Thursday, 22 March 2012

22 March 2012. Letter 98

Dear Mark and Sue

Oh Mark. Ohhh, Sue.

This is the last time I will ever write to you. You have no idea how often I’ve wanted to write that! Here’s the thing: every time I’ve written to you, I’ve hoped it would be the last time. All I’ve wanted is for the trains to be on time, Mark! All I’ve ever asked is that you give me the service I’ve paid for!

These nine months and 97 letters past – these 97 times I’ve been on trains of yours that have not run according to schedule since the end of June last year… implicit in each of them is the fervent wish that I wouldn’t have to write to you again.

I’ve written around 100,000 words of complaint to you, Mark. That’s quite a lot of complaining in nine months, isn’t it?

Well, lads: I’m not going to write to you again. Not, I hasten to add, because you have finally got your acts together and started to run First Great Western in the way that you have so often promised you would… but because I’m not going to be catching your trains any more. My daily commuting days are over. I’m back to freelancing again, and on the odd day a week or so that I will be in London, I’m going to catch the bus.

Sorry about the £480 a month I’ll no longer be giving you. I’m sure you’ll claw it back somehow. Another above-inflation price rise? That oughtta do the trick.

Will you miss me? Of course not! I’ve done my utmost to humiliate you through every medium I could think of: on the internet, in newspapers, on radio and on TV. These letters featured on Panorama! Panorama, dudes!

I should think you consider that £480 a month is a price well worth paying to be rid of me. And think of all the time you’ll have on your hands now! We’ve wasted over 24 hours of each other’s lives since June! Think of how much time you’ll have to concentrate on making the trains run on time now!

After all: we shouldn’t forget why I started writing to you in the first place, should we?

I started writing to you in a blizzard of righteous fury and frustration, Mark. I didn’t start writing to you to entertain you, or make you smile, or even teach you a little about 80s pop lyrics – I wanted to waste your time, same as you waste mine. I wanted to embarrass you. I wanted you to realise that it wasn’t just me being uppity. I wanted you to see that, no matter how Sue and the rest of them spin it, all that nonsense about 90 per cent customer satisfaction ratings and the rest of it is just that: nonsense.

Where it matters, Mark, in the carriages every morning and evening, stuffed in and standing, herded and humiliated and subject to shocking levels of contempt and dismissed as mere human fodder by your company… right in there, where it matters most, the majority of your customers are not happy. Most of them are like me: seething, frustrated, sickened with the feeling that they’re being royally ripped off.

Most of them, of course, are considerably less childish and petty than me, and so most of them don’t write and tell you about it every day. Maybe they should.

Anyway. Rant over.

As this is my last letter I also wanted to say thankyou, Mark. Not for your management of the trains, of course, but for the simple good manners and gentlemanly conduct you’ve shown in writing back to me every week. Often in the face of, it has to be said, some rather extreme and protracted mickey-taking.

I have enjoyed your replies, Mark. And I appreciate every one of them. Good manners are important. Being a gentleman is important.

Sue… well, I’d like to think you at least helped Mark with his replies to me. I’d like to think, as Director of Communications, you did at least a little communicating with your customers, if only by proxy. And, also Sue: you did give me a birthday card. It’s hard to be cross with someone who gives you a birthday card, isn’t it? So thankyou too Sue.

And that’s your lot. No pop music references in this letter, no history lessons, no meteorology, astronomy or cobbled together bits of Shakespeare. And definitely no typewriting monkeys. This letter is just me saying goodbye (not “au revoir”) – and, hopefully, reminding you that there was a point to these things other than a bit of silliness.

Take it easy, Mark and Sue. Good luck with making First Great Western the kind of train franchise old Isambard Kingdom wouldn’t be ashamed to travel on. Seriously: good luck with that.

Goodbye, and good luck. And remember: not fare well but fare forward!


PS – Don’t cry too much. We never know what’s waiting round the bend, do we? The letters may be over now… but anything could happen next. Who knows: maybe even a book…

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

20 March 2012. Letter 97

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 20/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: 22 minutes.

Word up Mark! Word to yo’ mama, Sue!

How’s tricks? How’s treats? Told you tomorrow would come, didn’t I? We didn’t have to wait too long at all! Barely, what, 24 hours? About as long as it takes the world to turn once? A single dusk, a sole night and a solitary dawn? That’s about how long it’s taken for tomorrow to come.

And with it has come another delay, another chance for me to put (metaphorical) pen to (figurative) paper, to put (literal) finger to (actual) laptop and once again renew our acquaintance. The trains may still be up the swannee, but at least it means we get to talk again! Every cloud, Mark! The sun also rises, Sue!

So: what’s happened, Mark? What’s occurring, Sue? What’s with these trains of yours?

It seems that of late it’s been the evening service that has been letting the side down, eh? A seven minute delay on Monday and then on Tuesday, a… well, I don’t know yet how long it’s going to be. I’m writing this on Tuesday night, you see, on the train as the delay happens around me. I’m writing in real time! Exciting!

But I’m thinking it’s going to be a big one. A long one. A big long one, Sue! A meaty delay. A delay of substance. The ten minutes or so we spent dragging our heels around Taplow alerted me to that fact. We’ll have to wait and see just how late we do arrive into Oxford in the end… but right now it’s got all the hallmarks of a classic.

Plump up the cushions, Mark! Refill your favourite pipe, Sue! Stick Classic FM on the old radiogram, ring down for a good fresh pot of tea, bung the work experience kid a fiver from petty cash and tell him not to show his face again until he’s sourced some Hobnobs! Stoke up the fire, stock up on crumpets, make yourselves comfortable, Mark and Sue: because it looks like I’ve got a lot of your time to waste today.

Ready? Sure? Okay… let’s go.

First: a little colour.

So. Picture the scene. I’m sitting on a train, typing away. It’s a train that has been appreciably slowing down since Slough, a train that is already running some 15 minutes late. It’s a train I ran to get, Mark. A train I had to leg it across all of London town to make.

This 18.51 train, Sue: getting it means me leaving work at bang on six. It means trying to slip out on time before my editor notices I’m gone. It means distracting her somehow (“look! An elephant!”) and then, quick as you like while her back’s turned and her mouth’s agape, shrugging on the jacket, grabbing the bag, executing a faultless computer log-off manoeuvre, and ghosting out of the door and into the lift before she remembers the elephant trick from yesterday.

Some days, I don’t mind telling you, it’s harder than others (“look! A crocodile! Look! A marmoset! Look! A gnu!”). Some days, despite all manner of imaginary wildlife materialising in the office, it’s all I can do to get out of Fortress Wapping, charge through the tourists by Tower Hill, jump into the tube and emerge again at London’s Glorious London Paddington, Gateway to the West, in time to make that 18.51.

But tonight, I managed it. Just. (“Look! A great crested grebe!”) Tonight, I ran like billy-o, tossing aside tourists and daytrippers alike, hurdling commuters and kicking over prams and elbowing out the elderly and infirm and leapfrogging the pregnant so I could make this train.

And then what happened? And then we stopped. Around some godforsaken place called Taplow, we paused, and paused… and stopped.

And now I’m compelled to tell you all about it again. In numbing detail. Just so I can try to ruin your day in return. It’s a sick sort of Karma, is it not, Sue?

So. Anyway. Here we are. We’ve moved a little since I started writing. Let me fill you in.

What can I see out of my window just now? Reading. Lots of Reading. And I’ve been looking at it for long enough, I might add, to be able to study it in some detail. There in front of me, Sue, lies all Reading, spread out like some fabulous feast for the eyes, like some sumptuous city-sized* banquet for tired travellers to gaze hungrily upon and dream of what might have been, had we but time and proper train services enough.

Reading looks quite beautiful in the dark, Sue. When you can’t see it properly. When all the buildings are hidden and the lights make patterns in the streets and the skies, like yellow and white constellations. In the abstract like this, Reading looks quite beautiful.

Oh: I can also see a girl on the platform with the shortest skirt I’ve ever surreptitiously gazed at whilst pretending to look at Reading in my whole life. What a skirt, Mark! I own socks with more material than that skirt. It’s the kind of skirt that illustrates perfectly the paradoxical law which states that the shorter the skirt the more attention it commands. When it comes to skirts and attention, Sue: less is always more.

Oh, I’m going to miss this, Sue! Once I stop commuting, I mean. I’m going to miss gazing at “Reading” like this and making up paradoxical and sexist laws of women’s clothing for you! (The sexism is always ironic, of course, Sue. I’m not really sexist. Why am I not sexist? Cos the chicks hate sexists, right? They’re funny like that, are girls. Bless ‘em!)

Anyway. Enough flim-flam. The upshot is this: I’m on a train that’s running behind schedule and I’ve had to interrupt my game of Words With Friends with the deputy chief sub-editor of Esquire magazine (never play a Scrabble-based game against a deputy chief sub-editor, Sue, that’s my advice. Those guys know a lot of words. Even expert communicators like you could come unstuck against a deputy chief sub-editor), haul out my laptop, dig out my memory stick (not a euphemism) and once more think of original ways to express my displeasure with you both. At some considerable length.

Really, Mark. Honestly, Sue. How many times have we had to do this? (Well, 97 now, but you know what I mean.) For how long have we had to play this weary little game together? (Since the end of June last year, but, again, you know what I mean.) When will this madness stop? (Friday, but… see above.)

The thing is, mes petites incompetents de trains, I’m not even angry any more with you both. After all these delays, all these wasted hours, all this lost opportunity and spent money and mornings texting my editor to apologise and evenings texting my loved ones to apologise and both mornings and evenings cursing you and your shambolic, contemptuous, highly-profitable company… after all this, I’m no longer angry. I’m disappointed.

That’s worse, isn’t it? When your parents say to you: Dominic – we’re not angry, we’re disappointed. That was always worse. That was always the line that got me thinking maybe I was wrong after all. (To be fair, I was very rarely wrong.) That was always the line that got me thinking: perhaps I better do better next time.

How about you, Mark? Do you find the disappointment of your passengers more shame-inducing than their anger? If all of us who pay so handsomely for such pitiful performance were to stop shaking our metaphorical fists and instead start shaking our actual heads, would that be enough to give you pause? Would the sorrow of the masses do more than the anger of millions?

It’s got to be worth a try, right? (God knows nothing else is working.) Perhaps once I’ve finished writing these angry letters to you (end of this week, dudes! Friday!) people could instead start sending you pictures of themselves looking sad every time their train is delayed.

You could pin them up on a wall of shame; you could look at them every time you announce record profits, or put up prices, or trouser your inexplicably-justified performance-related bonuses. You could look at all those sad little faces and think: you know what? Perhaps we’re not doing so well, after all. Perhaps we could try putting the customer first for a change. Or at least giving them what they’ve paid for each day. Look at their sad little faces! We need to make them happy!

You could do that. Or you could pin them up on a wall of shame and laugh at all those sad little faces. You could maybe write “suckers!” across the top of the wall every time you announce record profits, or put up prices, or trouser your inexplicably-justified performance-related bonuses. You could think: hoopla! Thanks for all the cash, idiots!

Whaddayathink, Sue? Which sounds the more appealing to you?

Oh, hang on: the train manager has just come on the intercom. He’s trying to tell us something, Mark! We left Reading some time ago; we’re currently lolling aimlessly along the track near Didcot Parkway and he’s about to explain exactly why! Sshhh…


He doesn’t know the reason why. He’s as mystified as the rest of us. He says he’s going to try to find out.

Still: great communication, eh Sue! If it’s a comfort to the miserable to have companions in their misery (and it is, Sue! It so is!) then he’s certainly made me a little more comfortable. Knowing that the people in charge of this train are just as in the dark as everyone else on the train has cheered me right up. We’re in it together!

What shall we do, as we wait to find out the reason for today’s delay? What would you like to know about? What subjects have I yet to cover, these nine months and 97 letters past?

What’s that? My socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins? Are you sure I haven’t done that already? Or was that my Marxist reading of Thomas the Tank Engine? Ah, yes. Okay then! In brief: a socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins…

Really? I’m not sure we have enough time. We’re moving again, Mark! We’ve cleared the cooling towers at Didcot, we’re maintaining a dignified pace towards Radley and beyond… soon, Sue, the favelas and shanty towns around the eastern perimeters of Oxford shall be in sight, and with them, the promise of home!

Do we have time for my socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins? No. No, we don’t. Suffice to say she blows in on the east wind though, Mark. The east wind that blows straight from St Petersburg to the heart of the city of London! She blows in on the east wind to the household of a family called (wait for it) Banks. Banks, Sue. And before she leaves again she’s incited a riot (when young Michael chooses to give his money to a homeless woman rather than invest it in the City) and caused the Banks household to be invaded by an army of dancing chimneysweeps. After that… well, it writes itself.

But like I say – there’s no time. There’s no time, Mark! Oxford creeps into view (or it would do if it were not so dark outside – you know, what with us being 20-odd minutes behind schedule and all), the two pretty students in the seats opposite have nearly finished their bottle of wine and have stood up to adjust hemlines and straighten tights and strap on shoes and debate whether or not they should wear or carry jackets; Oxford creeps into view and the fat man in the seat in front of me has heaved himself upright and is blowing his nose (not such a pretty sight, if I’m being honest); Oxford creeps into view and I need to pack up my old kitbag and head home.

Twenty-two minutes: that was the final tally, Mark. Twenty-two minutes of my life tonight, wasted. Twenty-two minutes late, after all the effort I made to make the train in the first place.

But like I say: I’m not angry, Mark. I’m disappointed.

Au revoir!


*Oh, except Reading’s still not a city, is it, Mark? I saw it on the news. They keep trying to make Reading a city – and the people who decide these things (who exactly are these people, these citymakers?) keep telling them Reading’s not quite a city yet after all. Who got it this time? It was someplace awful, wasn’t it? Chelmsford? Is that right? The mighty city of Chelmsford? That’s just taking the mick, isn’t it? Chelmsford!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

19 March 2012. Letter 96

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 19/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! Wake up!

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning! See the sun shining for your eyes! Wake up, it’s so beautiful! For what could be the very last time!

Actually, don’t worry about that last bit. It’s not going to be the very last time, Mark. Fret not, Sue. There will be a tomorrow. There always is. That’s the problem with tomorrow – it just keeps coming. That’s the thing about tomorrow – that sucker just don’t know when to quit. Creeping in this petty pace from day to day till the last syllable of recorded time: that’s what tomorrow does alright.

But what am I saying? We’re not here to philosophomise! We have not come together on this beautiful morning in England in the spring to misquote Shakespeare and recall the lyrics of oddbod Britpop also-rans the Boo Radleys!*

These matters are of no consequence to men like us today (no offence Sue: men and women like us. Or rather men like us and women like you. Men like us and a woman like you. A letter-based ménage a trois. A train-related threesome. But not in a rude way, obviously). These things are mere distractions! We’re here, for what could be the very last time, to talk of trains!

It’s all about the First Great Western, baby, as Puff Daddy so presciently put it. And more specifically, it’s all about the First Great Western train I caught home from work last night that ended up running seven minutes later than it was supposed to.

That’s why I’m writing to you today! That’s the deal we’ve got going on! You waste seven minutes of my life on a Monday night – and so I write a letter designed to waste seven minutes of yours in return come Tuesday morning. That’s been our pact these nine months last, that’s been our story. And if it’s largely been a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – well, what isn’t, eh? (Hey, that’s a pretty good line, isn’t it? Someone should use that. Someone should write that down and use it!)

So! The trains. Oh, the trains, Mark! Sue: the trains! In this, our last week together before my work at the nation’s most popular super soaraway Sunday supplement is done and I once more ascend into the commute-free happy hunting grounds of freelancing – in this final week, here at the end of us, I was sort of hoping there would be no delays.

(I’ve been hoping that every week for the two years I’ve been commuting, Mark. If the definition of madness is repeatedly doing the same thing again and again whilst expecting a different result, then I fear it may be time to call the doctor.)

But of course that wasn’t to be. As sure as the sun rises in the morning and tomorrow follows tomorrow, there will be delays. It’s what you do, Mark! It’s what you are, Sue! And so, with that in mind, and despite the fact that I only have four more evening commutes and three more morning commutes before I quit this sorry business altogether, still, I shall not say goodbye, but merely au revoir.

I am fully confident there will be at least one more delay and one further letter to write before we snuff out this brief candle.

Until we see each other again, Mark! Catch you later, Sue!

Au revoir!


*The Boo Radleys – now there was a strange band, Sue. Don’t you think? I always get them mixed up with fellow third-division Britpoppers Dodgy. Did I ever tell you how the drummer from Dodgy (fat bloke, pork pie hat – almost certainly not the only pork pie in his life, if you know what I mean) once tried to snog the current Mrs Dom? He totally did! And she, to her eternal credit, totally didn’t.

Anyway, enough of that. The Boo Radleys: now there was a strange band. Named after a character in To Kill A Mockney Bird, by Harper Lee Beckham. All about a bloke who goes on trial falsely accused of murdering some posh type slumming it in Whitechapel in the 1820s. The whole thing is narrated by a little girl – and Boo Radley is the name of her father, who’s chief prosecutor. He hangs him in the end. Great story! I know it like the back of my hand! But strange band nonetheless. Though at least none of them ever tried to get off with my wife, to be fair.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mark: a man doing better, but still sorry. My kinda guy, in other words.

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails. We have been doing a lot better recently but I am sorry for the delays on 8, 12, 13 and 15 March.

On 8 March, a track fault was reported and trains had to follow a temporary speed restriction. Having to go more slowly led to the delay you encountered that evening. On 12 March a Network Rail vehicle knocked a signal out of its concrete footing and again, a temporary speed restriction was imposed. The signal was fixed overnight, but the speed restriction was still in place the following morning.

Yesterday morning, a Level Crossing signal near Worcester failed. Network Rail technicians quickly discovered and replaced the defective relay that was causing the problem, but not before a significant number of our services were affected. I am sorry our 08:06 from Oxford was one of these.

Thanks also for mentioning that you saw on the news that we have been converting some buffet cars into additional accommodation for our High Speed Trains. We are not removing any existing catering facilities - these are additional carriages which, once completely refurbished, will enable us to make those trains we currently run in 7 carriage formations up to 8, significantly increasing our capacity.

We are continuing to work very hard on our punctuality and I really do hope that your last week of commuting with us will be uneventful.

Thanks again for your emails.

Yours sincerely

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Thursday, 15 March 2012

15 March 2012. Letter 95

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 15/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: 13 minutes.

Mark! Sue!

Oh the train runs slow through a humdrum town! This train will drag you down! Oh the train runs sloooww… Old Morrissey knew how to write ‘em, eh? Good old Stevie M! Stevie Morrissey and Laughing Boy Marr: they knew the score and no mistaking.

But wait! I get ahead of myself! I haven’t even said hello! Mark. Sue. Hello! How the devil are you both today? Pistons gleaming? Boilers brimming? Buffers all buffed up? Good! Great! Well done! Appearance is everything in this game. Not to do good, not to be good, but to look good – that’s the way I was brought up. That’s the key to success in this sorry life.

So, where were we? Ah yes. I was sitting on a delayed train (one of your delayed trains, Mark! One of those trains you promised would run on time when I shelled out so handsomely for a ticket!) and I was tossing Smiths lyrics into your lap. Frankly Mr Hopwood this position on Coach C that I hold – it gets me to Paddington but it corrodes my soul… I was happy in the carriage of a Cross Country express service, but this is a First Great Western train and heaven knows I’m miserable now… Why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?

(That last one wasn’t strictly about trains at all, but it is the greatest lyric in the whole of pop music history, so I figured what the hey. Allow me this one small indulgence. Sue will understand. Sometimes it’s just about the art of it all, isn’t it Sue? Sometimes it’s just about the beauty of the words we use, and not their relevance to anything we’re actually trying to say.)

Anyway. I’m on a train in the morning trundling towards Didcot Parkway and we’re already way behind schedule. The train turned up late, Mark, it left Oxford late, Sue, and if it doesn’t eventually arrive into London Paddington late then my name’s Denis Bergkamp. How late will we be? I’ll let you know when we get there. When we get to the end. But my money’s on substantially so.

I tell you what though lads. I’m glad I finally got to quote some of old Mozza’s oeuvre at you! I’m pleased I managed to squeeze in the Mozzarella at the end, as it were. Now if I can only find a way to get a Half Man Half Biscuit lyric (second best band out of Liverpool after Echo & The Bunnymen, Sue: fact) into one of these letters I can retire from this whole shizzle a happy man.

(I know just the verse too: “Time flies by when you’re the driver of a train / speeding out to Trumpton with a cargo of cocaine / I get high when I’m the pilot of a plane / touching down in Camberwick I’m stoned out of my brain”… but I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever get to use it now. Such a shame. Such a waste, Sue!)

I’ve only got six days of commuting left, after today, Mark! A week and a day! I bet you can’t wait, right? I bet Sue’s knocked up a kind of impromptu Advent Calendar to count down the days. Did you put chocolates behind each door, Sue? I do hope so!

But I’ve been thinking. You know what I should do? Once I’ve stopped writing you letters, I mean. I should hand the baton on! (That’s a metaphorical baton, Mark.) I should pass on the responsibility for letting you know how much of your customers’ time you’re wasting to someone younger and more vigorous than myself.

Have you ever heard about the Dread Pirate Roberts, Mark? No? Let me tell you about the Dread Pirate Roberts. (Don’t worry, there’s a point to this.)

Basically, back in the early 20th century, in what historians now call the Golden Age of Sail, when galleons crossed the Atlantic to the new world, the seas around the Spanish Main were terrorised by pirates – and the most terrifying pirate of all was the Dread Pirate Roberts. Tales of his skill and cunning and ruthlessness and cruelty were legion. His name struck fear into child and adult alike. None could face the Dread Pirate Roberts and not quake in their boots! His ship could not be sunk and he could not be killed! For fully 200 years he ruled the waves.

How did he rule the waves for 200 years, Sue? By constantly reinventing himself! Every time he got too old, or too tired, or actually was killed, or his ship actually was sunk, a new Dread Pirate Roberts simply sprang up in his place. He passed the baton on. And so there was always a Dread Pirate Roberts – and so the legend of his immortality was created.

Good eh? Interestingly, back in the early 1990s, popular music duo The Pet Shop Boys mooted the idea of doing a similar thing. They were going to retire, and another two (younger) men – one moody keyboard-prodder, one sulky singer – would take over as the Pet Shop Boys 2.0. And a decade later they too would be succeeded by another two lads… and so on. And that way there would always be a Pet Shop Boys – from the mid 1980s to the end of recorded time (and recorded music).

Even more interestingly (and this is totally true, by the way) – do you know who they originally identified as the best candidates to take over from them? Can you guess who they wanted to become Pet Shop Boys version 2.0?

Ant and Dec!

I know, Sue. No need to say it, Mark. Let’s just leave it there and wonder what might have been, eh?

So anyway: I’ve been thinking. Should I do the same? Should I make like the Pet Shop Boys nearly did? Should I follow the lead of the Dread Pirate Roberts? Should Dom writing to Mark and Sue become “Dom” writing to you both?

I could hold auditions, Sue! I could advertise for the position! What sort of person would I fancy passing my baton on to? I’d need an extensive interview process to find out! I’d need a casting couch!

Ideally, I’m thinking it needs to be someone with honours degrees in astronomy, meteorology, classical studies, history, popular music and train management. Also someone with deep-seated emotional issues which can only be expressed through overuse of the exclamation mark. Also, I think it should be a girl. And most importantly, I think, a really fit girl.

Someone dead fit, who is nonetheless not too fussy about other people’s looks, and who is willing to do literally anything to get this gig. That’s the kind of person I want to get on my casting couch!

It could be like Britain’s Got Talent, Mark! It could be like the X Factor! I could take the successful hopefuls to Boot Camp! I could put the last 12 of them into the live finals and make them perform for me! Sit! Stand! Beg and roll over! Give me 1000 words on Napoleon Bonaparte’s role in the battle of Iwo Jima with reference to at least six indie classics from the 80s and a Happy Mondays lyric! Also, sit on delayed trains every day and feel your life slipping pointlessly away like the last dregs of dirty bathwater down the plughole. It’s 110 per cent yes from me!

What do you think? Or should I just go for Ant and Dec instead? Ant? Or Dec? The little cheeky one or the other feller?

You know what? I’m going to leave it up to you to decide. I’ll hold off calling either Ant or Dec until I hear from you. (It’s tricky: Ant is definitely the funnier of the two, but Dec does have that Masters in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Jesus College, Oxford, so, y’know…) And in the meantime, I’ll give any other promising candidates a good grilling myself…

Oh! Almost forgot! Today’s train – I promised you an update! We got to London Paddington 13 minutes late, in the end. We never did make up that time. In fact, we lost more time. Through the dank fog of a glorious English spring morning, we pootled and puttered eastwards, ever later, always more delayed. But what can you do? C’est la vie, Mark! C’est la guerre!

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

13 March 2012. Letter 94

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 13/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

What up, Mark? Sue: how you doin’?

I hope you’re doin’ good, Sue. I hope you’re doing real good. And also, that you’re well. You too, Mark! I hope you’re doing real good and doing real well also!

Look! We’ve reached number 94! And this despite the ongoing conversion of buffet cars into seating coaches in the ultra-hi-tech labs of Strathclyde or Kilmarnock or Balamory or wherever the dickens it was. We’ve reached letter number 94 in nine months of childishness and wasted literary effort! We’ve reached number 94 and by my calculations I’ve lost over a full day and night to your shoddy service – and in return, given you a fair old headache (and a primer in English history and basic meteorology) back.

We’ve reached letter number 94 and for the most part we’re back where we started. Except that we’re all a little older, a little more beaten up and beaten down by life; we’re all a touch more jaded, a smidgen more knocked down and fitted up by existence; we’re all, in summary, significantly less good-looking than when we started. Even me!

But on the other hand… there’s that history stuff and that meteorology stuff and you’ve learned a few new pop lyrics, right? So, you know, every cloud...

But enough lazy introspection! Enough of this self-examination! Let us cast our three gazes away from our navels and concentrate.

One last push, Mark! One last effort to get it right, eh? That’s the spirit, lads! That’s the kind of vim that got us over the beaches at Gallipoli (one of the great triumphs of the Wars of the Roses, was Gallipoli, Mark. We sure showed Johnny Scot what English steel was at Gallipoli! And it led directly to the dawning of the Enlightenment! There would have been no Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello or the other one without Gallipoli!) – and that’s the kind of backbone that’s going to get us through this troublesome time with the trains!

Besides, Sue: how can a bunch of optimists such as us dwell on our all-too-obvious shortcomings when the sun’s shining so gloriously? (Admittedly, it’s not shining this morning… but it will, Sue! Oh, it will!)

How can three roister-doistering young roustabouts such as ourselves even entertain the idea that the world may not be a riot of wonderful colours when the skies outside are a riot of, well, wonderful blue? How can a trio of young turks such as us fail to be enticed by the brighter side of life when all around us the flowers are screaming their joy?

Mark! Sue! It’s spring, dudes! Here comes the summer! In barely a fortnight it shall be April Fools Day and, as any high-ranking astronomer will tell you, it’s on April Fools Day that the planets of Uranus, Ursa Minor, The Big Dipper and Tatooine align each year and so herald the start of 100 days of glorious British sunshine.

(It’s true, Mark: I read it in Brian Cox’s Big Book of the Stars. Not Professor Brian Cox, obviously. The other Brian Cox. The actor one.

You know! Brian Cox! He was in X2: X-Men United (what a movie, Sue!) He played opposite Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom in the in-no-way-catering-for-the-homosexual-market Troy. He was the Trojan Horse: I think Agamemnon was his name (good boy, Agamemnon! Good horse! Have a sugar lump! Have a groom! Now, hold steady and let’s get this Greek army inside you. Woah there! Wooaaahh there Agamemnon!) That’s right! That Brian Cox! Much better than that other floppy haired fop. Proper, muscular astronomer is Brian Cox!)

So yes! It’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius, meteorologically-speaking, and so I shall stay relentlessly optimistic from now on! I won’t, for example, dwell on my latest delay (and let’s be honest, the raison d’etre for this letter). I won’t, for example, expound upon the fact that today we went all slow and stupid around Reading, trundled tiredly along towards Slough, fatally paused by Hayes and Harlington and limped into London Paddington seven minutes late.

I won’t tell you about any of that stuff!



I feel embarrassed now, Sue. I feel I’ve spoiled the moment, Mark. I’ll go now. I’ll go quietly…

Au revoir!


Monday, 12 March 2012

12 March 2012. Letter 93

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 12/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow! There’s a smell of sweet freshly cut grass in the air! All across the allotments, people dig and hoe and sow. The spring man springeth!

It’s lovely isn’t it, Sue? It gladdens the heart. And there’s more! There’s more to make the heart still gladder!

Guess what I saw, on Friday night, as I nodded off on the sofa, face down in my stir-fry and with the dregs of a bottle of Aldi Mediterranean Red staining the bowl of my glass? On the local news? Guess who I saw, straddling the local news like a Colossus, striding through a depot in Strathclyde? (Strathclyde? What on earth is a First Great Western depot doing in Strathclyde? Are there no depots a bit more local that would do? I’ve just about had enough of these Strathclydians, coming down here – or worse, demanding our trains be taken up there – stealing our jobs, taking our women, drinking our pints, fixing up our trains… who do they think they are, eh?)

Dude! I saw you! I totally saw you, Mark! There you were, on my television screen, in my living room, in glorious talking technicolour! You were on Oxford Tonight, Mark (beamed from Strathclyde) – and the wonder of it shook me out of my soy-sauce-and-cheap-plonk stupor and sat me bolt upright!

(I couldn’t see you, Sue, but I assume you were there somewhere, just off camera, whispering instructions, giving direction, making sure everyone was sticking to the agreed spin… I assume you were there, Sue, like a less-angry Alastair Campbell to Mark’s less-crooked Tony Blair.)

Well done, the both of you!

What were you talking about? Something to do with converting buffet cars to seating coaches? (That would explain the need to be in Strathclyde – they’re famed for their abilities to convert buffet cars to seating coaches up there. You just can’t get that kind of expertise anywhere south of Solihull.) Is that what it was?

Is that the big solution, Mark? Is that the easy fix to the problem of our collapsing rail network? It wasn’t about joined-up operator/infrastructure thinking, or proper investment, or upgrading, or not putting profits before service, or even admitting that the only people who have benefitted from the scandalous privatisation of the railways have been exactly the sort of people who would never dream of travelling less than first class in the first place?

It wasn’t any of that, after all!

It turns out all we had to do was haul our sorry stock up to Strathclyde, rip out all the coffee machines and little fridges full of triple-priced Mars Bars, bin all those little counter units and cupboards full of inedible sandwiches, bung in a bunch of seats, paper over the cracks, paint over the damp patch, stick a band-aid on the open wound, white up the sepulchre and Bob’s our uncle!

Brillo, Mark! Bazinga, Sue! To think the solution was there all along, situated between standard and first class, as they say, and available for hot and cold beverages, sandwiches and snacks! Or, er, not available for drinks and snacks any more!

I’m only sorry I won’t be around to witness the wonder of it all. The irony, Mark! The Morrisette-churning irony of it all! Ten thousand buffet cars when all we needed was a seat!

It made my Friday night, Sue! As my head dropped back onto my chest and the last of the red wine dribbled into a sad puddle on my lap and bits of stir-fry fell between the cushions on the sofa and the current Mrs Utton snored softly beside me, I fell asleep on my sofa with a smile on my face.

You’ve finally done it, Mark! You’ve fixed the trains. Now we can sit! We may be hungry, but we can sit! No longer will our trains be delayed! No longer will they turn up late, and go slower than they should, and arrive late, and make us late for work and make us late to get home and so be responsible for getting us a roasting from our editors or a sorrowful sigh from the ones we love!

Because once the buffet cars are converted, they will ensure that… um, they will be directly responsible for… er, they will…

Mark? Sue? You know these buffet cars you’re converting? They will make the trains run on time, won’t they? They will ensure that, as well as more people being able to get the seat they paid for (by my calculations, about half the people standing, on some of the services I’ve had to endure), those people will also get the on-time train they paid for, right?

Mark. Sue. It’s lovely about the buffet cars, and splendid for the much-underemployed buffet-car-converters of Strathclyde… but one nagging question remains. Will the trains run on time now?

Au revoir!


Ps – Oh, nearly forgot to mention. My train was delayed by seven minutes this morning. Those converted buffet cars can’t come soon enough, eh?