’s experiment: a year disguised as a man. Otherwise called ‘field reporting from Planet Guy’. Wow! Hat’s off to her sheer bravery and brass neck. This is social research of a different order. She was ‘a mirror and a window and a prism all at the same time.’ As Ned, she infiltrated a men’s bowling club as well as a monastery and encouraged the men to share private thoughts and intimate experiences, (can you imagine how they reacted when she disclosed her true identity?); she visited strip bars (actively participating!); and she even infiltrated an exclusively male therapy group (very nearly her personal undoing). The ethics of such deceit aside, this account of her experiences is extremely readable and thought-provoking: a sharp eye for detail combined with bracingly honest self-evaluation, alongside a penetratingly frank analysis. And at the end of it all she debunks the notion of men’s privilege and power, and concludes that she is ‘fortunate, proud, free and glad in every way to be a woman.’

Well maybe, but I confess I wished I’d had a more male attitude to saying – shouting even – exactly what I thought, without apology or qualification, during those horrendously noisy journeys on Saturday. Instead I uttered not so much as a squeak of protest. The self-made man would have disowned me!

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