Friday, 30 September 2011

29 September 2011. Letter 36

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 29/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! We three meet again!

I very much hope you're well. Are you well? Sue? Are you winding things down and taking it easy for your last few days off? Or have you stepped up another gear, taken it to the next level, fired up the lipgloss and the eye glitter and decided to give it the old all-out before real life again next week? Good on you, Sue! Go get 'em tiger!

How about you, Mark? Are you keeping cool amidst the complications and the congestion and the incompetence and all compounded by this searing, relentless, remorseless, unforgiving, cruel, cruel heat? Can you stand the heat, Mark? Or are you longing for the kitchen exit? Because it is hot! Ooh, it's so hot!

I'm burning up here, baby! I am, literally, a hunk of burning love. Well, not love, maybe. I'm literally a hunk of burning boy. (Did you know, by the way, that there is a Swiss football team called Young Boys Berne? That never fails to crack me up, Mark! Gotta love the Swiss. Young Boys Berne! And the Swiss trains, Mark! Oh! The trains...)

Anyway, it's too damn hot. It ain't half hot, Sue! I'm not ashamed to say my keyboard is briefly stained by salty droplets of sweat. Not even Lynx Africa can protect against this kind of post-frost heat, Mark. That's how hot it is.

So. Anyway. Enough heat-related chit-chat. To business! Mark - what happened yesterday? You delayed me on the way to work... and then you delayed me again on the way back! It was a double-dip-delay! A two-handed delay! Two-nil to Delay FC! It was, as they say in pedantic circles, an example of what happens when someone is delayed twice in one day, both on the way to work and again on the way home.*

What am I going to do with you kids! Oh, it's no use giving me the bambi eyes and the baleful shrug and the bashful grin. I'm not falling for that one again! The time for excuses is over! We need to sort stuff out, Mark! We need to take affirmative action, Sue! We need to wake up and smell the failure! And then spray Lynx Africa all over that failure until we can't smell it anymore!

What we need, in this situation, is help. We need inspiration. We need to look for a natural leader, a totemic figurehead, a bright and shining example of how to pull solutions from crises. And you know what, Mark? I think I may just have found the very man!

I opened my Super Soaraway on the train this morning, Mark, and I read how our government has plans to rescue this country! It seems that appearances can be deceptive! It seems that our Chancellor, Mr George "Osborne", is not, after all, the chinless wonder he has always appeared to be! It seems that the pasty, sneering, over-priveliged and despicably arrogant facade he presents to the world is just that, Mark! A facade! It seems he's not just another port-swilling Bullingdon boy looking after his own interests and the interests of his banker friends! Because he has a plan! A plan to rescue us all from economic catastrophe!

Speed limits, Mark. He's going to raise the speed limits on some roads by 10 miles per hour. It sounds pointless and utterly beside the point... but it's not! It's so not! It's going to get the country moving again! It's going to get the trucks back on the road, get the wheels of commerce and industry turning, bring in the dollars and power us all into a bright and boundless future! Genius, Mark! The man's a genius! To think that were it not for the fact that the speed limit has been 70 mph all these years we could have been an economic powerhouse! We could have been China, Mark! We would never have lost the Empire!

Let's follow his lead, Sue! Let's get in this together! Let's do our bit! Obviously we can't raise the speed limit on the train tracks... but we could start going at the pace we're supposed to go, couldn't we? Let's do it! Let's at least try it!

England expects, Mark! Onwards and upwards to a brighter tomorrow!

Au revoir!


*Interesting pedant fact: "pedant" is in fact pronounced "pee-dant". Everyone gets it wrong, Sue. Same with "pedantic" - it's pronounced "pee-dantic". Look it up if you don't believe me. Go on, prove me wrong. Prove how you think pedant should be pronounced.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

29 September 2011. Letter 35

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 29/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 17 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Wake up! It's a beautiful morning! Feel the sun shining for your eyes! Wake up, it's so beautiful!

The hot weather continues, Mark! Back here in Blighty, Sue, it's 24/7 sunshine. Literally! That Indian Summer, lads, is set fair until at least November - that's what they're saying. At least! Till December, maybe! January, February... some of our more easily excited meteorologists (naming no names Mr "Fish") are even positing the theory that the mercury may not fall until next June! (When we can then expect two or three months of rain, wind and general misery.)

Can you imagine? All of that frost we had in August... and now it's sunny delight till next summer. Truly, Mark, the old adage: "There's nowt so queer as the workings of the Gulf Stream" has never felt truer.

But, for once, and most uncharacteristically, I digress. We're not here to talk about the weather, Mark! What are we, walking cliches? There's more to life than isobars, you know. (But not much more.) We're here to talk about the trains! We're here to discuss delays, chew the fat on your failings, pay lip service to your poor service!

Let us sit upon the vestibule floor, Mark, and tell sad tales of the death of great railway companies.

Yesterday, to be fair, I was not delayed. Yesterday, Mark, all of our joint troubles seemed so far away! Now it looks as though, once again, they're here to stay. Oh, Mark, I long for yesterday! Because today... today the sun may be shining and the first frosts of winter may have melted away, but today we've once again fallen into bad habits.

Seventeen minutes, Sue! How many karaoke classics can a girl get through in 17 minutes? How many renditions of I'm Every Woman or I Will Survive or Simply the Best or Total Eclipse of the Heart can a holidaying Director of Communications belt out in 17 minutes? How many Campari and sodas and Martini Rosso and Red Bulls can a gang of girls in the Greek Islands get down 'em in 17 minutes?

Enough for it to qualify as a good time, I'm guessing. (For you at least. Maybe not for those having to listen.) Enough to appreciate that 17 minutes is not an amount of time to be sniffily sniffed at or dismissively dismissed. Seventeen minutes, Mark! That's 17 minutes of my life, that is! Come Judgement Day, I'm going to think about those 17 minutes and ponder all the things I could have done with them. (All the things aside from singing I Will Survive, Sue. It's karaoke, karaoke, karaoke with you at the moment, isn't it? It's all karaoke! You're karaokecrazy! Karaokecrackers! Step away from the microphone and the "Girls On Tour" CD, Sue!)

When I'm standing at the Pearly Gates, Mark, totting up the time I've lost, wasted or had stolen from me; when I'm tallying the days with St Peter, Sue, marking up the good times, the bad times, the ugly and the wasted times, Sue; when the Angel Gabriel and I are sorting out the whys and wherefores and what-ifs of my three-score and ten, those 17 minutes are going to seem like a long old stretch. (They're going to seem even longer than they would do if they were spent listening to bad karaoke.)

Life moves pretty fast, Mark, time flies, and before we know it we've gone grey and grizzled and worn-out and wrinkly and the feral youth step over us in the street on their way to loot Foot Locker.

Time flies, Mark! Literally! We grow old. We shall wear our trousers rolled. Do you feel old, Mark? (I know you don't feel old, Sue! And why should you?) I feel old. I'm in the last day of my fourth decade, dudes! This time next year I'll be 40! I know that to look at I don't seem a day over 25, I appreciate that to hear me talk you'd think me a mere stripling, a bouncy, clean-limbed, golden-skinned youth in my prime... but, unbelievable as it sounds, I am not.

And as the days slip inexorably past, as the weeks roll by, as the months and the years soldier on and I get nothing but older, I can't help wondering what I'm doing spending so much of my precious time looking at bleeding Slough out of a stationary train window. Perhaps you could tell me, Mark?

Au revoir


PS - I've just had a re-read of this letter, Mark, and I'm sorry if it not the usual gag-fest and laugh-riot you've become accustomed to. The truth is, fun though this all is (and it is fun, isn't it, Sue? It's a regular festival of fun, right? I can picture you all now, in the First Great Western Nerve Centre, creasing up and rolling around and laughing your little monogrammed socks off every time I write you another letter. That is what you do, isn't it? I mean, as opposed to thinking: "Oh no! Dom's written us another letter! We really have to get this business of ours into shape! We must, we must, we must improve our train company! It's just not good enough, poor bloke. We're failing the very people who pay our wages! Heads must roll! No stone must be left unturned, no line of enquiry left un-enquired into. We must do whatever it takes to make sure our trains run on time!" Isn't it? Yep, thought so.) The truth is, fun though this all is, every now and then I do actually get genuinely cheesed off with you. Furious, even. I mean, to be fair, and sorry if it's not very funny... but First Great Western: it's a total shambles, right? Right.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

27 September 2011. Letter 34

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 27/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 14 minutes.

Well met, Mark! What ho, Sue!

It's another day, it's another delay, it's another letter to waste your time in return. There's a certain inevitability about it, isn't there? There's a certain order to it. We're at the still point of a turning world, Mark - as everything collapses around us (the global economy, the European Union, the laws of physics, the British press, the Catholic Church, Arsenal's back four) we alone stand firm. We remain inviolate. You waste my time, I waste your time, strike up the band and let's keep the whole sorry dance going.

Still: at least it's nice weather, eh? Hotter than Hawaii, that's what they're saying! Sue: you don't know what you're missing! As you conga and calypso around the cocktail joints of Corfu and Casablanca, keeping a cardi on to ward against the cool of the evening, me and Mark and everyone else back here are all-but going topless. We're stripping off, Sue! We're exposing ourselves to the power of the sun! We're soaking up those UV rays, browning ourselves like so many slow-roasting lamb shanks. It's lovely! Doesn't it sound lovely, Sue?

Of course it does: it's an Indian Summer, Sue! It's totally subcontinental!

Interesting aside: do you know why it's called an Indian Summer, Mark? When you get a heatwave so late in the year like this? That's right! An Indian Summer is a period of hot weather following the first frost of autumn - and is so named after the prevailing climactic conditions of the Indian subcontinent. To wit - frost. It's awfully frosty in India, Mark! Not for nothing is Jaipur known as "The Frosty City". It's no accident that Bangalore is nicknamed "Frostalore" by the locals. (Also: Mumbai - Frostai, Delhi - Frosthi, Hyderabad - Frosterabad.)

The average temperature in India, Sue, is a distinctly chilly 2 degrees Celsius... all except for one week of the year, around late September, when the unique confluence of the Mid Atlantic Drift, the South Pacific Peripherique and the passing of Orion into Uranus send temperatures rocketing into the mid-80s. Hence: Indian Summer. A period of hot weather following frost.

(That single sunny week of the year is also when every single movie, TV programme and still photograph of India is filmed, made or taken, Mark. That's why it always looks so nice to us westerners who don't actually live there.)

Meteorology, Sue. That's the thing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

But, geographical oddities aside and whatever the reason for the season, there's no denying it's lovely out. It reminds me of previous Indian Summers, Mark! The Indian Summers of my youth! That Indian Summer I was laid up in my flat with a broken leg, for example, and I passed the time watching my neighbours in the apartment block opposite. I saw some sights, I can tell you! There was the pianist, the ballet dancer, the newlyweds, the lady with the cat in the basket... and some right old rum-to-do with the chap opposite! Why, if it wasn't for my girlfriend at the time I'm not sure what would have happened. I must tell you more about it sometime: it's a great story, Mark! (She was a looker, too: looked just like Grace Kelly she did!)

Or I could tell you about that other Indian Summer, the one I spent at an archaeological dig in Egypt, looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Goodness, Mark! What a summer that was! There was a spot of trouble with our German friends, an awful episode with some snakes, and to top it all I nearly lost my favourite hat!

Or there was that (other) other Indian Summer, Sue, the one in my teenage years, when the crazy old Scientist who lived in the next street lent me his DeLorean car and I ended up back in 1955 and met my own Mum and Dad and taught Chuck Berry how to play Johnny B Goode and got chased around a bit by a bloke called Biff...

You know what, Mark? I should write these down properly, shouldn't I? Reading them again: they're great stories! There might be something in them, y'know? I reckon I could sell 'em to someone! Hollyoaks are always on the look out for interesting plot twists, I hear. And don't even start me on my time in 'Nam, up the Mekong river looking for this crazy bald guy called Kurtz...

But here's the thing, Mark. Although I've enjoyed many Indian Summers in a variety of interesting places and with a host of fascinating people, I'm not sure I've ever spent an Indian Summer sitting on a tired old train (if I'm lucky - otherwise standing on a tired old train) looking at my watch as my life ticks endlessly past me, cursing the fact I'm paying £450 a month to go nowhere slowly. This Indian Summer might be a first for that.

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

26 September 2011. Letter 33

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 26/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 20 minutes.

My dearest Mark! My most treasured Sue! I trust this finds you both in the pink!

(I've decided my previous letters to you both lacked a little formality. The lightness of tone and chumminess of content may have distracted you from the essential seriousness of their message. This must not be, Mark! Apart from anything else, we're British, aren't we? We have standards to maintain! A sense of decorum and a certain standard of propriety must be observed! If we lose that, Sue, we become no better than mere savages. This shizzle must be kept real, y'all!)

So. It is my sad and onerous duty to report that once again, Mark, my day was disrupted due to one of your lackadaisical locomotives. I know! Who'dathunkit? And, yes, Mark, to address a point raised in your latest reply, I fear I am losing my confidence in your service. That's me in the (metaphorical) corner, Mark. That's me in the (also metaphorical) spotlight! Losing my confidence! Trying to keep up with you... and, to be full and frank for a moment, I don't know if I can do it.

Have I said too much, Mark?

I haven't, as the song goes, said enough.

But wait! Sue! Forgive my manners - I haven't asked after you! How's the tan coming along? How are the tavernas and takeaways of Thessaloniki and Tenerife? What's pumping on the stereos and discotheques of Santorini and Zante? Are you eating properly? Are you getting enough sleep? I know you're on your hols, Sue, but you've got to look after yourself! We need you to come back to work fit and refreshed and ready for some top-level communicating again!

Okay? Good? Well done! Now to business.

Mark, Sue: you'll notice from your careful perusal of the lines above that last night I managed to make it onto the "early" train. The 18.51, Mark! What a way to start the week! Just to put things into context, getting the 18.51 means leaving work bang on time. It means jumping up and logging off and getting out before the chimes of Big Ben have bonged the last bong of six. Which is not as easy or straightforward as it sounds, Mark. It's no walk in the park, Sue.

Leaving work on time - it's an exercise in faux-nonchalance and mock-casual subterfuge, Mark. Leaving work on time - it's a study in skulking and skullduggery, Sue. It's like walking past a policeman. Like getting sniffed by a sniffer-dog. It's something that makes us feel guilty, that makes us feel bad, wrong, morally deficient and deserving of the lash, Sue! Even when we're innocent! Inexplicably! Yet indubitably!

Leaving work on time, Mark, means making a swift yet hopefully-unnoticed exit. It means sneaking towards the door whilst appearing to be merely taking a constitutional stroll around the office. It means logging off the computer whilst appearing to be merely double-checking an important email. It means shrugging on the old jacket and scooping up the old bag whilst appearing to be merely trying to smarten oneself up a bit. (Tricky, that last one.)

In a word, Sue, leaving work on time is... ninja. It's totally ninja! You gotta get all crouching dragon and house of flying tigers on it! You gotta make like a Samurai, Sue! You gotta go Shaolin!

And you know what? Last night, Mark, I was that ninja. Oh, you should have seen me! I was so fast I'd turned off my monitor and was out the door before the screen went dark. I was so smooth I made smooth peanut butter look chunky. I was so slick I... well, you get the idea. The point is I got out and over to Paddington and made it onto the 18.51.

And off we went! With a trumpety-trump! All the way to Maidenhead, Mark! Until, inevitably, tediously, tiresomely, we stopped and dawdled around pointlessly for 20 minutes before limping the rest of the way to Oxford. And arrived at about the same time as we would have if we weren't Samurai and sneaked out in order to make the early train in the first place.

I'll be blunt. Nobody was feeling very Samurai, once we shuffled past Slough, Sue. People were grumbling and grousing in a most un-British manner*. The old gentleman in the seat in front of me, Mark, positively harrumphed. The students in the seats behind ran out of battery for their game of Angry Birds. Even the fit blonde girl sitting beside me (told you I was ninja, Mark!) got uppity. She called someone to complain, to moan, to generally let off steam about her disrupted plans.

She may have even used some rude words to describe your train company! I mean, properly rude words! The kinds of words one wouldn't expect fit blonde girls to have even heard of, let alone ejaculate out loud!

Can you imagine, Mark! I was shocked. I was saddened. That it should come to this: comely girls using the language of the mess hall.

These delays, Sue: like I said, they're making us no better than mere savages.

Au revoir!


*Of course one can be both Samurai and British! Have you never heard of the British Samurai, Sue? Why, if it wasn't for the Queen's Own Samurai Fusiliers, we'd never have successfully invaded China back in the Wars of the Roses! If it wasn't for the Charge of the Light Samurai Brigade, we'd never have defeated Mario Balotelli at the Battle for Stalingrad! History, Sue. That's the thing. Without making the mistakes of the past we're doomed to live in the future. Cicero said that. One of the most exciting R&B artists of the 90s he was, too.

Mark is frustrated!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails. I am sorry for the delays, especially the particularly lengthy delays you encountered on 16 & 22 September. I really do empathise about not getting home in time to see your kids.

The causes behind both delays were very frustrating - we had to investigate an issue reported by a member of the public and this held us up at Maidenhead. On 19 September, your train was delayed when a Network Rail Tamper train (an engineering service) blocked the line. Last night a set of points failed in the Southall area. This caused the service which was to become the 19:22 to be delayed getting into Paddington and subsequently caused further delays as it passed through the affected area.

I am disappointed that after the progress we've made these last few weeks, we're losing your confidence again. I hope we can get this back.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Friday, 23 September 2011

22 September 2011. Letter 32

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 22/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 46 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Wake up sleepyheads! It's a helluva day and we've got a lot to get through!

(Of course, Sue, I realise you'll almost certainly still be awake - you're on your bolly-days! Sleep is a waste of good karaoke time, right? You're a twenty-four hour party person! Across the promenades and vomit-strewn alleys of Naxos or Paxos, through the boulevards and back streets of Bodrum and Agadir, you'll still be going strong, dusk to dawn! More power to your Lambrini Bianco, Sue!)

Are you jealous of Sue's holidays, Mark? I know I am. And I know you've just come back from your own summer sojourns... but do you dream of just jacking it all in and taking to the road? Following the sun to see where it takes you? Wouldn't you like to get away, Mark? Kerouac's beckoning with open arms! Wouldn't you like to get away, give yourself up to the allure of Catcher in the Rye?

No? Suit yourself then. Maybe that's just me. Me and Sue.

So. Where to begin then, my chuffing and chugging friends? It was quite a night, last night, wasn't it? Oh! What a night! Late September and the 19.22 was right up the spout. (Of course we all know that my train wasn't the only train going nowhere yesterday... my twitter feed was full of ranting First Great Western passengers, Mark, stuck on various trains of yours up and down the line. And in Paddington station, Sue - the mood wasn't exactly sunny, if you know what I mean. The mood was... dark. Bleak. There were a lot of people there, and there weren't any trains for them to get on. People were getting delayed every which way last night, Mark. Nobody got home on time. Everybody was hurting. It was delayageddon! Delayapocalypse!)

As it turns out, Mark, I think I may have been one of the lucky ones last night. (Woop! Go me!) My journey was only delayed by 46 minutes. You only wasted three quarters of an hour of my time. But can you imagine, Mark, if everyone whose time you wasted last night was as petty and snarky and sheer bloody-minded as me? Can you imagine if all those frustrated commuters took similar action and wrote to you as I'm doing? You'd spend the rest of your life reading their complaints!

According to the principles set out in Einstein's special theory of relativity, you would, anyhow, right?


And because, of course, you're a forward-thinking company that values customer insight and feedback, you would actually read them too, wouldn't you, Mark? Because you're the kind of guys who pride yourselves on your communication (right, Sue? Sue? Oh dear, somebody give Sue a nudge) you'd feel you had a moral obligation to address their concerns, wouldn't you?

Of course you would, Mark. And quite right too, Sue! If you can't get the running-of-the-trains-on-time part of your business right, you can at least get customer service sorted, can't you? It's a start, Mark! It's the beginning of a good company.

And as Eric Cantona so succinctly elucidated: "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." (It was either him or T.S. Eliot, either way. I always get them mixed up, Sue! One of them was a tortured intellectual with a penchant for impenetrable philosophical poetics... and the other was T.S. Eliot! Wa-hey!)

So. Your good intentions are not in doubt. But for all that, the fact remains that I'm now having to waste 46 minutes of your time. It means a lot of words, Mark. It results in a trackless desert of print, as someone once said (George Gissing, I believe, Sue. Noted Victorian novelist and sometime consort of fallen women. Got kicked out of Manchester University for it too. Never really recovered, died in relative poverty. The most underrated writer of his age, for my money. Had a cracking way with contemptuous social commentary only ever matched by Orwell.)

To wit: it's going to take some investment, reading this, Mark. (And I mean the kind of investment that costs you something, not the kind you're used to, the kind your customers usually pay for.) I hope you're ready. Pour yourself a stiffener, son. Make yourself comfortable. (You may want to consider a nap first, Sue.)

So. Forty-six minutes. It's a good job we've got a lot of time today, Mark. There's a lot going on in the world, isn't there? So much... what's the right word? So much... stuff. So much stuff occurring! Europe's disintegrating, Mark! Satellites are dropping from the skies, Sue! Our whole monetary system is collapsing, Mark! And in Switzerland (Oh! Switzerland, Mark! The Swiss Integrated Transport System! The trains, Mark! I know I've said it before, but, oh! The trains!) - in Switzerland, Sue, scientists have only gone and trashed the laws of physics, haven't they? I mean: the fundamental building blocks of the Universe!

Where do we start? How, in the idiom of the train announcer, should we commence?

Let's start with politics. Politics, then science. Let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.

So. To Westminster! I've been reading in my Super Soaraway that none other than the (Conservative!) Secretary of State for Transport is describing the trains as a "rich man's toy". What do you think he meant by that, Mark? Do you think he meant that only very rich people can afford to use the trains now, thanks to the regular above-inflation price rises you keep inflicting upon us?

Course not. That's not what he meant at all.

Do you think he meant that running our rail transport system has become a game for rich men? That providing a so-called service for their customers has become little more than a game for rich men in charge of rich companies, motivated by profit and not by customer needs or satisfaction? Do you think that when he described the trains as a "rich man's toy" he meant that companies such as yours are basically run by so many Fat Controllers, idly fiddling with their Thomas the Tank Engines and Henry the Green Engines and Percy the (also) Green Engines, just, you know, for a laugh? Putting the money they make and the jollies they get above all else? Do you think he's been reading this and stealing ideas from my Grand Unifying Theory of Children's Film And Television?

Me too, Mark! I think he's got it dead right! I think he's hit the knob on the head! The trains have become a rich man's toy: and we, the customers, have become playthings in that rich man's game. Who'd have thought Mr Hammond could be so perceptive? Or so... revolutionary? He doesn't look revolutionary, does he Sue? And he certainly doesn't look perceptive. He doesn't look, for example, as perceptive as Eric Cantona. Or T.S. Eliot. Or even George Gissing.

You know who else he doesn't look as perceptive as, Mark? (You're going to love this link, Sue: straight outta Communications 101.) He doesn't look as perceptive as Albert Einstein. (See, told you! Brilliant, eh?) But then, as we found out last night, Old Bertie wasn't perhaps as perceptive as we all thought. E, as it turns out, might not equal MC squared after all.

I saw the news that those too-clever-by-half boffins at CERN had managed to make a neutrino travel faster than the speed of light last night, Mark. I found out, as it happens, at exactly the same time as I was sitting on one of your trains traveling at precisely the speed of nothing-at-all. The irony, as Alanis Morissette might have said, did not escape me.

And it's worrying news, is it not? It's properly scary stuff, Sue! If things can go faster than the speed of light, then (and I'll keep this simple for you Sue, in your, shall we say, "delicate" holidaying state) what that basically means is that every single law of physics is wrong. Cause; effect. That's what's under threat here. Your trains run late, I write a letter about it. That only happens because things can't go faster than the speed of light. Your timetables (such as they are) are all predicated on the fact that things can't go faster than the speed of light. Seriously, Sue! It's a mindscrambler! Even for those of us who aren't on holiday.

So: to reiterate. I'll say it again (or for the first time, if E really doesn't equal MC squared. Or the eighth time. Or the noughth time.) If things can go faster than the speed of light... why then time means nothing. The speed of light, Mark, is the speed of time. It's the speed limit of the universe. And if it's not - then the whole concept of time itself gets, as Professor Brian Cox might say, screwed.

Dude! Not sweet!

If time is screwed, Mark, then maybe I wasn't delayed at all last night! If Einstein's special theory of relativity is screwed, Sue, then the causality which means I write a letter to you every time you waste my time no longer applies! If there's no causality, Mark, then, as Subir Sarkar, head of particle theory at Oxford University, so pithily put it: "we are buggered"*

I hope that's not the case, Mark! I don't want to be buggered, Sue!

Au revoir!


*That's a direct quote, Mark! Look it up!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

19 September 2011. Letter 31

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 19/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: nine minutes.

Good morning Mark - it's time to rise and shine! Good morning Sue - we've slept the whole night through!

How are you both today? Sue: no need to ask you how you're doing... you're away from the office! You're on your jollydays! Even as I write you're doubtless pumped full of pina colada, hammering out the karaoke classics in some thoroughly non-ironic theme pub on the run-down edge of Sharm El Sheikh. Good on yer, Sue! Don't let the cliches grind you down! You're on shore leave, Sue! East side, west side, rouse that city!

Mark: is it lonely in the office without her? I know, I know. The nights grow cold. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, familiarity breeds contempt, and every rose, as Bret Michaels of hair-metallers Poison (not a good band, Mark, when all's said and done) so uncharacteristically emoted, has its thorn. Just like every night has its dawn. Just like every cowboy sings a sad, sad song. (That's every cowboy, Mark. Every single one of 'em, singing sad songs. Even John Wayne. Even Clint Eastwood. Even Lee Van Cleef. Even Steve McQueen in the Magnificent Seven. And what a barbershop quartet they'd make, eh?)

To wit: she'll be back. Like the Terminator, Mark, Sue will be back to help out with all that silent and seemingly-anonymous communicating she does so well. Don't worry.

In the meantime, it's just you and me, kid. And today I'm after nine minutes of your time, to make up for the nine minutes of mine you wasted yesterday.

So: what would you like to talk about this grey day, Mark? Seeing as it's just us lads, just us boys together. How shall we shoot the breeze? How are we gonna chew the fat? Shall we talk birds, booze, ball games? (No... too stereotypical. What are we Mark? Neanderthals?) Shall I tell you some more about the Great 21st Century Novel I'm so close to getting round to thinking about starting to write? (Hmmm... maybe not. I'm too wary of you stealing the idea and becoming a literary sensation yourself, if i'm honest. No offence, like). Shall I entertain you with colourful tales from my misspent youth? (Best I don't: they may be too much at this hour. Caligula, Mark, would have blushed!)

Shall I expand a little on my Grand Unifying Theory of Children's Film & Television? Why not! Get your jotter out, son, you might want to take notes.

So then, if, as we established yesterday, Thomas the Tank Engine is an allegory of Karl Marx's theories on capitalist suppression of the working classes... then it stands to reason that the whole of the rest of children's entertainment must follow suit, one way or another. Right? Right.

So where would you like to start? Would you like me to tell you how Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men were a thinly disguised metaphor for the Suez Crisis? Or how Bagpuss was about Thatcher's smashing of the Trade Unions? (Clue: Professor Yaffle is Norman Tebbit.)

Are you interested in the influence of Islamist propoganda in the making of In The Night Garden? Or how Morph from Take Hart was a symbol of the fallout of the sexual revolution of the 60s and early 70s and subsequent Aids paranoia? (Where are his rude bits, Mark? Where? I've watched every episode on freeze frame looking for Morph's rude bits... and I just can't find them.)

How about Star Wars? That whole series (all six films, Mark, but in order for this to work you've got to look at the films in the order in which they were made, rather than the timeframe in which they were set) is about American post-war xenophobia. Did you know that? The first three films see the Evil Empire evolve from Nazis to Communists (the uniforms, dude! The Death Star!) - and then in the subsequent three movies all the bad guys seem suddenly awfully Far Eastern. When they're not thinly-disguised Japanese Samurai, they're distinctly Chinese-like "clones", replicating in their millions, swamping the universe. It's a racist pair of trilogies, Mark, let's not pretend otherwise.

But at least it's not the Lion King. The Lion King, Mark! Why, the Lion King is all about the beauty and magnificence and divine right-ness of Capitalism! It's the Circle of Life, baby! The little animals are eaten by the big animals, who in turn are eaten by the bigger animals. And, according to the Lion King, that's the way it should be. Eat and be eaten, Mark, it's the circle of life! Elton John told us so, Mark, he sang an Oscar-winning song about it!

Or maybe I won't tell you about these things at all. Would you really be interested?

What's that you say, Mark? You would? Well that's no good, is it? I'm not doing this to interest you! What the devil gave you that idea?

Au revoir!


Sue's gone and done a bunk innit

I am out of the office until 03/10/2011.

I am on holiday from Saturday 17 September until Tuesday 3 October.

Thank you. Sue

Note: This is an automated response to your message "29 minutes" sent on
19/09/2011 17:30:32.

Monday, 19 September 2011

16 September 2011. Letter 30

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 16/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 29 minutes.

Wotcha Mark! Whataboutyer Sue! Hey, guess what? It's Monday! Guess what else? I got delayed again last Friday! You totally outdid yourselves, too. It was a big one, Mark; a whopper Sue! You should have seen it: it would have made your eyes water. Congratulations! I hope you're very proud.

(Of course, I was delayed again this morning, but that letter will have to wait until I've seen this one through safely. They're backing up again, Sue! We have - in the parlance of the railway announcer, congestion. We're being held at a red signal. This morning's letter is just going to have to stand in a queue of letters, whether any of us like it or not.)

Anyway, meine kleine steam enthusiasts, all of that means we're in for a big one now. A long stretch. Twenty-nine minutes is a lot of your time to waste, but I'm going to sit here and give it my best shot. I'm going to give it 110 per cent, as they say on the X Factor. One hundred and fifty per cent! Two hundred per cent! One thousand per cent! It's a big yes from me, Louis!

Pull up a La-Z-Boy, Mark! Source yerself a footstool, Sue! Send for supplies! Stock up on the Rich Tea and the Chocolate Hobnobs, gather around yourselves the means for making coffee and the apparatus through which to imbibe it! Sit up, settle down, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood and prepare for the long haul.

Deep breath.

Okay, so here's what happened on Friday.

First of all, I got out of work early. "Back of the net!" I sang to myself. "In off the post! Linesman's ruled onside!"

I flew down the News International lift-shaft on wings of hope and joy, Mark. (Not literally, obviously. That would represent a serious breach of health and safety protocol. What I literally did was press the lift button, wait for the lift to arrive and any persons alighting on my floor to egress the lift, before slowly and safely ingressing myself into the self-same lift, waiting for the doors to close and the lift to descend to the ground floor, before allowing others to leave the lift first before patiently exiting myself. But inside I was flying, Sue! Metaphorically-speaking, I soared on wings of hope and whatever it was. Joy. Down the lift-shaft.)

I danced through St Katherine's Dock, Mark, I tra-la-la'd through the tube and emerged, starry-eyed and filled with heart-bursting gladness into the bright and beautiful Paddington evening. My train was there, Mark! It was on time! I was on time! I hopped, skipped and jumped down Platform 8 and even secured myself a seat. Sue, dude, you have no idea!

And we were off! We were the little engine that could, Mark! Steaming through the suburbs, bravely chugging towards home!

And then, at Maidenhead, we stopped. By Maidenhead Station, Sue, we sat down and stopped. For ages.

And so, like dust in the wind, my joy and hope and whatnots blew away and disappeared into the night. I didn't get home early, Mark. I didn't get to see my kids before they fell asleep. I got into Oxford late and the downward trend of the last week was confirmed in spades. In aces. In whatever other ways such things can be confirmed.

All that flying and soaring and dancing and tra-la-laing, Mark. All that hopping and skipping and jumping and seat-securing, Sue. All for nothing. Again. As usual.

It's all becoming rather disheartening again, isn't it? It's all enough to make a man begin to lose his faith. Why even the next day, as I sat on Saturday morning, at some obscenely early hour when normal (toddler-less) people are still tucked up tight dreaming dreams of better days, as I sat there with my two-year-old and read him tales of Thomas the Tank Engine, I thought to myself: I'm losing my faith in the railways.

I thought to myself: how I wish I still believed in the industry, efficiency and sheer willingness to do better that is so encapsulated in the world of Thomas and Friends. I thought to myself: how I wish I could get Percy the Green Engine, or James the Red Engine to work and back.

But I don't think I do believe anymore, Mark. I don't think I believe that you really do want to run the best railway service in the world, Sue. Do you? I mean: do you really? Do you look at those Swiss chaps, or the Japanese, the Germans, the Chinese (the Chinese, Mark! Keep an eye on those blighters - they've got plans, you just mark my words!) and think: we can make First Great Western the kind of train company that will make those foreign johnnies blush.

Do you think that they cast jealous eyes across the Channel, down the river and through the city towards London Paddington and wonder how they can emulate your achievements?

No, Mark. No, they don't. Why do you think that is? And what do you think you should be doing about it?

Well: I've got an idea. It came to me as the sun rose on Saturday morning, slumped on the sofa with a toddler pulling my ear and beating his little fists into my tummy. I'll tell you what we can do. We can all learn from Thomas. My little boy: he knows that Thomas knows the score.

Thomas the Tank Engine, Mark - it's got something to teach us about politics and struggle and the state of the world. It's as artful and subversive an apotheosis of Marxist theory as you'll read this side of your GCSE George Orwell primer. (Bear with us, Sue, this could get complicated.)

Let's look at the facts:

1. The Fat Controller, Sir Topham Hat - with his, er, top hat - is the man in charge. He is, literally, The Man. He rules the roost. He's the capitalist overlord, grown fat and arrogant on the industry and sweat of his proletariat underlings. He gives the orders, they do the work, he takes the profits and the plaudits.

2. The Steam Engines are the aspiring middle classes, betraying and bullying their prole brothers by their eagerness to please The Man: especially Thomas, the little blue turncoat, whose sole ambition in life is to be a Really Useful Engine. In order to appear so to the Fat Controller, he (and all the other engines) are ready to deceive and humiliate one another at the drop of a (top) hat.

3. The Troublesome Trucks are the rowdy working classes, the proles, feckless and lazy and always up to mischief and badness. The Fat Controller uses the Steam Engines to keep them oppressed, whipping them into submission lest they should rise up in glorious revolution and overthrow the ruling classes. Their revolutionary leanings are shown in the occasional derailing of one of the Engines. A small victory, for which they are mercilessly punished.

4. Thomas the Tank Engine is set on The Island of Sodor. Which, as you'll have spotted straight away, Sue, is an anagram of: Red Square, Moscow.*

Scary, eh? Who'd have thought it? The Reverend Wilbert Awdry - he was a sly old so-and-so, wasn't he? And here was me thinking all these long years that Thomas the Tank Engine was actually an examination of Protestant English post-colonial identity crisis! How wrong can one man be, Mark? How wrong?

Au revoir!


* Okay, so I lied about the anagram thing. Although, intriguingly, The Island of Sodor is an anagram of Identity Crisis. (Probably.)

A new letter from Mark

In which he accounts for three delays. That's cheating, right?

Dear Dom

Thanks for your emails and please accept my apologies for the delays on 12, 14 and 15 September. It's really not good enough and I am sorry.

Our performance has been much better these last few weeks and it's a shame when delays like this overshadow the positive progress we've made. We'll keep working hard though and hopefully we can show you more tangibly that the reduction in delays you have noticed has not just been a 'blip'.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Thursday, 15 September 2011

15 September 2011. Letter 29

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 15/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: eight minutes.

Morning Mark! Here's looking at you, Sue!

What's occurring, miei figli piccoli? How's tricks, mes petites amis? Good? Really? Somebody's clearly not being paying attention in class!

Your trains, Mark, your stuttering engines, your tatty carriages and worn-out "vestibules"... they ain't cutting the Colman's, are they? They're not pulling their weight. They're just not doing the job. What is this, the fourth letter I've written you this week? And what have the delays been? What are the minutes of mine you've wasted? What's the latest tally of tardiness?

Five minutes plus five minutes plus six minutes plus eight minutes... that's what mathematicians call a downward trend, Mark. It's what statisticians call "negative drift" (probably). It's what astrophysicists call a "declining inclination" (also probably, but less likely). It's what neuropsychologists call "detrimental mobility impetus" (almost certainly not, but they should. In fact, I may even write to the Royal College of Neuropsychologists suggesting it.)

In short, and to put it all in layman's terms, Sue, in the kind of language that good communicators use (the best kind of language, Sue!): things are getting worse. After a blissful (for all concerned, Mark!) fortnight of relative indolence, I'm finding myself busier than ever trying to waste your time the way you're wasting mine. It's exhausting, Mark! It's draining, Sue! It's making me a shell of a man! A husk!

It's lucky I've got no hobbies, interests, social life or significant extra-curricular pursuits to speak of, or I don't know how I'd be able to cope.

Do you have a hobby, Mark? How about you, Sue? Stamp collecting, perhaps? Needlecraft, possibly? How about Irish dancing? Astronomy? Bonsai cultivation? Dungeons & Dragons? Are you in a band? Do you stuff birds? Maybe you pin and mount butterflies?* What do you do, when you're not presiding over a failing train company, Mark? How do you while away the hours, when you're not communicating First Great Western's latest failings, Sue?

Do you "work out"? Do you zumba? Do you spin? (Although I have no idea what either of those things actually involve, Sue, I'll be honest - but I've heard the girls at work mention them in relation to the gym. Bear with me, okay?) Can you be found in the rosy-fingered mornings before work and the purple-hazed evenings after work red-faced and sweaty in your local leisure centre? Do you go down on bended knee and worship in the temple of the Body Beautiful?

Nah, thought not. Me neither. I've never spun in my life, Mark. I have never knowingly Zumbad, Sue. In fact, I've pretty much eschewed all gym-related activities altogether. You know why? Here's why. I've got a theory about gyms, you see. Do you want to hear my theory? You do? Sweet!

Here's my theory. It starts with a question, as all good theories do. And the question is this: what do you think is the most important piece of furniture in the gym, Mark? The one key thing that keeps people coming back, that keeps them interested, that cannot under any circumstances get broken or go missing?

It's the mirror, dudes! It's all about the mirrors. A gym without mirrors? Unthinkable! And all those people in the gym, Sue, staring at themselves, lusting after themselves, running greedy eyes over their own sculpted bodies, their toning torsos and lycra-sheathed limbs... hour after hour, running or jumping or lifting or pushing or pulling or spinning - all of them, all of the time, with eyes only for themselves. They're only there for the mirrors, really.

It's narcissism is what it is, Mark. Literally. It's a lot of people hopelessly desiring themselves to the point where they've lost touch with who they actually are. It's pornography of the self. Autonomoporn. Egoporn. It gives me the willies.

Also, most people in gyms tend to be bigger and tougher than me, and that puts me off as well. It's bad enough I've got a Mercury Prize-nominated gently melodic "rock group" looking to do me over: the last thing I need is a bunch of steroid-crazed muscle-bunnies getting the hump too.

So anyway, I don't go to the gym. I don't stamp collect or tango dance or paraglide. I don't birdwatch or flower-press or reconstruct civil war battles of a weekend. I have no hobby, Mark! I'm hobbyless, Sue! I work, and when I'm not working I'm spending less time than I'd like with my family... and the parts of my day when I'm not doing either I'm inevitably traveling between one and the other. On one of your tired old trains, Mark. Late. Meaning I have less time for both.

Can you try and help me out here, Sue? Is it too much to ask that you try and make the bits inbetween work-life and home-life as brief and efficient as possible, Mark? You know, given that that's what I'm giving you so much of my money to do? Given that I've got no time or energy or money left for anything else? Can you? Would you? Go on, just try it, eh? Just give it a go, there's a dear.

Au revoir!


*See how I didn't mention train spotting as a potential hobby for you there, Mark! It would have been a cheap dig. I wouldn't want to insult you with cheap digs. You guys deserve a better class of dig altogether.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

14 September 2011. Letter 28

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 14/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: six minutes.

Hey Mark! Hey Sue! Superstar MD (and DoC)! Here we go...

How are you, groovers? Same as yesterday? Same as the day before? Good. Great! Life goes on, Mark, long after the thrill of living has gone. No point in getting upset about it. We've all just got to keep on moving and hope for the best, right? That's the attitude! Well done!

What's that you say? How am I? Lovely of you to ask!

I'm ok, ta. You know. Bearing up. Getting on. Best foot forward and all that. Shoulders to the wall, back to the grindstone. And, once more, it seems, getting my (metaphorical) nib all inky over your trains again. Or, to put it another way (and to tip my trilby to Tolkein): Well, Mark, I'm back.*

It seems that, as sadly predicted, the last few weeks have just been a fillip. A blip. And despite the improved performance of Network Rail or whatever it was that was aiding and abetting your new-found punctuality, standards have once again slipped. Their standards? Your standards? Who knows, Sue! Although I'm pretty sure we all know whose you'll say it was, eh?

This morning you wasted six minutes of my time, Mark. Now I'm not so arrogant to suggest that in those six minutes I might have achieved something lasting and worthwhile and important and beautiful with my life... but, y'know, I might have. I could have at least tried.

A man can do an awful lot in six minutes, right, Sue? More than you might think.

In fact, having considered this for at least 30 seconds, just to make the point absolutely clear, I've decided to list 10 things a man could usefully and gainfully achieve in six minutes, given the chance, and assuming he's not spending them squeezed on a stationary train between a frankly rather fruity-smelling fat man** and a window showing nothing more interesting than that Stepford-like housing estate just outside Didcot. Just so we're clear about the lost potential and all that. The terrible waste.

So here it is then. Here's my list.

1. Destroy the whole world at least one and a half times. (Although having said that, it must be 25 years since I learnt about the four minute warning, Mark. I'm guessing technology has moved on, that intercontinental ballistic missiles have generally speeded up in the decades since, so perhaps these days one might even be able to bring about mutually-assured destruction more than one-and-a-half times in six minutes. I may look into this and report back.)

2. Sing "I Feel Fine" by the Beatles exactly 2.60869565 times. (It's a tune, Sue. And almost certainly the first pop song to intentionally use feedback as an instrument in its own right. But then you knew that already, of course.)

3. Run 3,600 metres. (Provided you're Usain Bolt.)

4. Deliver the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet three times. (With a few seconds left over for acknowledging rapturous audience reaction and the collecting of flowers, etc.)

5. Perform a perfect-six-scoring ice-dancing routine based on Ravel's Bolero at the Sarajevo Olympics 1.31386861 times. (Provided you're Christopher Dean. And Jayne Torvill is handy.)

6. Calculate that a thunderstorm is anything up to 360 elephants away.

7. Fall in love six times. (According to the Barlow Standard, as discussed previously.)

8. Romance the wife, smoke a cigarette and then catch a good couple of minutes sleep afterwards.

9. Watch just under 1/16th of Uncle Buck. (A brilliant film, Sue, inexplicably overlooked at the Academy Awards.)

10. Eat 37.2 hot dogs, including buns. (Assuming you're five-time Hot Dog Eating Champion Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, of San Jose, California.)

How many of those things have you achieved Mark? Sue? Exactly! And that's just because we've all had six minutes of our lives wasted! Just think what we could do if there were to be no train delays at all! We'd be Renaissance men, Mark! We'd be Ubermensche, Sue! We could be heroes!

Heady thoughts, liebchen. Much to ponder upon.

Au revoir!


*Well, I'm back: best line in Lord of the Rings that, Sue, as I'm sure you don't need telling. Also the last line. Coincidence?

** Why is it that I always get the fruity-smelling fat man sitting next to me, Mark? I look across the aisle (or what I can see of it round the straining shirt, the cantilevered tie) and I see nothing but pretty girls, foxy looking business chicks, perky foreign-exchange students, sophisticated Mrs Robinson-types - a whole carriage full of skirt. Why do I get the bad banana in the bunch? It's like that scene in that Woody Allen film, isn't it? I can't remember what it's called but he's on this train, and there's this other train, and basically his train is rubbish and the other train looks ace and it makes him sad. It's a good film, Mark, you'd like it. (Though it's no Uncle Buck, obviously.)

Here's... Marky!

He's glad I've had less cause to write recently. Oh dear.

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email and I apologise for Friday's delay caused by a Network Rail signal failure at Maidenhead. .

I am pleased you have noticed some signs of punctuality improvement. This is partly because infrastructure failures have been few and far between in recent weeks and this really does reflect on how well we can perform when the network works as it should. The Cotswolds redoubling works are also now complete, which is already making a significant difference. We won't become complacent though and will continue to demand better from Network Rail and we will keep focussing on reducing those delay minutes we direct have direct control over.

I am glad you have had less cause to write recently and I very much hope this run of good performance continues.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

12 September 2011. Letter 27

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 12/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: five minutes.

How now Mark? What's new, Sue?

It seems I was a little hasty yesterday with my protracted farewells, eh? Why, just last night, even as I fought my way to a seat on the train home, elbowing out grannies and vaulting over pregnant ladies, kicking the crutches away from war veterans and shoving aside crying children... even as I joined in the Paddington scrum, desperate and vengeful and ruthless in pursuit of a seat on the train, even as I did so, behind the bloodlust and the red mist, a little part of my mind reminisced about the fun we've had together.

Do you remember that time when you forced me to stare at a rainy Reading for 15 minutes? Or that other time when you forced me to stare at a rainy Slough for 15 minutes? Do you remember that day you forced me stare at a rainy Hayes and Harlington for 15 minutes? Or that other day when you forced me to stare at the back of the head of the bloke in front of me for 15 minutes? (That was quite a lot of times actually.) Do you remember that time? At band camp? When... actually, that was someone else, do excuse me.

Crazy days, Mark! Golden hours, Sue!

Anyway, as I say, it seems my reminiscing was somewhat premature. As any student of philosophy knows (and you're nothing if not a student of philosophy, Sue, that much is clear) one surely can't reminisce about something that is still ongoing, can one? How can you feel nostalgic about the present? Where's the logic in pining for the here-and-now? My train last night was delayed, Mark. The situation, as General James F. Amos, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, is so fond of saying, is ongoing. We have an ongoing situation, Mark. Incoming, Sue!

So. Five minutes it was last night. And hence the extraordinary precision and conciseness (concision? Sue?) of this letter. Expertly crafted to waste not a minute more or less of your own time in return. (Unless there's an unexpected delay, of course.)

And so that just leaves me room for an apology. (Not to you Mark, don't be daft. Nor to you, Sue, despite the pangs of my conscience and the aches of my heart.) No: I'm going to apologise to a group of what the young folk call "rock stars".

You see, Mark, it has become my habit in these missives to insert references and drop quotes from various films, poems, songs and whatnots - mostly to amuse myself, but also (I won't lie, Sue, you can read me like a book. And not a very good book, either. Certainly not Bravo Two-Zero by Andy McNab, for example) also to make myself look clever.

It's in the hope, Mark, that you might read a line like "I wasted time and now time doth waste me," and think I'm a bona-fide genius... and not just some jumped-up show-off who remembers a bit of GCSE Shakespeare. (I also do it because I have a kind of cultural Tourette's, but that's a story for another day.)

But here's the thing, lads. I met a man at the weekend (not like that, Sue! Please!) and I'm pretty sure he's pretty tight with one of the "rock bands" whose rather beautiful lyric I appropriated a letter or two ago. And he spotted it, Mark! He knew it wasn't me!

Which got me thinking... what if the "rock band" themselves saw it? What if they got their rock band lawyers onto me? What if they came round my house with their electric guitars and their roadies and their hordes of groupies and their wistful, lilting folk-pop melodies and totally duffed me up for plagiarising their poetics?

It's scary, Mark! It's real life and it terrifies me!

And so I'd like to make an apology to them. That thing about conkers and the air getting cooler and stuff - it wasn't me. It was them. And I think they're ace. Sorry. Please don't duff me up. For the love of God, call those groupies off!

Phew! Close one eh, Sue?

Au revoir!


Monday, 12 September 2011

9 September 2011. Letter 26

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 9/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! How do you do?

First things first. Congratulations on another fine week last week. Credit where credit is due - September has so far been the coolest month, breeding punctuality out of the dead timetables, mixing bad memories with fresh achievement, stirring dull routes with fresh trains. You managed delay-free journeys three days in a row, dudes! Well done! It's enough to inspire a man to poetry!

Only Monday and Friday let the side down, bookending the week with wasted time... but let's not be churlish. Compared to weeks past (especially those weeks where you left Sue in charge, Mark - my word, they really were a shambles!) you've really found your form. You've hit your stride. You've got your mojo rising!

Is this the turning point, Mark? Is this the moment everything changes? To wit - am I going to have to stop writing to you so often? (I would rejoice, of course, I would ring the (metaphorical) bells and blow the (figurative) whistles and dance a (literal) dance of joy... but I confess that a part of me would feel just a little bit sad. Why, if you ran an efficient train service, if you did the job I was paying you to do... then it would be the end of all this. Our little chats over, Mark. Our whispered confidences, Sue... no more.)

Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps it ain't the end of us.

Perhaps it's just a blip. An anomaly. An oddity. Perhaps you've not really sorted out your company at all, Mark, and we've all just got lucky this last week or two. Perhaps - to use a metaphor that will no doubt resonate strongly with you, Sue - it's like that period you get in every game of football where the inferior side somehow gets a few chances, squeezes a couple of tasty shots off, snatches the odd dangerous set piece... and sometimes even robs an unlikely point from the game.

Perhaps you've not suddenly become Man United after all, Mark. Perhaps you're still Plymouth Argyle. Or, more accurately, perhaps you're Leicester - essentially a second-tier side who occasionally enjoys the odd inexplicable season in the Premiership.

Who knows? But it's going to be exciting finding out, isn't it? I'm excited about it already, Sue! I leap upon your carriages every morning and evening with a renewed sense of purpose right now! I squeeze myself into the "vestibules"* with high expectations, I hold my nose and grit my teeth against the stench of the dribbling sinks and uncleaned toilets with a near-fanatical belief that I'm going to experience a punctuality of service that I'd hitherto only ever dreamed about. As I shell out my 450-odd quid of hard-earned this month for the privilege of standing to-and-from London every day, I do so confident that even if the journey is still essentially unpleasant, at least it will only be so for as long as you've promised it would be.

Right, Mark? Or wrong? Which way is it going to go? Where's your money? On red, Mark, or black? Odds or evens? Heads or tails? Man United or Plymouth Argyle? Are you to step up to the plate and become the Great Western Railway company that old Isambard Kingdom created in his own image? Or will you slide back into the First Great Western train company that would have had the old feller stamping on his stovepipe in rage?

It's the only question that matters in my world right now, Mark. And the anticipation is...

the anticipation is...

the anticipation is...

...killing me.

(Sorry, cheap anticipation joke there. Couldn't resist it. Indulge me, Mark, I've been missing you.)

Anyway - I shan't bang on. Seven minutes was the delay, and so this letter must be wound up. The sky's beginning to bruise, Sue. Night must fall and we shall be forced to camp!

You managed to waste a bare 17 minutes of my time last week - let's see what this week brings. I can hardly wait!

Au revoir!


*Vestibule. What is a vestibule, anyway, Sue? And do they exist anywhere else except on trains? Vestibule. Vestibule. Vest-i-bule. Ridiculous word.

Mark. Hopwood. Here. Now.

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email regarding your delay on Monday morning. Unfortunately, the Driver of our 06:00 service from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington was suddenly taken ill whilst on route. The chain of care he received was very efficient which meant this train was only slightly delayed, but this impacted the ability for other services to keep to their paths. Our 08:06 service from Oxford was one of those affected, I am sorry.

I am also sorry this put a downer on the start of your day but I hope the rest of your week has gone well.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

5 September 2011. Letter 25

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 5/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Ah, Mark, Sue. There you are. Stand up straight! Hands out of pockets! Hey, guess what? It's September! A new academic year begins today! Have we got that back to school feeling? Are we creased and scratchy in our oversized blazers and too-long trousers? Are we sporting shiny new satchels crammed with pristine pencil cases, unsullied exercise books, box-fresh biros? Do we have that familiar and familiarly uncomfortable feeling? That mixture of dread and anticipation, of not wanting the summer hols to end and yet looking forward to the excitement of a new term?

Do you see the conkers shining on the ground, Sue, sense the air getting cooler, and feel that you've just started fifth form?

God knows I do. It's strange, isn't it? I left school 21 years ago; I left Uni soon after that (a bit too soon, between me and you, Sue, I may have jumped the gun a little on that front... but that's a tale for another day. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime. It's a good story! You'd like it!)... so I have no reason whatsoever to feel all back-to-schoolish every September. And yet I do. I think we all do, deep down.

Do we ever lose that feeling? I doubt it.

How were your school years, Mark? Did the hallowed halls of - where did I arbitrarily decide you were educated? Gordonstoun? Rugby? - did they make a man of you? Was it all Tom Brown and Goodbye Mr Chips, lashings of macaroons and high jinks after rugger practice? Do you recall them with pride and nostalgia?

Or were your school years a living purgatory of Gradgrind-esque discipline and dictionary-down-the-pants unpleasantness? Was it something you just had to grit your teeth and get through?

All character building stuff, either way, of course. Our school years - they make us what we are, Mark! Never did me any harm, at any rate!

You know what I think, Mark? (I'm going to tell you anyway - we've got 10 minutes today, 10 minutes of time you owe me after this morning's delay.) I reckon one's school years are so profound an influence on one's whole subsequent life, that you can tell a man's whole attitude to existence by the way he feels at the beginning of another academic year. When September comes, Sue, the optimists and pessimists make themselves known. Like squirrels. Some red, some grey. But all, um, out collecting nuts (the simile may have run away from me there, but you get the idea).

Those glass half-empty merchants, Mark - they're especially melancholic at this time of year. And according to my entirely spur-of-the-moment and made-up-as-I-go-along brand of psychology (a surprisingly effective and insightful brand, I might add) that means they had a rotten time of it at school.

Vice versa for the seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness autumnal cheerleaders: they loved school, Mark! They were probably prefects, head boys, teachers' pets. It made optimists of 'em!

So which were you? Is your glass half-empty? Or is your pint half-pulled? When (for example) a train of yours is delayed, by say, 10 minutes, are you inclined to look on the bright side? Do you want to smile and shrug and say, hey, it could have been 20 minutes! It could have been 30! You're lucky there was a train at all!

Or do you stress over every second? Is every moment after deadline a moment wasted, a moment lost to the abyss, another depressing defeat in the eternal struggle? Do you think: we wasted time, and now time doth waste us? Did school make a pessimist of you?

You know what? I used to think I was in the former camp, Mark. I used to look at my pint pot and celebrate all the beer that was still to drink. But since catching your trains 10 times a week, since subjecting myself to the daily drudgery of your depressing service... I'm beginning to wonder.

Could an optimist become a pessimist just like that? Is it even possible?

And so I've been tasting the air especially keenly, Mark. I've been waiting to see how I felt about the back-to-school vibe. How was it going to affect my mood? What would it show me up as?

And last week, Mark! Oh! Last week! After your spectacular seven-out-of-eight showing last week, I was feeling pretty damn good about it all. I was an optimist again! When pretty girls smiled at me, Sue (hey, it does happen) I assumed it was because I was looking good, because there was something sweet to smile about. I was totally Mr Brightside, baby!

And then I got the train today, and the train slowed down today, and then it stopped today, and then it never really picked up speed again today, and I was late for work today, and I looked at the rain and felt the wind and thought... stupid back to school autumn. And when a pretty girl smiled at me in the lift at work today, I assumed it was because my glasses were wonky, or I'd spilt coffee down my shirt or my flies were undone. Suddenly, I wasn't so sunny and assume-the-best after all, Sue.

Ah, in meo capite fille*, as our old school motto ran. In meo capite fille, Sue! Here's hoping things improve tomorrow. I'd hate to stop thinking things can only get better, Mark!

Au revoir!


*In meo capite fille - it's Latin, Sue. It means "On me 'ead, son". It wasn't really our school motto, but it's the only Latin I know. I never really paid attention to Latin, per se. Never saw the need for dead languages, et cetera, in everyday life, you know? Latin? It's just something to remember the old alma mater by, right?

Mr Mark Hopwood in the house!

He had a lovely holiday too!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email and I am sorry for yesterdays delay. Our performance overall this summer has been disappointing but this last week has been much improved and this is the standard you should expect.

I can see that you have raised the issue of fares again. I know that this is an important issue for you and all our customers however, I thought that Sue had explained exactly where we stand with regard to January's increase but perhaps I need to reiterate that Season Ticket fares are regulated by the Government. They have chosen to impose a higher than inflation increase and the additional revenue generated over what would otherwise have been raised is passed straight back to HM Treasury. This is not therefore something over which I have any influence. Of course I understand that our customers don't welcome this increase but it is important to understand that this money is not retained by First Great Western.

I had a great holiday, thank you. I spent some time in France and travelled on a number of late running trains, which is maybe something I need to raise with SNCF!

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Thursday, 1 September 2011

1 September 2011. Letter 24

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 1/9/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes. Minus one minute for unexpected early arrival on Tuesday night. Call it an even nine minutes, eh?

Mark! You're baaaaack! (I've written that in my best X Factor presenter voice.) And guess what? The trains have only started running on time! For a week, Mark! A whole week. (A week that included a Bank Holiday, to be fair, but still.) You've come back, you've taken charge, you've knocked some heads together, burnt the dead wood, taken names, kicked ass and only gone and made the trains run on time!

Have your trains ever gone a week without delay, Mark? Have you ever known seven days of smooth service? Or have we entered uncharted territory? Are we boldly going where no one* has gone before?

Who cares? Let's bask in the glory of it! Let's give ourselves a hearty pat on the back.

I've only got one word for you, Mark: congratulations. And thankyou. Two words. Congratulations, thankyou and well done. Four little words. One that should possibly have been hyphenated. I've only got four words (one possibly hyphenated) for you, Mark. (Does "and" count? Call it five (one possibly hyphenated) in that case.) Congratulations, thankyou and jolly well done. (Six words. One possibly hyphenated.)

But it seems that nothing, as Echo and the Bunnymen so poignantly posited, ever lasts for ever. Dreams do end. The sun, I am sad to report, also sets. We had a good run, Mark, it was beautiful while it lasted... but this morning normal service was resumed. Around the avenues and alleyways of Hayes and Harlington, we stumbled, stuttered and shuddered to a stop.

We staggered into London Paddington 10 minutes late. Summer's lease, Mark, had all too short a date. And at a stroke all that good work came undone. It was like you'd never been away. Or rather, it was like you were still away.

What can we say, Mark? What can we do, Sue?

But I'm being rude. I'm getting ahead of myself. Do excuse me! How was your holiday? How were the discotheques of Playas de las Americas and the meatmarkets of Malia and Torremolinos? How fared the fleshpots of Prague and Amsterdam? What news of the muscled Methuselahs of Miami Beach? Did you take some time to celebrate? Just one day out of life? Was it, as Madonna, claimed, so nice?

Good! I'm glad! I'm pleased for you Mark! Lord knows you needed the break. And what a time to go! While you were away... all sorts happened! There was a rumpus in Libya! A hurricane in New York! Some awful unpleasantness in branches of Lewisham Foot Locker and Croydon Comet!

While you've been jetskiing through the Great Barrier Reef, there has been news, Mark. News! And most of it bad. Most of it seeming to point to the incontrovertible truth that the world is literally going to hell in a literal handcart.

There was even talk of First Great Western putting their prices up by eight per cent! Amidst riots and revolutions, hurricanes and earthquakes, fires and stonings and flood, that was the headline that really caught my eye.

What cobblers, I thought! Mark wouldn't do that! (Sue seems to be sticking to the party line, but we needn't worry too much about that. She's only communicating. Don't shoot the messenger girl!) Mark's a man of honour and integrity, I thought. The idea of such a scandalous rise in fares would go against every moral fibre in his body. When he gets back from hiking the Inca Trail, I thought, he'll surely knock all this nonsense on the head.

Tell me I'm right, Mark! You've shown you can make the trains run on time for a whole week (more than the Emperor Charlemagne even managed!) - now show you can see this through to the end! You gotta make it happen!

Au revoir!


*You'll notice that's "where no one has gone before", Sue, not "no man". They changed it for Star Trek: The Next Generation - presumably because, you know, space-faring chicks are people too. Lieutenant Uhura, for one. And I'm all for that, Sue! I for one welcome the brave efforts of our lady astronauts! Especially the pretty ones. Bless 'em!