John White: Rediscovering the art of face-to-face conversation

Chatting in Portree’s Wentworth Street

By John White

Yesterday I was fixing equipment in my shed when a man, dutifully wearing a mask, walked up the drive. My traditional ‘default’ greeting of “Hi can I help you?” caused the response “Can I ask a favour?”

He and his partner were traveling around in a van, their air bed had gone saggy and he needed a 240v supply to blow it up.

There next to me was an extension lead plugged into my power washer. It was easy enough for them to drive the van up and put in a few psi and make their next night more comfortable.

Of course, we started chatting and in that serendipitous small world way it turned out that the lady had worked with my father many years ago, and knew people from the village I had grown up in.

Conversation. I think they may have been craving it.


I have noticed that the visitors we have welcomed to Whitewave seem keen to talk more. Perhaps having spent lockdown with their family, only talking to others through device and technology, to meet someone else in reality and suddenly weeks of latent chat gushes out.

I am not sure if that is not as much me as them.

Even pre Covid, our activity sessions seemed to be one long conversation. If folk have spent hours in a car together driving to the north of Skye, they might have run out of things to say to each other.

During lockdown, we did talk a lot with neighbours as we saw them on their daily exercise, but as we are now meeting other friends not seen for months, there is a lot to catch up on, even if the discussions, dominated by the pandemic, have a ‘Groundhog Day’ feel about them.

My newfound friends had hired an empty panel van, installed the slightly faulty deflating air bed, camp stove and sundry paraphernalia and set off from Lancashire to explore the Highlands.

Most importantly they had also loaded a chemical toilet.

This was a prerequisite from the lady and although brought along to preserve dignity, I remarked that this was really appropriate considering the human waste issues that van camping is causing in popular roadside spots.

Their plan was to test the water, if they enjoyed their holiday, they might purchase a camper van, or like many, get an empty van to convert themselves.

Socially distant

The old Whitewave minibus has become too tatty to use with clients, but still has life in it yet, and so one of my first lockdown projects was removing another row of seats and the fitting of a wooden sleeping platform, tall enough to fit bicycles underneath.

The irony is that in the new socially distant tourism world, our clients are not using the new minibus, but following in their own vehicles.

Having no access to materials we managed to create a fine bed out of left-over decking, supported by the left-over balcony rails.

Last week’s project undertaken by my son, was the fitting of an extra leisure battery, the ‘split charger’ so it can be topped up by the engine and a solar panel pop riveted and glued to the roof.

All these additions are probably worth more than the van, but will make adventures and mountain bike races more comfortable and homely

It seems however that there are camper vans, and there are motor homes.

A camper van I believe is smaller, based on a minibus or panel van, whereas motorhomes have been constructed on a large vehicle chassis, look a bit like fridges with windows and seem to stick out more.

They also have amusing and slightly ironic names like ‘Adventurer’, ‘Wild Rover’ or ‘Wanderlust’.

They might also have wide screen televisions in them, in case the view isn’t up to scratch.

They also seem to be driven more nervously by people perhaps unused to piloting large vehicles, causing a little more irk to following traffic as they lumber round our twisty roads.

As we try not to get annoyed when they are holding us back from our important deadline, and try to remember that lockdown also meant slowdown, we should ponder on the motorhome advantage.

Along with their size is likely to come a toilet, so hopefully no unpleasant piles behind the bushes at Loch Mealt.

One also assumes they could have a sizeable bin, so they may actually take their litter away.

For the tourist in these Covid times they arguably make so much sense, a household bubble can remain isolated while journeying around an area, with reduced contact to others.

Chance discovery

Except isn’t that what makes a holiday, a trip to somewhere else, meeting folk, preferably locals from whom you might glean the location of a precious secret waterfall, traditional music session, best fish and chips.

Or just find out what it’s like to live here and what we do in winter.

Even the chance has been taken out of ‘wild camper vanning’ as there are websites and forums listing all the spots people used to discover accidently or by asking.

If you share a secret spot, it doesn’t remain secret for very long, and soon enough may suffer from a new-found popularity.

Eventually with online planning and a food delivery before embarkation, one might never have to speak to anyone from beginning to end of a holiday, especially if a credit card automated supermarket petrol station is used.

There are however, some pubs which allow vans to use their car parks. In return for the patronage, a meal or a few beers, some hostelries will accept overnight parking.

This seems an appropriate win-win situation, and of course there are websites and forums online listing these.

At least when ordering a drink, we can speak to someone, except increasingly there are now digital apps to obviate this.

Although this particular piece of technology minimises contact and assists social distancing, they were appearing in busy bars before Covid, presumably to aid efficiency.

The days of having a conversation with waiting staff may be numbered.

Exchange of ideas

But as coronavirus has accelerated our reliance on device and information technology maybe we should pause and remember that conversation is a vital part of the exchange of ideas and opinion.

Perhaps, because of its immediacy, more so than the printed or digital word.

It is part of the glue that binds friendship and community – look how much we have missed talking with friends, but it is also the oil that lubricates friction.

Most disagreements can be smoothed with conversation. Debates tend to be less polarised when face to face, compared with on screen.

It would probably only take a conversation to get a motorhome driver to pull over occasionally to let a queue of traffic past, or a camper van owner to carry a spade and walk a good distance into the woods and dig a hole for their business.

As the old BT advert said, ‘It is good to talk’.