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!
*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?