Thursday, 22 December 2011

STOP PRESS! Letter 70: an addendum!

Mark! Sue! My apologies! It was the 19.22 that was delayed by 13 minutes last night - not the 18.51, as I previously stated. I was on the 19.22, Mark! Not the 18.51!

I am more embarrassed than you can possibly imagine by this slip. Although I was still delayed by 13 minutes, so, y'know, the point remains the same. Please accept my apologies.

Merry Christmas!


21 December 2011. Letter 70

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 21/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 13 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Seasons greetings! Ho, ho, and indeed, ho! Guess what time of the year it is? No, seriously, guess. Go on, guess! Guess, Mark! Sue! Gue- oh, right. Yes. Christmas. You got it. Who told you?

Christmas time is coming, Mark! And that means only one thing. Mistletoe. And wine! Two things! Mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme! Three things, then. Christmas time is coming, Sue, and that means only three things: mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme, logs on the fire and gifts by the tree. So five things, then. Christmas is coming! The five things of Christmas are upon us! Sir Clifford knew the score, alright!

Hey, guess what, Mark! I’m on a train! And my train is delayed! And because I’m on a train and my train is delayed, I’m writing you a letter to tell you about it all. Because you’re wasting my time, I’m wasting your time in return! That’s what Christmas is all about, Mark – the season of taking. And just as the baby Jesus took the gifts of gold, frankinwhatsit and thingy off the three wise men, so I’m taking time off you. The same time you’ve taken off me.

Makes you feel all warm inside, doesn’t it? Makes you feel like a better person. Do you feel like a better person, Sue? You do? What’s wrong with the person you’ve got already?*

Anyway. Because it’s Christmas, Mark, and because I’m feeling an affinity for the baby Jesus, Sue, I’ve decided to give you an extra gift. My train home last Thursday – it was 17 minutes late. I know, dudes! Seventeen minutes! That’s not a trifling delay, Mark. That’s not an insignificant stretch of my day, Sue. That’s a weighty chunk of time, that is. Go on, feel it! (Metaphorically, Sue: we’re metaphorically feeling time here. You can’t actually literally feel time, silly! You can feel it passing you by, sure, you can feel its effects as it passes, its wrinkles and ravages, its destructive path through your sorry life, its scorched earth policy on your face and hair and fatally fading physical attractiveness… oh, you can feel the effects of time alright, but you can’t physically feel a chunk of time. Of course you can’t!)

Where was I? Oh yes. Feel my chunk of time, Sue! Go on, feel it! It’s pretty hefty, no? It’s… chunky! It’s got width and breadth and depth and girth, this chunk of time of mine. It feels… significant, doesn’t it? That 17 minutes of mine: it feels like a significant chunk of time. And now it’s yours. You took it last Thursday.

But! As I said, it’s Christmas! Or, as the more religiously-minded among us like to have it, it’s Winterval! It’s the holidays! It’s festivus! And because it’s that special time of the year, I’ve decided to give you a special present. My 17 minute delay last Thursday – I’ve decided not to write you a letter about it. I’ve decided to give you a gift better than any boy, girl, fat man from the North or wise man from the East will ever give you again: I’ve given you 17 minutes of time.

Use it wisely, young Skywalker. I mean, Hopwood. Don’t go throwing it away. Don’t waste it, whatever you do.

Anyway: you’re welcome. And I should stress at this point that my decision to grant you this bounteous bounty has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I mostly spent the day after that delay in a state of alcohol-induced over-excitement at the office Christmas party. I would like to make it clear that my decision to gift you this most precious of gifts is in no way related to the fact that for most of that Friday I was too busy eating and drinking and making merry and shouting and showing off and showing out to bother sitting down to write a bunch of stuff to you about how rubbish your trains are.

No. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all. My lack of a letter following last Thursday night’s delay – it’s a gift. A Christmas gift for you, in the words of the great Phil Spector.

But then, you know what it’s like at a party, right? Nobody wants to see a man in a corner scowling at a laptop at the office Christmas party. Did you have a Christmas party this year, Mark? Did you deck out the First Great Western Operational Command Centre in boughs of holly? Was there dancing, Sue? Were the boys from the FGW choir singing Galway Bay? Were the FGW bells ringing out for Christmas Day?

Was it a terribly debauched affair, Mark? Was there bad behaviour, Sue? Red cheeks and regrets by midnight? Apologies and explanations muttered in the morning? Was disciplinary action required?

Good. Great! Well done! Those are the best kinds of parties, aren’t they? Fighting, snogging, rum and the lash! It’s not a proper party unless someone does something for which they’ll be forever ashamed, right? Who was it this year, Mark? Who got the tongues wagging this Christmas, Sue? Who got the party started right? Ain’t no party like an FGW party!

Or was it an altogether more sober gathering? Did you figure: this has been no year to celebrate? This has not been a year to remember for First Great Western. Did you look back on your performance over the previous 12 months and think: it would be shaming to pretend we have anything to be proud of here? Did you review your service for 2011 and come to the inescapable conclusion that to throw any kind of party would seem, well, unseemly?

I do hope not, Mark! I do hope you didn’t let the workers take the rap for the failings of management! It’s not their fault, Mark! It’s yours! They’re just doing as they’re told… it’s not like they run the company or anything, is it? No. Let the workers have their party, Mark! Let them blow off a bit of steam!

It was the same at our place, truth be told. It’s been an up-and-down kind of year where I work, as you can imagine. But the people I work with: we’ve done alright. We’ve done our jobs. What happens upstairs is beyond our control, or, to be honest, comprehension. Me and the girls have just got down to the daily grind,

(They are mostly girls, Sue. I work in an office full of girls! All the skirt! All the chicks, the babes, the ladies! All the honeys! The talent, Sue, the totty! The eye-candy! It’s a good job I’m such an enlightened man, Sue, it’s a blessing I’m so thoroughly un-sexist and pro-feminism! I only wish I could say the same for them. You wouldn’t believe, Mark, how many times each day I have to remind my colleagues that I am a person too, with feelings, with emotions, with a mind of my own… and not just something for them to stare at and daydream over. I may be a man, Mark, but I’m more than just a piece of meat, y’know? I expect you get that a lot too. It’s awful isn’t it? Those birds can make a man feel so… demeaned!)

But I digress! I may be little more than a tantalisingly unavailable fantasy figure to the girls at work, but where we’re concerned it’s all professional. Nothing but business, Sue! So: to business.

My train home last night was delayed by 13 minutes. And so I’m going to write you a letter lasting- what’s that you say? We’ve already used up 13 minutes? Good heavens! How did that happen? My tongue must have run away with me!

In that case, I shall simply wish you both a merry Christmas and a lovely, punctual, New Year. I hope you both get everything you wish for. And when next I write it will be 2012! And my ticket will have gone up by 30-odd quid a month! I can hardly wait!

Au revoir!


*Sorry. That joke was brought to you by the year 1982. A good year – but not for jokes, sadly.

Hark! It's Mark!

Dear Dom

Thanks for your emails regarding the delays to your journeys this week.

On Monday, our 18:51 was held up by a failed train at Paddington. As it left late, the delay escalated further as it negotiated the rest of its journey. On Tuesday, our 08:06 was delayed when the train in front developed a circuit breaker defect. It then encountered a track problem near Slough. On Thursday, our 08:06, which started late due to a problem on its previous journey, was further delayed by a person found walking the tracks near Ladbroke Grove.

I don't want your time to be wasted and as much as I welcome the opportunity to correspond with you, I really would prefer it if we gave you no cause for complaint.

I hope you will accept my apologies.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Thursday, 15 December 2011

15 December 2011. Letter 69

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 15/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 23 minutes.

Hey, Mark and Sue! What are you sad about? Every day you make the sun come out! Even in the pouring rain, I come to see you! Hope your feelings are the same!

(Too obscure? Oh well. I forget sometimes: not everyone’s from Manchester. Not everyone can recall Charlatans lyrics at will. Don’t feel bad. It’s not you, Mark and Sue, it’s me. I ask too much, sometimes, with my pop cultural references. It’s an habitual failing. It’s a hard habit to break.)

Anyway! Enough musical meanderings! I’m on another one of your delayed trains! In the cold gold glow of an Oxford dawn, I board your train already late! The train was delayed before I even got on it, to be honest, Mark. And now it’s creeping along the track, tiptoeing towards London as if self-consciously aware of the early hour, as if fearful of waking anyone up.

Sshhh! It seems to be saying. Don’t mind me! If I go really sloooowly, maybe nobody will notice me at all…

But forget all that, Mark! Forget it, Sue, because we have exciting news today!

The exciting news today, is that the train is in (wait for it) Reverse Formation!

I know! Dudes! Sweet! Reverse Formation! The front is at the back and the back is at the front! At its beginning is its end! Reverse Formation! Everything we thought we knew about the formation of trains is wrong! The rulebook’s being rewritten! Reverse Formation, Mark! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

So excited was I about today’s reversely formed train, that I briefly considered composing this whole letter in Reverse Formation. I was going to write the whole thing backwards, Sue! I was going to start with “Au revoir!” and finish with “Dear Mark and Sue”.

But then I thought… perhaps that would be taking things too far. (I’d hate to take things too far, Sue!) I thought: sometimes you can be too clever, you know? And I’d hate to overegg the pudding. I’d hate to let the style obscure the substance. I’d hate to let form take over from content. I’d hate for this letter to become like what one of my most reprehensibly unreconstructed acquaintances describes as “Monet girls”: that certain sort of lady who looks beautiful from a certain distance… but up close is just a bit of a mess.

I’d hate that, Mark! I don’t want my letter to be a Monet girl! I want it to be like a painting by a proper artist! Like Harris. Or Hart. Or even Maker. (Have you ever seen Mr Maker, Mark? CBeebies, twice a day every day. Freeview Channel 71. He’s ace! Good at painting stuff and always cheerful. That’s what you want from your artists, Mark! A smile every now and then! Too many of them are too miserable for my liking! Oi! Vincent! Cheer up, son, might never happen! I said: cheer up! Cheer up! I said… what are you, deaf or summink?)

Anyway. Reverse Formation, Mark! I love a bit of the old Reverse Formation, Sue! It sounds so… epic!

Picture it now…

The Empire’s forces are too strong and our last rebel stronghold is under attack! We need to take the fight to Vader but how can we ever stand a chance against the mighty Death Star, Admiral Ackbar? “We shall use Reverse Formation, young Skywalker. Darth Vader will never be expecting that. With our X-wing fighters in Reverse Formation, the Dark Side of the Force will turn in on itself and the whole Alderaan System will be saved!”

Right then, captain Carlos Alberto Torres, how are we to annihilate Italy 4-1 in the final of this 1970 World Cup and so become the greatest football team the world has ever known? “The plan, young Jairzinho, will be to use Reverse Formation. With Reverse Formation we shall introduce the planet to samba football and change the game forever! Also – give the ball to the boy Pele whenever you can.”

But Admiral Willy Nelson – the Spanish Armada outnumbers us 500 boats to one! How will we ever defend England from their terrifying continental attack and save democracy? “Fear not, Queen Elizabeth II! I shall employ the little-known strategy of Reverse Formation! With Reverse Formation we shall give these paella-sucking savages the watery hiding of their lives!”

Hey Ringo! The music hall section in the middle of Day In The Life just isn’t working! Should we abandon the whole of the Sergeant Pepper album and get proper jobs? “No, John, no! Why not simply play it in Reverse Formation? And while you’re here – have I introduced you to my friend Yoko?”

Reverse Formation, Mark! The most magicallest, most wonderfullest formation there is!

Reverse Forma- Oh! Hello! What’s all this?

This train has stopped, Mark. Something is afoot. I was expecting a delay of around 10 minutes today, I was weighting this letter accordingly… but the train has stopped. Time keeps ticking! The minutes stack up like Pringles in a tube! Once you pop, Sue, you can’t stop!

Except we have stopped. We’re stuck in that no-man’s land, that bandit country, that forbidden zone between Ealing Broadway and Acton. It looks grim out there, Mark. It looks cold and frightening. There be dragons, Mark!

Anyway. The badlands between Ealing and Acton are out there, and I’m in here and it seems I’ve got a little more time of yours to waste today after all.

Oh, Mark! Oh, Sue! Aren’t we the lucky ones! The monkeys aren’t going to be happy, mind; the 36 typewriting letter-monkeys aren’t going to be happy at all. Back to your workstations, little monkeys! Get band-aids on those blistered fingers and start typing again!

I’ve been thinking, as it happens, Mark. These monkeys. I grow weary of these monkeys. I might sack the simians, Sue. I might axe the apes. I might serve P45s to the primates. As Queen Victoria herself said: will nobody rid me of these turbulent monkeys?

Penguins, Mark! They’re the thing now! It’s all about penguins! I’ve got a contact in the same zoo in Baden Baden where they filmed all those episodes of Frozen Planet: he reckons now they’ve been busted, Attenborough’s got no use for them anymore. He can source me 48 iPadding penguins for a couple of Euros and a free plug on the blog.*

What do you think, lads? Monkeys or penguins? Penguins or monkeys? Funny-faced anthropological ancestors of ours… or iPad-wielding, happy-feeted, cuddly black-and-white pole-dwellers?

I shall welcome any thoughts you have on this, Mark. I will value all feedback, Sue… and I’ll let you know of my decision in another letter. But for the moment, the monkeys must keep writing. Needs must when the trains are stopped, Mark!

Besides: I can’t let them go just yet. Tomorrow’s their Monkey Christmas Party, Mark – tomorrow’s the day the monkeys get to cut loose, tuck into their festive dinners, pull their little monkey crackers and celebrate the end of another wonderful monkey year. They’ve got Secret Monkey Santa and everything, Sue! (They’ll all be getting bananas, of course, same as every year. That’s the problem with monkeys – no imagination.) And after all the eating and drinking and cracker-pulling and other monkey business, the Monkey Nativity Play. Never fails to bring a lump to my throat.

But I digress! Again! Once more! Encore une fois! I ramble and drivel, I veer from the point and stray from the path! You don’t care about the Monkey Nativity Play, Mark! Secret Monkey Santa holds no interest for you, Sue! You’re here, I’m here, we’re here, for one reason only.

Fate has thrown us together, comrades! For a single, noble purpose! To promote the work of Blind Willie McBeverage, the great-great-grandaddy of funk and soul!

Oh no, hang on. Wrong letter. Sorry. I’ll cut and paste.

Fate has thrown us together, comrades! For a single, noble purpose! To work out together how we might improve this laughable franchise we call First Great Western!

So. How should we do it? Shall we throw it to the floor? Shall we take turns to pitch our ideas? Good. Great!

Sue. You first.



No? Cat got your tongue? Come over all shy? Mind gone blank?

Ok. Don’t worry. Mark: why don’t you have a go? Tell me, Mark – how can we improve First Great Western? How can we make it the kind of train company we’d be proud to call a train company? How can we strive to run the trains on time? How can we make this impossible dream of running trains on time a reality? How do we dare to dream, Mark?

I look forward to hearing! Seriously! The train is inching forwards again, I’m only going to be, ooh, what, 20-odd minutes late for work today, and I genuinely can’t wait to hear your ideas as to how you might get the trains running on time for once.

Until then! And as they say in Baden Baden, “Hier in die augen, kid!” (Or according to Google translate they do, anyway.)

Au revoir!


* Baden Baden zoo – it’s the best darn zoo in the foothills of the Black Forest! Come to Baden Baden zoo for all your zoological needs! Baden Baden zoo: sind wir in den zoo der konige!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Oops! A letter from Mark I forgot to post!

To be fair, it popped into my inbox four days after Mark sent it. Which has its own irony...

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails last week.

On 2 December, our 18:51 from Paddington was delayed when a failed train caused an obstruction. Our 08:06 on 8 December was late due to a delay on the Bourne End branch line (an earlier signal fault) and coming back that evening our 19:22 was held up whilst the signalling at Southall was examined. The delay then escalated from there.

Three very frustrating delays. Please accept my apologies.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

13 December 2011. Letter 68

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 13/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Greetings! Greetings and salutations! Are we well? Are we doing real good? Are we up and at ‘em? First out of the blocks? Are we feeling fast today, Mark? Are we feeling as fast as, for example, Mel Gibson in Gallipoli? What are your trains, Mark? Springs! Steel springs! What are they going to do? Hurl us down the track! How fast can they run? As fast as a leopard! How fast are they going to run? As fast as a leopard!

(Top film, Mark. A big hit at Monkey Film Club. It’s no Lethal Weapon 3, obviously, but it’s certainly no disgrace to the Gibson oeuvre.)

I digress. I write, Mark, not about fast trains, but about slow trains. About trains that are supposed to be fast trains and end up being slow trains. Your trains, Mark! (Yours too, Sue! There’s plenty train to go around! Unless you want to sit down, of course… in which case there’s not really enough train to go around. But still. No reason not to include you. It’s your fault, too, Sue! Please don’t think for a minute that I don’t consider the substandard service you’re delivering not to be your fault too!* I do, Sue! You’re Director of Communications for First Great Western trains, Sue! With great power comes great responsibility. Yoda said that. Though probably rather less grammatically.)

My train yesterday morning, Mark: it was delayed. Even as I was still reeling from the 29 minute debacle on Monday evening, my journey to work the following morning was delayed. By 10 minutes. And it says something when your first reaction is to think, “Oh, it’s only 10 minutes,” doesn’t it? It’s still 10 minutes, lads!

In Japan there would be mass hari-kari after a 10-minute delay. In Switzerland there would be instant economic meltdown. In Germany, a 10-minute delay to a train journey would spark a national questioning of identity akin only to the death of Princess Diana in this country, the assassination of JFK in America, or the introduction of the five-day working week in France.

And yet, here, today, where your company is concerned, a 10-minute delay is almost greeted with relief. Relief that it’s not a 20-minute delay. Or a 30-minute delay. Should we be grateful for the minor delays, Mark? Have we become the abused partner in an abused relationship, pathetically relieved that at least these bruises don’t show, afraid of making a fuss in case things turn worse?

Instead of mithering on about my messed-up journeys like I do, should I instead be counting my blessings, Mark? Should I be happy I get to work, or get home from work, at all?

Should I be thinking: I’m young! (I’m not that young, anymore, Mark. I remember Top of the Pops, dude! I remember taping the Top 40… on a Tuesday! Do you remember when the new pop charts were on a Tuesday? Why were the new pop charts on a Tuesday? Whose idea was that?) I’m healthy! (Barring the old gyp, the gripe, the general gamminess.) I’m loved! (You better believe it, Sue.) So what if my train is delayed every other journey or so? The world is my lobster, right? And not one of those sad lobsters you see out of the sea, with their claws all taped up, screaming as they hit the boiling pot… No, not a bad lobster! The world is my good lobster! What have I got to moan about?

Perhaps you’re right, Mark. Perhaps you’ve hit the knob on the head, Sue. Perhaps I should shut up and take it like a man. Perhaps I should accept that hoping to get what I pay for is an entirely unrealistic ambition. Perhaps I should learn that second-best (or third, or fourth, or whatever, in fact, I’m offered) is good enough. Perhaps the idea of a massively profitable company providing a service to its customers anything like what they claim to be doing is the stuff of daydreams and laughably ingenuous sixth-form-level idealism.

It’s certainly a poser, Mark! It’s given me a lot to think about, Sue! I shall chew it over in my mind the next time I’m staring blankly at Slough or Didcot, waiting for my train to start moving again. It shall become the central philosophical conundrum of my commute, Mark! Should the fact that things aren’t worse for me make me grateful for the fact that they’re not as good as they should be?

What do you think, Mark? How about you, Sue?

And also, while we’re at it, and referring back to my very first paragraph, because it’s been gnawing away at me this whole journey as I’ve been writing, is “salutations” actually a word? Greetings and salutations? Salutations. Sal-ewe-tay-shuns.

Is it a word? I’ve got the feeling Christian Slater says it in Heathers, but I’m not sure. Did I imagine that? Have I been imagining quotes from Christian Slater movies? Is that how bad things have got?

If you have the answer to that question, or any of the other questions I’ve asked in this letter, I’d love to hear it!

Au revoir!


*Crikey, there was an awful lot of negatives in that sentence, wasn’t there? All don’t this and not that. Not very clear communicating, was it, Sue? Tut! Not the kind of communicating you would endorse, I’m sure. We don’t do negatives at First Great Western, do we? We communicate the positives, right? Or we don’t communicate at all. Which may go some way to explaining your apparent writer’s block these last five months…

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

12 December 2011. Letter 67

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 12/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 29 minutes.

Ah, Mark! Sue! There you are!

How are you? Where does the morning find you? Queuing for coffee and a chocolate croissant, are we? (I always ask for “chocolate croissant” rather than “pain au chocolate”. It’s faintly embarrassing asking for “pain au chocolate,” don’t you find, Mark? It’s all a bit, ooh, get him, the linguist! Easier by far to give it a bit of the old “chocolate croissant”. Given the choice between looking all fancypants and coming across as an ignoramus, I’d choose ignoramus every time. Wouldn’t you, Mark?)

Or have you been at your desks since the first crack of the morning? Have you been up with the lark, logged in and booted up and ready to roll before the first rosy-fingered touch of the dawn? Good for you! Well done! The early bird catches the worm, Mark! Although, of course, the second mouse gets the cheese.

Hey, wanna hear something a little far out? Although it’s morning as you read this – it’s still only evening as I write! It’s yesterday, dudes! I’m sitting on a train tap-tip-tappity-tripping these words out to you… and it’s still Monday evening! I’m sitting on a delayed train as we speak! I’m having to guess just how delayed it’s going to end up being… but seeing as we started off nine minutes late, I’m guessing it’s going to be, what’s the word? Substantial. Significant. Double figures at least.

What do you think? How many minutes will you take from me today? How much time of yours will I be forced to waste in return? Shall we play a guessing game, Mark? Shall we have a sweepstake, Sue? What fun!

Oh – hang on, you already know. It’s tomorrow where you are! You’ll have read the reports already, the morning briefings, the logs, tallies, rap sheets. You’ll already be fully up to speed (pun totally intended, Sue! I love a pun, as you know… did I ever tell you the one about the girl who went into a bar and asked for a double entendre? No? Oh well, another time, maybe).

It’s confusing, isn’t it? This time-displacement thing, I mean – not the running of an adequate train company. Though I imagine that’s quite confusing too, I certainly couldn’t do it. I’d get far too confused! Do you get confused, Mark?

That aside: this time-displacement thing – it’s confusing! How is Tuesday, Mark? What’s happened overnight? Have the hurricanes come? Do the winds whip our hair? Do the rains blanket us in grey and gloom? Are the snows upon us yet? Has Nick Clegg reappeared? Does Europe still have a currency to speak of? Is Monsieur Sarkozy still in a huff? (Hey, Sarko: it’s always gonna be chocolate croissant for us, me old china plate! None of yer fancy pain au chocolate here, merci beaucoup!)

Have we vetoed anything new overnight, Mark? Is there anything left to veto?

(I exercised my veto at the weekend, as it happens, Mark. Twenty-six of my mates wanted to go down the pub. I exercised my veto not to go down the pub. So they all went down the pub without me. But I bet it was rubbish – and I saved a few quid. So who’s the silly one now, eh? Exactly!)

Anyway: enough time travel and laboured attempts at political satire. We’re not here to discuss the space-time continuum, Mark – even despite Sue’s recent vay-cay in the fourth dimension. We’re not here to clumsily ape the searing social commentary of a mid-1980s, perm-haired, sparkly-suited Ben Elton. We’re not here to have fun, Mark! Heaven forbid! I don’t pay my 36 typewriting letter-monkeys to have fun! They’re here to work!

They earn their peanuts by carefully, precisely, pedantically and alliteratively (where possible) making the point, day after day, week after week, letter after letter, just what it’s like having your time needlessly wasted. They’re jibbering and jabbering and yammering and yelping and screeching and flailing at the typewriter keys solely to illustrate to you, as Managing Director of the company which is wasting so much of my time (over 15 hours since the end of June, Sue, as I’m sure you haven’t forgotten!) just how boring and tedious and frustrating and impotent-anger-inducing having your time wasted so pointlessly can be.

Nobody’s having fun here, Mark. Not me. Not the monkeys. (Their life is hellish, Mark, I don’t mind telling you. If anyone were to ever set up any kind of Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, I’d find myself in a whole lot of hot water where the monkeys are concerned. But until someone does… well then the monkeys are mine to do what I like with! I’m like a God to these monkeys, Mark! Write faster, little monkeys! Write harder! Now dance for me! Sit! Stand! Beg! Roll over!)

I’m sure you’re not having any fun, Mark. I’m almost certain Sue isn’t. I expect even the people you employ at your official First Great Western complaints and customer feedback centre, to whom I always cc these letters, aren’t having any fun. I expect that you, Sue, the feedback people and the monkeys would all like nothing more than for these letters to stop.

Guess what, Mark! Me too! I’d love these letters to stop! I’m sick and tired of having my time wasted like this! I’m bored to tears with the wasted hours of my life spent on your trains! There are nights when I could scream with frustration at it! There are mornings I could weep into my copy of the Super Soaraway with the stupidity of it all! And every time I renew my monthly season ticket, Mark, every time I punch those four digits into the card reader and see my bank balance deplete by another £450 or so, I ask myself: is this what it’s all about? Alfie?

Mark. Sue. My name is not even Alfie. That’s how bad things have got. I don’t even know anyone called Alfie. I’m not sure Alfie is a very good film, even. Is it? Is it really? (Not the Jude Law remake, obviously. That’s clearly just self-indulgent, ego-pandering, dismally-acted rubbish. I mean the original version.) I mean – it’s got a kitsch, retro, rose-tinted nostalgic charm… it’s got Michael Caine looking great in those glasses, but it’s not actually a very good film, is it? As a, you know, film. No. No it’s not.

Um, anyway. Yes! So nobody’s having fun. We’re not here to have fun! We’re here to do a job of work. I – or rather, my three-dozen typewriting letter-monkeys – are here to make a point.

We’ve just passed Reading, by the way. (When I say “just” I mean, yesterday, last night, at about 10 minutes to eight. Some 20 minutes later than we should have.) Oh – and when I say “passed” I mean, “sat still for five minutes”. So I’m definitely going to be late home. Again. We’re losing time, Mark!

I feel, however, that at this juncture I should make something clear. I worry you may be getting the wrong end of the stick. I wouldn’t want that, Mark. I’m just a boy, Sue, whose intentions are good: please don’t let me be misunderstood!

It’s not the commute itself I’m moaning about. It’s not the fact that I live a (scheduled) hour away from London that’s getting my monkeys all excited. That’s fine, lads. I’m happy with paying for a train that takes an hour to get to London.

It’s the additional minutes every day, the extra hours each month, that I’m concerned with. It’s the fact I’m paying for a service (paying handsomely, Sue!) that I’m not getting. It’s not the commute, Mark. It’s the delays on my commute.

After all. I chose to live in Oxford. I could have moved to, for example, Sevenoaks. Or Luton. (Maybe not Luton. Why would I want to move to Luton?) I chose to live in Oxford – and the one hour commute to London was factored into that decision. It was, I figured, worth it.

Oxford’s a beautiful city, Mark! Did you know the University is over 150 years old, for example? It was set up back in 1858! Perhaps even more extraordinarily, what we now know as one of the most respected academic institutions in the Midlands was originally created as an after-school club for the children of workers at the Morris Motors Works in Cowley.

From such humble origins has come an academic centre of excellence that has included amongst its alumni some of the greatest writers, thinkers and politicians of the twentieth century – including William Shakespeare, King Louis XIV, Eddie Izzard, Leon Trotsky, Colleen Rooney, Ho Chi Minh, George Harrison, Roberto Baggio, Chas and Dave, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pliny the Elder, Enid Blyton and that saucy-looking blonde who does the numbers on Countdown.

Extraordinary, Mark. Humbling, Sue! I’ll be honest with you – I copied most of those last two paragraphs from Wikipedia. I didn’t even realise all of that myself: and I live there! I walk past the huge, towering, concrete prefabs of Christ Church College and Nelson Mandela College and Saif Gaddafi College every day… and I didn’t realise so much history was smeared into those sullen grey walls! Thank goodness for Wikipedia, Mark! As a journalist I don’t know where I’d be without it!

But I digress. I chose to live in Oxford, Mark. I chose a one-hour commute to London. That’s fine. That’s cool. (As Ho Chi Minh himself was fond of saying.) What I didn’t choose was all these delays. And when I cough up my four-and-a-half ton every month for the privilege of travelling by First Great Western trains to the capital and back each day, what I expect is a service that does what I’m paying it to do. Get me to the capital and back each day: one hour each way.

What gets me so cross, Mark, is the fact that it rarely actually does that. What gets me so hot under the collar is all these extra hours you’re adding to my journey. Hours that were not part of the deal. Hours that belong to me. That I could spend doing far more interesting, enjoyable or useful things. Or failing that, working.

(Ooh! Travel update! We’ve just passed Didcot now, Mark, and the train has stopped again! Goodness me, this is turning into a shambles! We started off delayed, we lost time before Reading… and now things have got worse by Didcot! We’re pushing 25 minutes behind schedule now, Mark. And the iPod has shuffled around to play some Joy Division. It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it? How one’s iPod can sometimes almost psychically reflect one’s mood? With 700 or so songs to choose from, at just the moment this already-delayed train sighed to a stop again, it picked Isolation by Joy Division! As opposed to, say, I Feel Fine, by the Beatles. Or Fiesta by the Pogues. Or Subterranean Homesick Blues, by Bob Dylan. Although that would have done, to be fair. Actually, that would have been better. Subterranean Homesick Blues! Why didn’t it pick Subterranean Homesick Blues? Stupid iPod!)

I don’t mind the commute, Mark. It’s just the delays that are doing my head in. Just so we’re clear. Just in case, after 67 letters, 15 hours and some 45,000 words, there was still any confusion as to what was getting my beef.

Oh dear, Looks like this has become another grumpy letter, Sue! Looks like this has become another ranty one. I am sorry if it’s bringing your Tuesday down. I do apologise if it’s spoiling the taste of your chocolate croissant. But then – you started it, lads. You started it, with your shambolic excuse for a train company.

But never mind! Because now we’re moving again, Mark! The low-rise tenements and squat red-brick terraces of Oxford University loom like the ghosts of industrialists past from behind the rainclouds! By my watch we’re coming into the station some 29 minutes late. And by my wordcount, this letter’s a little shy of where it should be for such a lengthy delay.

Aw, shucks. Tell you what – you can owe it. This one’s on me. I’ll add it to the slate. Don’t say I never do anything for you! Enjoy the rest of your mornings!

Au revoir


Friday, 9 December 2011

8 December 2011. Letter 66

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 8/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 19 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Lights! Camera! Action!


I’ve been thinking, Mark. I’ve been cogitating, Sue! All those blank-eyed minutes lost on your delayed trains… I’ve been using them to put the old noggin to use. I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking, Mark! Every now and then I like to put the brain into gear and take it for a spin. Just to keep it ticking over, like. Just to keep it from rusting up completely. You never know when you might need it, after all. You never know what emergencies might happen when a brain in good working order might be called for. Better safe than sorry, that’s my motto! Be prepared!

So, anyway. I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking: all these letters to you, this cataloguing of failure and delay, this sad tally of incompetence and frustration… what it needs is livening up, right? A bit of glamour, Sue! A touch of magic! Some pizzazz! A sprinkle of Hollywood!

What these letters need is to be written in a style much more suited to the sensibilities of the modern consumer! These kids, Mark – they’ve got the attention span of amnesiac, ADHD-afflicted, goldfish. They’re the post-MTV generation, Sue! MTV’s too long and slow and deep and wide for ‘em! They’re the ringtone generation, the twitter generation, the here-today-who-tomorrow generation. They need stimulation, Sue! And so do we!

These letters – sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do… but they’re not exactly Hollywood blockbusters are they? If they were to be turned into a film, they wouldn’t star (for example) Bruce Willis, would they? They wouldn’t be directed by Quentin Tarantino. They wouldn’t be soundtracked by someone fast and shouty with electric guitars and synthesisers.

(Incidentally… the three-dozen typewriting letter-monkeys I employ to write these missives to you are currently very big on Bruce Willis, Mark. Do you remember I mentioned Monkey Film Club, the weekly DVD nights I’ve been laying on for them? Well it’s all Bruce Willis this, Bruce Willis that, these days. They’re blooming Bruce Willis mad, those monkeys! They’re bananas for Bruce! We must have watched The Fifth Element 15 times already! And as for the Sixth Sense… those silly monkeys still don’t get the twist. They still haven’t grasped it: everyone’s dead, Mark! Everyone except Bruce Willis! That’s why everyone can see the freaky little boy except him! Right?)

Anyway. The point being: this does not feel like a Bruce Willis film. My sad life being wasted gazing out of stationary train windows on stationary trains, late for work and late to come home again… it doesn’t feel like a Bruce Willis film. And I can’t help wishing it would.

Who’s being stimulated here, Sue? Anyone?

No. Thought not. So I’ve been thinking. I’m going to describe today’s delay in a far less high-falutin’ style than normal: I’m going to follow the lead of Monkey Film Club! (I’ve followed far worse leads before. Remind me to tell you about the time I nearly packed in my job to pick olives and “do a bit of DJing” in Ibiza. That was a bad lead to follow, Mark.)

No. Enough nonsense and onwards with the monkeys! I’m going to paint a picture of last night’s delay to my journey home in glorious Technicolor. Hollywood style. I’m going to tell you about the 19 minutes you took from me last night in a manner Bruce Willis himself would be pleased with.

Close your eyes and imagine, Mark. (Um, Sue, if he actually does close his eyes at this point then you may need to read the rest of this out loud. Sorry about that. Good communication practice though!)

It’s a stormy evening in London town, Mark. Against a black sky the wind whips and shrieks, the rain lashes against the jutting, jagging peaks of Fortress Wapping, and, all along the road by the river, commuters hurry towards the tube station with backs bent and collars turned-up. They look like scurrying beetles, Mark. Huddled against the elements, scurrying towards the warmth and light of Tower Hill station. They’re running down, Sue, to the safety of the underground.

All except one. He’s our hero, Sue. He strides through the storm with hair plastered to his head and coat-tails flapping like dark angel wings in the wind. He hath a lean and hungry look, Mark. Such men are dangerous! Such men are liable to write letters to senior management of rail companies.

Tower Hill tube station is negotiated with ease, the Circle line to Embankment a mere formality. Our hero (let’s call him Bruce, for argument’s sake. Or Dom? What do you think, Sue? Bruce or Dom? Bruce? Ok, Bruce it is) does this every day. He knows just where to stand on the platform in order to alight near the stairs for the Bakerloo line at the other end. He’s smart, Mark. He’s wise. He’s so cool it hurts.

At Embankment he fixes his fellow passengers with a cold, steely gaze of ice blue. A sardonic smile plays around the corners of his mouth. None of these suckers is getting up that escalator before Bruce. Nobody beats Bruce to the ticket barrier.

Cut to Paddington station, quarter past seven pm. Bruce is in his usual spot near the barriers for Platform 3. The train is being “prepared”. Behind him swell the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, all waiting for the same train to stop being “prepared”. The man isn’t letting anyone through the barriers yet. Even though everyone knows this will be their train.

And then! They’re off! The train is boarding! The barriers open like the start of the Grand National and around three trainloads worth of people make a mad dash to get on the single train. It’s bedlam, Mark! It’s chaos, Sue! It’s like somebody’s kicked over an ants’ nest: there are bodies everywhere.

Bruce is right amongst it, in the thick of the action. As the music swells, he powers through the crowd, bouncing and weaving and thrusting on the balls of his feet. He’s tossing aside the elderly and shoulder-barging the pregnant away. He’s cutting up ladies with prams and chicaning through those struggling on crutches. He is Bruce, Mark! Look at him go!

Bruce gets his seat, takes off his coat and relaxes in his soiled white vest and bare feet. The all-action hero of Paddington Platform 3. A commuting colossus. Admiring glances come his way from adjacent seats, most notably from a couple of girls who kind of might sort of look a bit like Angelina Jolie ish in the right light and if you squint and maybe after a couple of drinks. Bruce raises an eyebrow in return, lips curling in that trademark half-smile, half-smirk again. Oh yeah, he thinks. I am Bruce. I’m Bruce, baby.

And then… well then there’s a bit of a lull in the action, Mark. What happens then is that the train is a couple of minutes late leaving Paddington (Bruce is unruffled at this point. He’s still relaxed about the situation) – and then seems to slow down between Slough and Reading. Bruce stares out of the window and wishes he’d picked up an Evening Standard.

At Reading (call it a good 10 minutes behind schedule now) Bruce is struck by a vague and nagging discomfort in his bladder. He should probably go for a wee, but then, after eyeing all those standing in the carriage, and knowing that the toilet will almost certainly be almost inhumanly indecent, decides to just cross his legs and deal with it.

By Didcot, Bruce is beginning to get angry, Mark. He really needs that wee now – but his train has got stuck behind a local stopping service. Bruce hates local stopping services. If there’s one thing that Bruce hates more than international terrorists or evil criminal masterminds or even Ashton Kutcher, it’s local stopping services. That smirk-smile is gone now. Those steely blue eyes are hardened. Bruce is getting ready to fight back.

ZIP! Bruce opens his laptop bag! FLIP! Bruce unpops the lid and powers on. WAIT! Bruce waits while Windows powers up. WAIT SOME MORE! Windows can take a while – too much “research” on the hard drive, probably. CLICK! Bruce opens up Word and starts writing.

Look at him go, Mark! Look at him write! His fingers are a blur! He’s got a delay worth 19 minutes to fill, after all!

Is there anything more masculine, Sue? Is there anything more thrilling, more action-packed, more nakedly virile than the sight of a man who really needs a wee sitting hunched over a laptop on a delayed train writing a bunch of nonsense about how unhappy he is?

No, Sue! No there is not! It’s totally Hollywood! It’s totally blockbusting! I’m feeling inspired just thinking about it!

Hey, monkeys! Fire up the top-loading VCR! We’re going for the full Die Hard Quartet tonight! Alright!

Au revoir!


Thursday, 8 December 2011

8 December 2011. Letter 65

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 8/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: six minutes.

Marky Mark! Siouxsie Sue! What’s new? What’s the view? How, in fact, do you do?

I hope that lots of things are new! I hope the view is glorious, scenic, panoramic! I hope, in fact, that you are doing well. Or good! To be doing well is a fine thing – to be doing good is even better.

Are you doing good, Mark? Are you doing good work? I do hope so.

Hey, guess what? That’s right! You got it! My train this morning… it was delayed again. Only six minutes, admittedly, but still, six minutes is six minutes, Mark. As we’ve doubtless established before, one could destroy the whole world and every living thing in it in six minutes. One could do that one and a half times, in six minutes, if one were so inclined.

One could fall in love six times in six minutes, according to the previously discussed Barlow Standard, Mark. Assuming one could find six girls worth falling in love with, on the 08.06 from Oxford to Paddington.

(My advice would be to wait until after Reading before doing anything rash. I saw at least three proper sorts get on at Reading this morning, Mark. And you know what? They were all clutching copies of the Reading Station News! That’s right! The same Reading Station News that features your face on the front page! That’s what we call a “splash” in the business, Mark! And I’ll tell you this for nothing – none of those girls looked like they were going to let go of their copies of Reading Station News lightly. They were keeping hold of their papers, Mark! I’m thinking it wasn’t for the words, either. I’m thinking it was all about the splash. All about the front page visuals. Alright, Mark! Train groupie chicks! Finally! High fives all round!)

Ahem. Sorry.

What else could one do in six minutes, Mark? Well… one could listen to Otis Redding’s 1967 masterpiece (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay exactly 2.27848101 times in six minutes. For example. It’s the greatest two minutes and 38 seconds of art ever created dedicated to describing doing nothing, Sue, after all. It’s genius. If anything, listening to it 2.27848101 times is not enough*.

Or… or… or one could write a letter to the Managing Director and Director of Communications of the company responsible for wasting those six minutes in the first place. What do you think, Mark? Would that be a smart way to use up six minutes?

Au revoir!


*Shall I tell you something astonishing about (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, Mark? Something that will blow your mind, Sue? You know that whistling bit at the end? The most famous whistling bit in the history of popular music? Old Otis improvised it in the studio. There weren’t enough lyrics – so he just whistled the first thing that came into his head… with the intention of returning the following week to re-record that particular verse. And you know what happened, Mark? He never came back. He died before the verse had been written. Crashed into a lake. And by way of tribute, they released the version with his improvised bit of whistle on it. The most famous whistling in the history of popular music. Just goes to show, eh? Never let a song go unfinished. I bet that songwriter’s feeling pretty silly now…

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

2 December 2011. Letter 64

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 2/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 26 minutes.

Dear Mark. Dear, dear, Sue. Dearie me.

Oh dear, what can the matter be? Can you guess, Mark? Fancy a wild stab in the dark, Sue? Yes! That’s it! It’s only the trains again! They’ve only gone and run late again!

You pulled off the double on Friday, Mark! You only went and did the old one-two! The pair! The comme-ci-comme-ca, as our beret-sporting brethren across the Channel like to put it. The achtung-baby, as our rather sterner (though admirably so when it comes to a timetable) cousins in the Ruhr Valley prefer to express it. The who-cares-cos-the-Germans-will-bail-us-out-in-the-end-anyway, as the rest of Europe currently have it.

Your trains delayed me on the way to work… and then they delayed me again on the way home from work. You wasted my time in the morning – and then you wasted my time again in the evening! Boom, bang! Bish, bosh! Achtung! Baby! Vorsprung durch technik! Das ist nicht gut!

Are you proud, Mark? I can’t remember if this has happened before (I would check, but, to be honest, I can’t be bothered) – but over the course of 64 letters and 15 hours in five months, I’d be surprised if it hasn’t.

But still: 12 minutes on the way to work and 26 minutes on the way home again – that’s pretty impressive delaying there, lads. That’s top quality delaying. That’s industrial size delaying! Weapons-grade delaying! That’s Train Operator of the Year standard delaying! Well done, Mark! Great work, Sue!

The 12 minutes in the morning we’ve already, of course, covered. And thankyou again for your reply. As ever, I very much enjoyed reading it. Those Network Rail johnnies are a rum lot, aren’t they? Don’t they know how to run a company properly? Anyone would think they thought that running a company properly in the modern world meant maximising profit, bumping up bonuses, massaging figures and spinning communications to make yourself look good – all the while fleecing your customers, your consumers, your contempt-ridden core market, for everything they’ve got! I mean – who would run a company like that, Mark? Who would put widening profit margins over improving service? In this day and age?

Amateurs, Mark! Amateurs! That’s what they are! They want to learn something from you and Sue. They want to learn how things work in the real world. They want a lesson in management and a crash-course in communication from the likes of you lads. That’ll learn ‘em Mark! That’ll learn ‘em proper-style!

But anyway, back to business. As I was saying – the morning’s woes have been documented already, the response written, the explanation (sort of) explained. Let us move on, Mark! Let’s get on to the next thing! Not fare well but fare forward!

You wasted 26 minutes of my time on Friday night, Mark! Twenty-six minutes during which I should have been at home, reading tales of Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Green Engine softly to my children as they fell asleep… or, if they had already dropped off by the time I got home, just drinking cheap red wine with the missus. Either would have been good. Either would have been preferable. She’d been to Aldi especially, Mark. She’d stocked up on their Value Range Mediterranean Red. It’s got bite, Sue! Kicks like a horse!

Instead, I spent most of those 26 minutes doing nothing outside Reading. And then doing nothing outside Didcot. I spent most of those 26 minutes wondering about all those other things I might have achieved with all this time you keep taking from me. Instead of doing nothing. Instead of watching my reflection grow irresistibly older in the grime-streaked windows of your trains.

(That’s “irresistibly” as in unstoppably, unpreventably, Sue. Not as in “I look ever more irresistible”. I don’t look ever more irresistible, Sue. Even I can see that. Many have resisted me in the past – and with each passing day and the ravages that a borderline dependence on Aldi Mediterranean Red inevitably leaves on a man, I fear the number of people managing to resist me will only increase. C’est la vie, as Irish pop moppets B*Witched so beautifully sang.)

Do you ever get that feeling, Mark? Do you suffer from intimations of mortality, Sue? Do you sometimes wonder what more you might have done with your time, if only you’d had the time? If only you’d had more time, more chances, more hours and minutes in your allotted days?

Do you look out of the window and wonder about a world in turmoil, and about whether you would be a part of all that change, given the chance? Do you sit and read of Arab Springs, and European uprisings, of protest marches and Occupy camps, of strikes and insurrection and people trying to make a difference to the way things are… do you read of these things and then turn instead to gaze at your own reflection in the train window, at the way your face becomes ever-so-slightly older, ever so slightly further away from the joy and optimism and possibilities of your golden youth, with every lost, passing minute? Do you ever sit on a delayed train and do that?

No? No, me neither. What do you think I am, some kind of girl? Only a girl would think like that, right? Not us! I think of cars! And space rockets! And FHM magazine High Street Honeys! Right? We’re men, Mark! Blokes! Chaps! Geezers! Introspection’s not the thing! Big engines and chicks looking saucy – that’s what we think about!

I don’t think our best days are behind us, Mark! (I hope not, anyway – I’ll be honest, bar a few flashes of brilliance and the time I turned down the amorous intentions of Rachel from S Club 7, my best days were hardly the stuff of legend, they’re not exactly the kind of days that will be sung about in generations to come.) I think the best may be yet to come, Mark!

Alexander the Great didn’t even start conquering the world until he was in his mid-thirties, Mark! Kurt Cobain didn’t pick up a guitar until the age of 40! Lord Byron was illiterate until the age of 37, Sue! And it took a good four decades on this earth before a certain Jesus of Nazareth even dreamed there might be more to life than carpentry.*

So, there’s hope yet, Mark! There’s still time and the world for us to do great things! Age shall not wither us, Sue, nor custom stale our infinite variety! We can win this, lads!

Just so long as we don’t keep getting delayed, of course. Just so long as we get the chance to use the time we’ve been given.

So. Anyway. Twenty-six minutes. That’s how much time of mine you took on Friday night – and so, as sure as eggs is oeufs, here is a letter designed to waste 26 minutes of your time in return.

You’ll notice, of course, that you’re receiving this letter on Wednesday. There’s been a delay in my letters, Mark! Congestion! I’ve been away and, between you and me, I had better things to do than write to you. But better late than never, eh? That’s our motto! Maybe we should find out the Latin for that and use it in the old corporate branding, Sue? First Great Western: We’re better late than never! Melius tarde quam numquam!

I’m actually writing this letter on a train on Monday… but guess what? It’s not one of your trains! And I’m nowhere near either Oxford (home of the Cowley car works and the country’s largest in-pub necktie collection) or London Paddington (shining gateway to the Paddington area of London)! I’m in Manchester, Mark! I’m on a Cross Country train! It is, as noted author and businesswoman Katie Price declared, A Whole New World!

I’ve got my overcoat, Mark! I’ve got Joy Division on the iPod, Sue! I’ve got my nasal twang and my monkey strut and my Reni hat! I’m ready for Manchester, Mark! It’s like I’ve never been away!

Did I mention I was brought up in Manchester, Mark? Oh aye yeah. (That’s how they talk up there.) My formative years were spent skulking around the Stretford Arndale and trying to look cool in Eastern Bloc records. My golden age was spent shivering in queues for clubs outside Whitworth Street and eyeing up the baggy pants in Affleck’s Palace.

Those were the days, Mark! You should have seen me, Sue! With my Clint Boon haircut and my big flappy flares! With my “On the Seventh Day God Created Manchester” shirt and my bagful of hugely impressive 12 inch remixes of acid house classics! I was quite something to behold, Sue!

And now I’m back. Just for a long weekend. Seeing my mum, catching up on some home comforts, checking on the rain, topping up my northern insouciance. And I tell you what, Mark – have you been to Manchester recently? These Cross Country trains are quite nice, aren’t they?

Admittedly I’m not catching them every day – I’m not catching them at rush hour. But still. They seem pretty okay, nonetheless. Not overly crowded. And punctual too! Have I just got lucky, do you think, Mark? Is Cross Country usually as bad a company as First Great Western? Did I fluke it with this train? Are they normally as slow and cramped and unclean and unreliable as your trains?

Because I was thinking, Mark. You are not the only train operator in town. You’re not the only train operator running trains. And so if all your troubles and woes really are the fault of Network Rail, as you seem to keep suggesting; if your company really isn’t to be held responsible for the appalling service you charge so much for… if it is all about Network Rail – well then the same would be true for all the other train operators, right?

If it’s Network Rail that are the shambles, then their shambles would be affecting any company that tries to run a service, right? Not just you. All you train companies – you’d all be in it together! You’d all be as good, or as bad, as each other!

And yet, Mark, this does not seem to be the case! The 15 hours of my life you’ve taken from me in delays since the end of June, for example, would seem to mark you out as especially bad. And I was reading in my Super Soaraway last week that of the top 10 most overcrowded train services in Britain, all 10 are run by First Great Western! All of them!

How can this be, Mark? As I sit here watching the lowering skies over Levenshulme turn the drizzle into sleet, as I sit here feeling myself ageing with every lost, passing moment, I can’t help wondering… how can this be?

It’s a conundrum, Mark! A countdown conundrum!

Au revoir!


*What’s that you say, Sue? They were all dead before they reached 35? What, even Cobain? Damn.

Marky Mark replies again!

Dear Dom,

Thank you for your email and I am sorry for all the delays this week. On Monday morning our 08:06 service from Oxford was held up by Network Rail improvement works between Swindon & Didcot that finished much later than planned. This had a significant impact on our ability to operate a punctual service and your train, along with many others (88 in total) suffered a delay as a result.

The delay you experienced on Tuesday stemmed from a signal problem. I completely understand that lots of small delays stack up and are equally as frustrating. Fifteen hours of delays since we started corresponding is of course significant.

We too expect better and Network Rail, who manage and maintain the UK infrastructure (i.e the track, signals and engineering works), are very well aware of this. I mentioned in a previous email that they had been issued with a warning by the ORR, and we too are applying pressure for improvements to be made.

On Wednesday our 08:06 was delayed at Didcot whilst we took action to fix a train which had a broken window. On Friday, there was a temporary speed restriction in place in the Banbury area, and so our 08:06 got caught behind those ahead that had to run more slowly.

The reason why trains are so susceptible to congestion, is simply because of the number of trains in service, particularly at peak times. There is very little room for movement because of train pathing constraints. If one thing happens in one place, even a one minute delay can knock the timetable out of sync. We do have contingency plans in place, without which these delays would be much more significant, but with the track at capacity, congestion can't be eradicated completely. That said, the work undertaken to duel the Cotswolds line has helped, and the remodelling of Reading station will make a significant difference when complete.

Kind regards


Friday, 2 December 2011

2 December 2011. Letter 63

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 2/12/11. Amount of my day wasted: 12 minutes.

Oh, Mark. Ooh, Sue. What are we to do! It’s Friday morning, it’s a beautiful morning, the air crackles with possibilities… and once again, I am forced to flip open the lid of my laptop and start another letter to you.

Mark! Sue! My train’s stopped moving! We’ve become… immobile. Stationary. We have halted. Paused. We’re in stasis. Suspended animation! It’s like one of those cliffhangers we were talking about, Sue! When will we start moving again? For how long will we hang here? Will we pull ourselves back? Or will we fall off the cliff completely?

Where is Michael Caine when we need him, Mark? Where is Michael Caine and his “Hang on a minute lads! I’ve got a great idea…” cliffhanging skills?

He’s not on this train, Mark. I can’t say for sure, but I’m willing to bet two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine is not on the 08.06 First Great Western train from Oxford to London Paddington today. Or if he is, he’ll be one of the four people occupying the three First Class coaches.


The train manager (who, incidentally, seems a very nice chap. I’m not laying the blame for any of these delays on the train managers – or the conductors (I’m not sure what the difference between a train manager and a conductor is, to be honest), I’m not blaming the ticketing staff or even the drivers… it’s not their fault, Mark. They’re just doing their jobs. Or trying to, at any rate. No – you won’t catch me writing letters of complaint to any train managers. The fault is yours, Mark. (You too, Sue! I’ve not forgotten you!) The buck stops with you lads. In fact: here it is! Here’s the buck! Look at my buck! Stop my buck!) – the train manager just apologised for the slow running of this train, Mark.

He explained that it’s due to “congestion”. Again! All this congestion, Mark! It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? Because – and excuse me if I sound hopelessly naïve – isn’t congestion something that happens when the number of things occupying a space exceeds the capacity of that space or its ability to handle them all? Right?

So here’s where I get confused, Mark. Train services are timetabled, right? They’re planned. There are no doubt spreadsheets involved and everything. You know where all your trains should be at any given time of the day or night. You know the exact location of every one of them. You know this, and plan this, and timetable it all precisely so that congestion never happens. Now, I can understand that in the event of unforeseen circumstances, such as a breakdown, services could get held up (congested even!) behind the stricken train… but there are presumably contingency plans in place to deal with these rare events. Right?

Mark – I’ve been delayed four days out of five this week! We keep getting congested! How can we keep getting congested? Which parts of your company aren’t working?

Is it your timetables that are at fault? Your contingency plans? Is it that so many of your trains are breaking down that all the clever timetables and contingency plans in the world wouldn’t be able to cope with the corresponding congestion?

It’s a poser, isn’t it Mark? It’s going to need some solid communication skills to unravel the intricacies of this problem, is it not, Sue? I do look forward to finding out the answers!

So. Here we go again. Here we are once more. For the fourth day out of five this week. Hanging on the edge of the cliff…

Mark! Sue! I nearly forgot! Our cliffhanger! We were going to find out just how many hours you’ve stolen from me since the end of June last year! We were waiting to hear how long my delays have been these last five months! Tim from Twitter did the maths and the answer is there, in black and white!

Shall I tell you, Mark? Would you like it fast, or slow, Sue?

Okay, okay. Here it is.

Fifteen hours, Mark. (Including the 56 minutes of my time your trains have wasted this week.) Fifteen hours! That’s pretty well two full working days! In five months!

Fifteen hours!

In just five months, you have racked up delays of 15 hours to my journeys to and from work! In just five months, I’ve spent 15 hours longer on your trains than I was supposed to! In just five months, you have wasted 15 hours of my time! Fifteen hours, Mark! Fifteen hours, Sue!

And this from the so-called Train Operator of the Year? This from a company that claims 99.3 per cent reliability? This from a company that believes two consecutive above-inflation fare rises in two years to be justified? Fifteen hours delayed in five months, Mark?

Are you having a laugh, Mark? Are you taking the mickey, Sue? Is this some kind of joke? Or do you actually believe all that 99.3 per cent reliability, Train Operator of the Year guff?

Do you read these letters of mine and think, yeah well, he’s a snarky little smartypants (with, admittedly, an astonishing knowledge of pop music and, if we’re being totally honest, devilish good looks) but, really, he’s not typical of our customers? Do you think: he shouts loudly, but doesn’t represent the silent majority? Do you think: his views, while beautifully expressed, are not worth taking too seriously?

Do you think – oh, it’s just seven minutes here, 12 minutes there, half-an-hour every now and then… why doesn’t he just shut up and deal with it like everyone else?

Do you, Mark? Et toi, Sue?

Or do you think – all these seemingly trivial delays, these eight minutes and 10 minutes and 20 minutes… they do add up! They accumulate! They’re totalling over 15 hours of wasted time in just five months!

Do you think: it’s an utter, inexcusable scandal that we can waste 15 hours of someone’s time in five months? Do you think: we should feel ashamed of ourselves for charging our customers so much for their tickets, for asking them to stand most journeys, when we subsequently go on to rack up 15 hours of delays to their journeys in just five months?

It is a long time, is it not, Mark? Fifteen hours. It’s a long time to sit still and stare at Slough. Or stand and try not to stare at all the other people standing with you. Fifteen hours of my life. Wasted.

Oh Mark. Ah, Sue. I fear you’ve destroyed my good mood. My usually sunny disposition has been clouded over. And I hate ending the week on a downer!

What we need is something to cheer us all up. And given that it’s clearly not going to come from you or your awful, amateurish, scandalous train company, I guess it’s fallen to me again. Something funny, Mark! That’s what we need! A good laugh to end the week on!

Guess what? I know just the thing! I noticed it this morning, Mark, as I trudged wearily across the Paddington concourse, Bakerloo-bound, 12 minutes late for work.

Do you know that bar at Paddington station, Mark? Have you had a drink there, Sue? The one above WHSmiths? Have you ever noticed what it’s called? It’s called Sloe.

Sloe! I have to say, lads – despite it all, that made me laugh this morning. Sloe as in the berry, the gin… or sloe as in “slow”? Is someone being rather brilliant there, Sue? Is someone having a bit of a dig at you lot? Calling a bar at Paddington train station “slow”?

I do hope so!

Au revoir!


Thursday, 1 December 2011

30 November 2011. Letter 62

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 30/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! There you are!

How goes it? What news of the world? What word from the four winds? What tales do the morning birds sing of today? What fresh wisdom is to be found in the bright dewy dawn?

Anything about trains in there? Anything at all? No? Well then we must find our own train news, Mark! You make the train news, I’ll report it! Sue will supervise the stealth communication of it! It’s what we do, dudes! It’s what we are!

I’m still feeling rather folky, Mark! I’ve still got those metaphorical bells on my toes and that figurative peacock feather in my allegorical hat! It’s still winter, you see (stay tuned for more breaking winter news!). Rough winds do shake the darling trains of December, Mark, as the new X Factor charity single has it. And summer’s lease hath all too short a date! (He’s not so bad, that Simon Cowell, is he Sue? He can write a lyric, to be fair. He knows his way around an iambic pentameter.)

I’m not ready to abandon my newfound seasonal flirtation with folk music yet, Mark! Me and folk music, Sue – we’re having a full-on Christmas fling! We’re snogging under the mistletoe! We’re making a proper spectacle of ourselves at the office party. We’ll regret it in the spring… but for the moment it feels too good to stop!

Anyway. Even if the birds and the badgers and the dew and the dawn do not wish to talk of the trains, we’re essentially here for no other reason but to talk of the trains. It’s our raison d’etre. Do I write to you when my trains are on time, Mark? Do we idly chat on matters other than those relating to your employer’s incompetence, Sue? Do we text? Do we instant message? Do we BBM? No we do not! (I’m not even sure I know what BBMing is. And I’m a bit scared of Googling it. It sounds somehow… rude. Don’t you think? “Shall we… BBM? Would you like to… BBM? Have you ever tried… BBM?” No sir I have not! And I would not! And we shall not!)

We’re here, once again, as sure as winter follows spring, as sure as Advent follows Christmas, to talk about trains. I’m here to complain about the train I got yesterday! And you’re here, Mark, to listen to my concerns. You’re here to gain valuable feedback from those who pay to keep you doing what you do!

My train yesterday morning was delayed, Mark! Sue! Dude! It was delayed by seven minutes! Again! Oh my days! That’s every morning this week, lads! I haven’t arrived at work on time all week. My editor, Mark – she’s threatening me with sanctions! “That’s three times on the run,” she said to me yesterday. “If you’re late again the supervisor said we’re going to put you on daily signing!”*

I don’t want to go on daily signing, Mark! I’m not even sure what daily signing is, Sue!

Three delays in three days – that’s what you’ve taken from me so far this week. Thirty minutes plus seven minutes plus another seven minutes. Forty-four minutes this week alone – and it’s still only Wednesday morning!

Oh! That reminds me! I left you on a cliffhanger! We were on the edges of our seats (those of us lucky and aggressive enough to get seats of course. Otherwise we were on the edges of our, um, toes? Standing in the vestibules, trying not to breathe in the terrible smell from the inevitably overflowing toilets). We were going to find out the bottom line in Tim from Twitter’s magnificent spreadsheet of magnificence!

We were going to find out exactly just how much of my time you have wasted in delays to your trains since the end of June! Tim totted it all up for us!

I love a cliffhanger! Don’t you Mark! Maybe I should introduce a cliffhanger into every letter I write to you and Sue? Would you like that? Would it keep you coming back for more? Would it make me a bit more like Dickens? A bit more like Dostoevsky? That would be cool! I’d be all for that!

So then. What’s the grand total? Here’s a clue: it’s more than 10 hours, Mark. It’s more than two hours a month. It’s more than half an hour a week. Every week. Every single week since June. It’s more than that, Mark. You’ve delayed me for longer than that.

It’s… oh! What’s this? I’ve run out of time? Looks like it’s another cliffhanger!

Au revoir!


*She didn’t really say that, Mark. This is not Liverpool in 1984! We are not in Frankie Goes To Hollywood! She was not introducing the start of a magnificently thrilling, super-sneery, adrenalized, zeitgeist-capturing-all-over-again cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run!

But major tip of the old titfer if you got the reference, Mark! Sue did, I bet. Did you get it, Sue? Did you recognise the intro to the album version of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s cover of Born to Run? Do you still have your FRANKIE SAY ARM THE UNEMPLOYED t-shirt in the back of a drawer at home? Can you still not hear a siren without thinking: WHEN YOU HEAR THE AIR ATTACK WARNING YOU AND YOUR FAMILY MUST TAKE COVER…?

Me too, Sue! That’s something else we have in common! Rubbish trains and iconoclastic 80s pop! Frankie Goes To Hollywood! What a band, Sue!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

29 November 2011. Letter 61

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 29/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Good morning Mark! How do you do, Sue?

Are you bearing up? Are you struggling through? Good. Great! Well done! Best foot forward! On the double! From the top! Big smile, backs straight, tummies in, chests out, ready for the curtain to go up on another glorious day. Hear the greasepaint, Mark! Smell the crowd, Sue! They smell good, don’t they? I love the smell of a crowd in the morning: it smells like… victory!

The crowd in the evening, on the other hand… oh dear, Sue. The crowd in the evening – the crowd on your trains I mean, the crowd I have to share your trains with, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek, arms and legs entwined, a tangle of protesting limbs and wrinkled noses…I’m not so keen on the smell of that crowd. They don’t smell like victory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re not here to discuss the disgusting evening trains! Not today! We’re here to talk of the tardy morning trains!

Mark! Sue! I thought we had a deal! I thought we’d sorted all this silliness out! After your big announcement, I mean. After the exceptional mood you put me in yesterday, Mark. After the smile you put on my face, Sue! I thought that everything was alright! No more delays to me, no more letters to you. No more wasting of my time, no more wasting of yours.

I thought our symbiotic bond had been severed! I thought the umbilical cord of incompetence and childishness had been snipped! (I’m the childish one, Mark, I’m happy to admit that. Or perhaps childlike? Which is it, Sue? Childish for getting my kicks out of such a petty and puerile means of revenge every day… or childlike for actually expecting the trains to run on time in the first place? Childlike for naively expecting you to provide me with the service I’m paying for? Childish or childlike? It’s an interesting etymological* exercise, is it not?)

I thought, in short, that it was over. I thought you were going to make your train service, if not an enjoyable experience, at least something approximating a civilised one. I thought that, finally, after all these months, I’d be able to rely on one of your timetables for once in my sorry life.

Seven minutes, Mark. Four hundred and 20 seconds, Sue. Oh, I know, compared with yesterday’s monstrous half-hour horrorshow it seems like chump-change… but it’s still seven minutes. It’s still seven minutes of my time you were not supposed to take.

And, as I may have said before, all these seemingly minor delays stack up. (You must excuse me if I repeat myself, Mark; you must discretely avert your eyes if I regurgitate my metaphors, Sue – after 60 letters a little bit of repetition becomes inevitable. Plus: things rarely stick in my head for more than a week or two anyway. I’ve got a terrible memory, Mark. A memory like a… what’s it called? A thing. A, you know… a whatsit. Sieve, Mark! A thing like a sieve. A – where was I? Oh yes! I’ve got a thing like a thing. Memory of a goldfish!)

They stack up, Sue! Like discarded Roman pottery that will one day form a mighty Roman mountain! (I’ve definitely used that one before.) They wear down, Mark! Like drips in the desert that will one day gouge the Grand Canyon! (I’ve used that one before too.)

Hey! Guess what? A nice chap called Tim added up the delays for me Mark. He did the maths. He sent me an email. He made a spreadsheet! He added up all the minutes you’ve taken from me (against my will, Mark!) since I began writing to you, almost exactly five months ago. It’s quite an extraordinary thing, Mark. I was touched, Sue!

But anyway – do you know what the total came to? Do you know how much time of mine you’ve wasted since the end of June? No? Have a guess! Five hours? Ten hours?

I’ll tell you… next time. Unfortunately, due to unspecified problems of a deliberately vague nature (“congestion”, for example), this letter will be terminating at the next stop. You’re just gonna have to wait to find out the rest!


Au revoir!


*Etymological? Or entomological? Sue? I can never remember which word means what. One of them’s to do with the roots of language and the other with… I dunno, insects or something. Bugs. Creepy crawlies! What do you think, Sue? Did I get it right? Is it etymological? Or am I making a fool of myself? I’d hate to make a fool of myself, Sue! Wouldn’t you? I’d do almost anything to avoid making a fool of myself!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

28 November 2011. Letter 60

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 28/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 30 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How the blue bleezes are you? What’s strumming your ukuleles today? What’s banging your big bass drums? What’s squeezing your squeezeboxes? Get ready for a big long one! It’s a whopper today! Here it comes…

(I’m sorry for the obscurity of the greeting – I know you’re used to something more streetwise and slangy, something more zesty and zeitgeisty, something altogether more hip – and quite right too! We’re pretty hip cats, the three of us! Me and you, Mark, we’re funky-fresh and fly! And Sue’s no stranger to a buffalo stance! We’re down with the kids, right? Down with the kids, that's what I say! Down with the bleedin’ lot of ‘em!)

The fact is, I’m not feeling in a very streetwise mood today, Mark. I’m not feeling the word from the hood this morning, Sue (that rhyme works if you pronounce it in a Snoop Dogg-style southern-friend drawl: the woooord from the hooooood). You know why? Because it’s winter, my chilly-fingered chums, my tres froids amis! And whenever it gets to deep midwinter in the ancient valley of the Thames, my thoughts inevitably turn to folk music.

They do! I’m not joking, Mark! I’m listening to folk music right now! As I sit here and type, on one of your ancient trains, with nothing but the blasted heaths between Slough and Southall to distract me, as I mentally tick off the minutes of my once-promising life (I coulda been someone, Sue! I coulda been a contender, Mark!), the whole sorry experience is being soundtracked by the fiddly-dees and and fa-la-las of some good olde English folk music.

I love that crazy accordion stuff, Mark! I’m a sucker for a penny whistle, Sue! (But only in the winter time, mind. I’m not totally uncool.) I got my iPod winter folk playlist set up and everything – mostly a bunch of winsome Geordie chicks wailing beautifully about the sea, and a motley crew of bellowing Oxford boys making what sounds like zombiefied morris dancing music.

Quite a lot of the songs are about drowning, for some reason, Mark. A fair amount of them seem to touch upon themes of lost maidenhood, Sue. I’m not sure why this is: but either way it goes well with the season. Better than Snoop Dogg does, at any rate. Perhaps things are different in South Central LA.

So: you heard it first here, pop pickers! Punky-folky zombie morris music is the soundtrack du les winter jours! Plaintive Geordie sisters bemoaning the wildness of the moors and the wetness of the seas are the only way to sonically sum up the season! Get on board now, Mark! They’ll all be strumming along next year, Sue!

(Expect a lot of folk music to come, Mark. My favourite badger-themed weather website tells me that this winter is set to last a while yet. Maybe months! Perhaps until the spring even!)

My! What a long way of saying hello! My fingers fair ran away with me! (Or rather my 36 typewriting letter monkeys’ fingers ran away with them. Don’t forget, Mark: it’s the monkeys who write these things now! Blame the monkeys and their mad obsession with seasonally-themed mood music! Bad monkeys!)

So – seriously, how the dickens are you? Well? Hale? Hearty? Good! Excellent! Well done! Keep it up! That’s the important thing – keep the flag flying! Don’t let them get you down! We shall, as another kind of folk song goes, overcome!

But my monkeys digress. To business, Mark! Enough flim-flam! We’re serious men, and such merry-making demeans us and makes a mockery of our grave and sober natures.

You too, Sue! Though I wouldn’t dare to presume on the nature of your, er, nature. I wouldn’t dream of speculating on your relative seriousness or sobriety. I don’t feel I could – what with you never taking the time out of your busy schedule as Communications Director for First Great Western to actually communicate with me. I feel it would be presumptuous. But, for what it’s worth, you don’t feel like a serious and sober type to me. You seem like much more fun altogether. I hope you are, anyway. In fact, Sue, don’t tell me! I don’t want to spoil the surprise!

To business! Once more, we three meet again! Through thunder, lightning or in trains! When the hurly-burly’s done; when the battle’s lost and won, ere the train has been and gone!*

Mark! Sue! My train was delayed again! For a long, long time! It felt like an age, Mark! It felt like an aeon! It felt like an… era. Or error.

You totally went for it on Monday morning, Mark! None of your eight, 10 or 12 minute jabs, none of your six minute feints… not even those punishing body shots, those wincing uppercuts around the 20 minute mark…on Monday morning, as the fiddles reached a crescendo in my ears and a man sang something about whisky and drowning and lost maidenhood and my inner zombie morris dancer stamped his feet and rattled his bells and jigged along appreciatively, the olde English 8.06 locomotive from Oxford to London town stumbled, stuttered, sputtered and slid to a slow and shuddering stop.

Between Slough and Southall, Sue – somewhere near Maidenhead, Mark (which was a pleasing, if still ultimately annoying, coincidence, given the soundtrack) we stopped dead in our tracks.

And there, like a tantrumming toddler spread-eagled on the floor of Tescos (don’t ask, Mark – it’s just a phase the littl’un’s going through. One of many. And not even the most embarrassing. Please God I never have to tell you about his “willy time” trick. It’s mortifying) – like a tantrumming toddler with his trousers still thankfully on, we refused to budge. For longer than it seemed my patience could bear.

Not a jab, or an uppercut, or a deft one-two to the kidneys… but a 30-minute delay, Mark. A big, swinging, telegraphed haymaker of a delay. A mighty swing that sent me flying on to the canvas! (This is all a metaphor, of course, Sue. I feel my monkeys are getting the hang of these metaphors now! What do you think?)

It was like Rocky IV, Mark! Literally! I mean – metaphorically! It was exactly like a metaphor for Rocky IV! There’s me, Apollo Creed, in my fancy stars and stripes shorts, prancing about the ring, still buzzing from James Brown’s performance of Living in America (“station to station!”), winking to the ladies and showboating for the boys, dancing around the canvas… and standing dead centre, watching me with contempt in his eyes… there’s your train, Mark.

Your train was Ivan Drago, Mark! Huge, blond, flat-topped, pumped full of Soviet super-strength. Watching me prance and dance and ham it up for the crowd – until, as if in slow motion, one mighty metaphorical fist goes swinging slowly back and… WHAMMO! BOSH! WHEE! CRUNCH! Face down in the dust. Out for the count.

Or something like that, anyway. You know what I mean. Apologies if the monkeys got a bit carried away with the Rocky IV metaphor there. (Last night was Monkey Film Club – they watched the entire Rocky series back to back. They’ve been somewhat overexcited since. Next week they’re planning on an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. God help us all.)

Although, given that Rocky IV is essentially a clunky metaphor for the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe (and a rather pathetic fantasy of how the Americans might take it back) my monkeys can at least take comfort from the fact they’re in good company. If it's good enough for Sylvester Stallone, Mark, it's good enough for me and my monkeys. That's always been my motto.

What was I saying? Oh yes. Thirty minutes, Mark! What was all that about? Signal failures? Buckled points? Congestion? The annexing of Czechoslovakia?

For 30 long minutes I sat on your train, listening to some deeply uncool music, looking at the wastelands around Slough and Southall (so many, Mark! I had not thought Slough had undone so many!) and wondering just how I was going to write a letter long enough to waste 30 minutes of your time in return.

It’s no mean feat, Mark! Have you ever tried wasting someone’s time for that lo—actually, what am I saying? Of course you have! You’re an old hand at it! Dude – it’s what you do! Day in, day out, Mark! Wasting my time, morning and evening. And best of all, having me pay for it too! Nice trick, Mark! Sweet scam, Sue! You must give me some tips sometime. You must tell me how you’ve managed to pull that one off.

But I forget myself. Congratulations are in order! Your last letter was lovely, Mark! Better than lovely, it was splendid! It was brilliant! It was… exciting! You had a big announcement!

(I’ve just read that paragraph back to myself: sorry if it sounds sarcastic, It wasn’t supposed to sound sarcastic. It was supposed to sound excited. It was meant to sound puppyishly enthusiastic. It was meant to convey the same kind of optimism and energy as, for example, one might see displayed by 36 monkeys enjoying Sylvester Stallone battering the bejaysus out of Dolph Lundgren and thereby metaphorically liberating untold millions of oppressed Slavs.)

It was not meant to sound sarcastic, Mark. Your big news is indeed excellent news! More carriages is a good thing! A great thing! I’m all for it! The thought of actually getting a seat for every journey is amazing! Revolutionary!

Up till now, the idea of paying around £450 a month with no guarantee of ever actually sitting down just seemed the way things had to be to ensure that you chaps made enough profit for yourselves…

So yes! Yes to more carriages, Mark! Well done! I wholeheartedly approve! And I would also like to say thankyou. Thankyou for investing in the service you’re providing! Thankyou for taking steps to ensure more of your paying customers get the seat they’ve paid for every now and then. Huzzah! Hoorah! Hoopla!

Now is the winter of my discontent made glorious summer by this extra-carriage talk!

And let’s hope this is just the start, eh? Let’s make this a bright start! Let’s make this big announcement the first of many, many other wonderful big announcements! What do you think, Mark? Can we do it? Yes – as both Bob the Builder and President Nixon believed – we can!

I’m with Bob, Mark! I’m with Tricky Dicky, Sue! A brave future awaits – and I shall be there to greet it. I shall be on the platform with the other commuters, inching my way closer to the spot where I think the door might be, trying to make myself bigger so as to shoulder my way on first, pretending we’re all in it together but knowing that when it comes down to it, it’s every man for himself seat-wise…

I’m there, Mark! Along with all the other commuters, turning our faces to the light, shielding our eyes against the glory of the brave new world that awaits! I can’t wait! I literally cannot wait!

It’s a great start, Mark! It’s good work! And if it was to be followed by trains running on time and to their promised schedules, if it were to mean no more awkward excuses for turning up to work late most days, if it were to mean no more missing bedtime stories because the kids have already fallen asleep by the time I get home most nights… well, if that was to happen, Mark, I would be the happiest man in Coach C.

It would mean no more letters to you, Mark! It would mean the end of our beautiful friendship, Sue! No more wasting my time, no more of me wasting your time! I’m happy just thinking about it!

Au revoir!


*Not bad, eh, Sue? Did you like it? It has a certain poetic frisson, no? “When shall we three meet again…” It’s from a play I’m writing – it’s the first lines of the play. I’m calling the play: MacDom.

It’s about a ticket inspector (MacDom) who meets these three weird sister chicks trying to pass through the ticket barriers using an off-peak super-saver return during a period when only saver-returns or anytime-returns are allowed, and in exchange for letting them off having to purchase a full-price ticket, they promise him that one day he’ll be station manager of all Scotland.

Anyway… I won’t spoil the whole plot for you, but suffice to say his wife’s a bit of an uppity madam, there’s a spot of trouble with an overkeen young train conductor called Macdandruff, a bit more prophesising, and it all ends in tears. Except for Macdandruff, who makes a wood move to Dunsinane (don’t ask how) and generally leads on quite a bit. I’ll be sure to let you have further extracts as and when I write them…

Monday, 28 November 2011

A 'big announcement' from Mr Mark Hopwood!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails. On 17 November a problem coupling two trains at Paddington held us up. On 18 November, there was a points failure and on 21 November the delay was caused by traction issues. Every delay is a concern and we never lose sight of the importance of operating a punctual railway. I am sorry we keep letting you down but there is a tremendous amount of work going on and improving performance really is our priority.

In my previous email, I mentioned we'd be making a big announcement and on Tuesday we were able to share our plans to increase our capacity across our network. Here is a link to our website which explains the extra rolling stock we have managed to secure and our plans for it over the coming year. I hope you will agree that this is really good news and shows that we do work hard to bring about improvements to the service we provide.

Yours sincerely

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

22 November 2011. Letter 59

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 22/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 17 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How does the morning find you? Do you greet the day with hope and joy and with hearts lifted by dreams of limitless opportunity and infinite potential? Do your souls sing like birds in the brave morning light?

Or are you grumpy snooze-button merchants, throwing out surly hands to punch the alarm clock into submission, to silence the desperate clarion call for another weary day, to stifle the grim reveille that drags us from our sweet slumbers and into the gloom and trudge of another long and pointless period of consciousness?

Life is very long, Mark, when you’re lonely. Morrissey said that, as you well know. (You remember Jim Morrissey don’t you, Mark? We’ve discussed him before. Lead singer with chirpy cockney bubblegum pop outfit Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths? Had a string of Stockhausen-Waterman produced hits in the 70s? Famously played their last gig on a rooftop in Jimmy Savile Row? Guitarist found dead in a toilet in Memphis, Tennessee, stuffed to the gills with squirrel burgers and barbiturates? Drummer only had one arm? Bassist sacked to be replaced by Sid Vicious? That’s right! That’s the one! Jim Morrissey! Had a well-publicised affair with Kylie Minogue! Enjoyed a Britpop chart battle with Oasis! Won the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest! Replaced Cheryl Cole as a judge on X Factor USA! Jim Morrissey! Good old Jim Morrissey!)

Well, let’s forget all about Jim Morrissey and his ‘life is very long’ codswallop, Mark! What does Jim Morrissey know about the price of eggs anyway? We must be of an altogether more positive bent! Not fare well, but fare forward! That should be our mantra.

(And besides – even if life is very long, we’re not lonely, are we? We’ve got each other! Mark, Sue: I’ve got you, babes! I’ve got you to hold my (metaphorical) hand! I’ve got you to understand! Oh! We happy three!)

So not fare well, but fare forward, Mark! Whether you’re a jump outta bed and greet the morning’s glory with a wide smile and a quick half-dozen jumping jacks kinda guy, or even if you’re an angry-haired, sluggish-limbed and snappy-mouthed Suzy McSnap first thing in the morning kinda gal… positivity is the thing.

It’s what the public expects, Mark. It’s all part of the job, Sue. Not fare well, but fare forward! Hide your pain and your despair, push down those feelings deep inside yourselves, bury them… and prepare instead a face to meet the faces that you meet. Keep smiling kids, because nobody likes a sourpuss.

Okay? Good. Great! Well done! Now we’re all feeling brilliant about ourselves, we can get on with the business in hand.

The trains, Mark! Les trains, Sue! Die zuge! Los trenes! I treni! The very symbol of an industrialised nation, dudes! The huffing, puffing, chuffing, steamy chariots of the Gods! Comites ire sicut vapor! (That’s Latin, Sue – the official language of Ancient Greece. It means: Proceed in the manner of a steamy chariot. You may want to use that as a slogan, as a motto, as something to project in 20-foot high letters across the façade of the First Great Western Nerve Centre – hey, feel free! Go for it! You can have that one on me, just for old time’s sake!)

God knows I love a train, Mark! Lord knows I can’t resist a great big shiny engine, Sue! I’m a sucker for that shizzle! I spend an extraordinary amount of time and money expressing that love, Mark. I express that love by sitting on trains wondering why they’re not going as fast as they should be. Or standing on trains wondering the same. It’s like a drug, Sue! Might as well face it, I’m addicted to trains!

But sometimes, Mark, every now and then, Sue (well, about three or four times a week at the moment, to be honest) I grow a little weary of trains. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. If pleasure remains, Mark, does it remain a pleasure?

Let me explain. Let me fill you in. (Just the facts, Sue!) Yesterday morning, my train to work was delayed by 17 minutes. Again! I know! Seventeen minutes, Sue, during which I pondered the fog around the outer edges of London town. Seventeen minutes, Mark, during which I listened to Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths and turned my mental gaze inwards to address the gnawing, nibbling, nit-picking little questions that seem to worry away at my consciousness.

Questions like: why do ducks duck? Why do flies fly? Why do bees be? Big questions, Mark. Important stuff, Sue!

Questions like: what’s happening in Egypt? Is the Arab Spring uncoiling, or being resprung? Questions like: where is the Occupy movement going? Questions like: how will the people of France and Germany respond to the Euro bailout plans and for how long will they be happy to allow their taxes to be spent on rescuing fare-dodging Graeco-Roman types by the Mediterranean and Aegean seas? Fanciful stuff, Mark. Trivia and tittle-tattle, Sue!

I also pondered questions like: why can’t I ever get to work on time? Or home from work on time? Questions like: is this all worth it after all? These lost hours and wasted days, these things I do for money, while the dregs of my best years dribble away like so much cold coffee down the drain? Questions like: is that the weakest simile I’ve ever written?

But that’s what listening to Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths does to you, I guess. All this introspection – it can’t be healthy, can it, Sue? Mankind cannot bear very much reality, Mark! And neither can we!

Tomorrow I shall listen to something altogether more upbeat. Something like Jimmy Curtis and the Jammin’ Joy Divisions. Or Jimmy Radio and the Dancin’ Radioheads. Or, I dunno, Leonard Cohen.

But I digress! Again! We’re not here to discuss the contents of my iPod, or the central dilemmas of twenty-first century existence! We’re not here to talk about the collapsing European economy or the troubles in Tahrir Square! I’m not paying good peanuts for 36 typewriting monkeys to discourse on philosophy, politics and pop music!

I’m paying those monkeys to pen pithy, precise and pointed letters of complaint, Mark! I’m shelling out for those simians to rattle off razor-sharp prose! I’m employing those apes for a purpose, Sue! They’re all here, chained to my factory floor, yammering and jammering and jabbing at their typewriters purely for the purpose of pointing out to you lads just how it feels to have your time wasted, day in, day out, week after week, month after long month.

That’s what we’re all here to do, Sue! That’s what these letters are about, Mark! We’re not here to be educated, or elucidated, or entertained! Heaven forbid! We don’t want to learn anything, do we Mark! We don’t want to emerge from this process wiser, better informed or in any way enlightened! No sir!

We wouldn’t want to learn, for example, that there is a hill outside Rome – a big hill, mind, a proper hill – made entirely out of the broken shards of ancient pots. Those centurions and dodecahedrons, Mark, those toga-sporting, Christian-baiting, civilisers of the world, Sue: they threw out so many old olive oil pots they made a whole hill out of them! You can walk on it today, Mark! It’s… crunchy!

We also wouldn’t want to learn, for example, the true meaning behind the Temptations classic ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’. It’s about Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, Mark – and how he abandoned his hometown musicians in Detroit and skedaddled to Los Angeles – taking the Jacksons and the Supremes with him and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. It’s 12 of the most bitter minutes ever committed to vinyl, Mark. It’s brutal.

We wouldn’t want to learn these things, Sue! I’m not paying my monkeys to entertain or educate you, Mark! What kind of monster would that make me? There’s laws against that kind of thing, you know! What next? Bear baiting? Badger boxing? Kangaroo fiddling? These things may be acceptable on the continent, Mark, but I’m having none of it. None of it!

Where was I? (I mean, where were the monkeys?) Ah yes. The trains! The trains, Mark! My monkeys are dying of boredom on your persistently late trains, Mark! Life is very long, Mark! Let’s not make it feel any longer, eh? Not fare well, but fare forward!

Au revoir!