Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Reading Lolita on the London Bus

A few weeks ago, I was taking the bus into Chelsea. One of the things I love about riding the bus is that I can read and nobody will bother me. About a year ago, I embarked on a personal reading journey. In addition to current fiction, I'm reading the classics from A-Z, choosing one author from each letter of the alphabet. Austen to Zola. I'm currently up to the letter N which is what got me into this mess.

Anyway, I was sitting in my favourite spot---top deck, front window seat. It was mid-afternoon so the bus was quiet with plenty of empty seats. So it was particularly annoying when, after a few stops a man got on and chose to sit next to me. I looked around the bus as if to say, hey, pick another seat, you're spoiled for choice. But the octogenarian in tweed and corduroy waited for me to remove my bag from the empty seat and, amidst a great deal of huffing and puffing, he settled his rotund self into the seat next to me. I got a whiff of musty wool and cherry pipe tobacco but kept my nose in my book. Mr. Tweedy fidgeted and uttered a tssk tssk. When the tssking refused to cease, I glanced over to make sure he wasn't having a gout attack or anything equally alarming. That’s where it all went wrong. He spoke to me but not, as you would hope, a friendly, ‘Good afternoon. Enjoy your reading.’ Oh no.

‘That book is nothing but filth,’ he said. He raised his white bushy eyebrows, a few stragglers comically long and heading in a gravity-defying northern direction.

‘Er, sorry?’

‘Nabokov. He wrote about that nymphet Lolita. It was banned in this country, you know.’

‘Yes, I did read that somewhere. But the ban was lifted.’

‘Shouldn’t have been.’

‘Hmm. Yes, well.’

‘Do you have any children?’

‘Um, yes. Two.’

‘Boys or girls?’

‘Two daughters.’

‘Daughters, eh? Well, how would you feel if you read that story in the newspaper? That an old man was lusting after a schoolgirl?’

‘Um, I’d feel upset?’

‘Bloody right you would. He was nothing but a paedophile. A very sick man.’

‘Do you mean Nabokov or Humbert Humbert?’

‘Ach. What’s the difference? The author and the character are one and the same.’

‘But it’s fiction. It’s a classic. I showed him the Penguin logo as proof.’

‘Harrumph. It’s porn.’ He whistled through his nose in protest.

‘But the language is lovely. And some parts are very funny.’ That was a mistake.

Mr. Tweedy used Nabokov as a springboard to leap onto a tangent. He said that society is so confused that we don’t even know what’s funny anymore. He talked about ASBOs and young girls getting pregnant so they can take money from the government. The rant kept going and going like the Duracell bunny. When he had to pause and wind himself up with the key again, he returned to Lolita.

‘Maybe you should choose your reading material more wisely, young lady. Stay away from this smut.’ He spat the last word and a bit of dribble slid from the corner of his mouth.

‘Yes, well, thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’m getting off at the next stop.’ I got off the bus before my stop because Mr. Tweedy had the appearance of a man who was in it for the long haul.

So what did I take away from that? Freedom of speech is alive and well. Clearly. I am free to read whatever I choose. However, if I’m taking public transport I may be forced to deal with the, er, public. And maybe I should wrap the cover of my books in brown paper. Because I am a whimp and I hate confrontation, even if it's to defend my choice of reading material.

Perhaps Orwell will be less controversial.


  1. This is true. I once worked in an office with Nabokov's grand-daughter. In Brussels. She was Belgian - the family left Russia in the early 20th century. Her name was Anoushka. This is all true.

    So next time you see tweedy dribble-mouth, you can say "well, my blogging friend was a colleague of Nabokov's grand-daughter (albeit 19 years ago), and she says that she seemed like a very nice girl".

    Or you could just say "I'm getting off at the next stop". Up to you.

  2. I love that seat on the bus too, but whenever I try to read I feel nauseous. A-Z is a great idea too... particularly reading A-Z on public transport!

  3. Iota, that's pretty cool that you worked with Naboko's granddaughter.

    You know what bothers me? That I'm such a whimp and let the guy go on and on, taking up my precious quiet reading time. I need to learn how to extricate myself from these conversations in a courteous way.

    Sparx, strangely, I can't read as a passenger in the car but it's okay on the bus.

  4. Very funny that he chose to sit with you and rant. I too avoid confrontation at all costs. It surprised me that you did not have a quick comeback because that is where you and i are different. I usually think of something clever to say an hour later!

  5. suester--sadly, I had no clever retort! What a bummer.

  6. I'd have been just the same. Wouldn't have said 'leave me in peace to read' but maybe he was up for a rhetorical debate? I suppose at least he was well read! Wonder what he'd have said if you were reading Lady Chatterly's Lover.
    Impressed at your reading marathon. Sounds like my degree syllabus.
    I can't read on buses or cars. It's such a precious waste of good reading time.

  7. I used to love my bus ride to work because I could get so much reading in. I once read 'Naked Lunch' by William Burroughs on the bus and I must admit there were some parts when I held the book so the person next to me couldn't read over my shoulder!

    Now I walk to work so the iPod has taken over

    I've tagged you in a meme over at my blog: http://wp.me/pPXos-j. Please check it out and have a go if you haven't already done this one!

  8. I think that guy had a cheek - who did he think he was speaking to you like that? Isn't it a free country? Aren't we allowed to read what we like, where we like, sitting next to whom we like? Hmmm, obviously not to some people.

    CJ xx

  9. I've just come across you. I like your blog! Think I'll follow you for a while if that's ok? And I'm sure old tweedy would have plenty to say about Orwell!