Monday, 31 October 2011

28 October 2011. Letter 49

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.21 FGW service from Paddington to Paddington, 28/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 12 minutes.

Hey Mark and Sue! Don't make it bad! Take your slow trains... and make them better! Remember to let them into your - actually, I'll stop that there. Not sure it's really working, is it?

So! What's what? How's tricks? How's treats? (See what I did there, Sue! It's Halloween! Tricks! Treats! Now that's some pretty flashy communicating, eh? Keeping it topical-style. Call me a fully-paid up member of Club Topicala!) Have you all been dressing up and carving your pumpkins? Have you been telling spooky stories and giving each other the willies? Are things going bump in the night? Are you worried about your ghoulies?

Me too, dudes! My ghoulies have been giving me no end of jip. It's a scary business, is Halloween! And even if you can avoid the feral gangs of youths demanding chocolate with menaces at your doorstep come sundown; assuming you can dodge the drunken office parties, the saucy she-devils and "hilarious" Human Resources managers dressed as extras from Thriller wanting to pinch your bottom and become your best pal; then there's always the danger of possession by the unquiet souls and vengeful legions of the walking undead! Really, Mark, Halloween can be a very stressful time all round.

I tell you: if it wasn't for all the free sweets I "confiscate" from my children, I'd ban the whole bothersome pagan business altogether.

But enough about me! I always talk about me! Let's talk about you!

What have you been up to, Sue? What's new and fresh and exciting in the world of corporate communications? Any cutting-edge communicating techniques I need to know about? Any fast-breaking communications mode d'emploi (as our garlic-breathing cousines across La Manche like to put it) I should be researching? What's the latest word on the latest words? How are they communicating on the front line these days? How, Sue, will we communicate in the future? As Director of Communications for the Train Operator of the Year (votes cast relating to the year 2009), share with me the next generation of communicating technology! I am thirsty for communicating knowledge, Sue! I am, literally (not literally literally, but, y'know, literally) an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with facts from the communications encyclopedia. The communopedia, as it's probably never referred to, but should be.

Seriously, Sue! I want to learn! I can't wait to learn! Let's get down to Communications town!

And you, Mark? What's the word from the Managing Director's office? What have you been watching on TV? Should Frankie Cococcooccoccozzazzzazzaaaa still be in the X Factor? Did Nancy Dell'Olliollioilliolliolio deserve to be ejected from Strictly? Can you believe Big Brother is still even on? And do you realise that I'm A Celebrity is starting again in a few weeks?

Truly, Mark, this is a golden age for television: der Goldenes Zeitalter, as our sausage-sucking cousins on the banks of the Rhine would say! A near-mythical epoch for the gogglebox! And on top of it all, there's Young Apprentice!

Ah, Young Apprentice! Do you watch Young Apprentice, Mark? Those crazy kids playing at being grown-ups! The boys in their Dads' suits, the girls with their quaint concepts of equality in the workplace! (Haven't they heard of the glass ceiling, Mark? It's there for a reason, for goodness sake! And at least, being glass, they can still see through it, right?)

I love Young Apprentice! And you know what I love the most about it? I love the fact that these kids still touchingly believe that the men at the top, the ones running stuff (the ones on the right side of the glass ceiling), actually know what they're doing! I love that those kids all seem to hold on to the idea that the bigger the suit and shinier the tiepin, the more competent the man. Bless 'em!

It's like still believing in Santa Claus, isn't it Mark? It's like still believing in ghoulies and ghosties! It's something we all start off convinced is true - only to discover later is in fact a myth, a story, something our parents made up to convince us that the world isn't the endless awful procession of tedium and drudgery and blown chances and fractured dreams that it probably in fact is.

Do you remember how old you were when you realised that most people actually have no idea what they're doing, Mark? Do you remember the moment when you discovered that just about everyone in any position of responsibility is basically just muddling through, half blagging it and half terrified of being found out (and I suspect the only reason more of us aren't found out is because the people who really should be finding us out are just as incompetent and terrified as we are)?

Of course, it may be different in the old train business, Mark. In fact: I'm sure it's different. I'm sure all of you who rise to the top at First Great Western do so because you're the best of the best, the cream of the crop, a rare and beautiful combination of imagination and innovation and intelligence. Good. Great! Well done for bucking the trend!

But here's the thing. I was 12 minutes late home on Friday. That was entirely down to the incompetence of your company. Not the drivers, or the guards, or the man who punches my ticket. Someone at the top, Mark! Somebody ain't showing that rare and beautiful shizzle I was just talking about! Could it be, Mark, Sue, that the kids from the Young Apprentice are going to have to add First Great Western to their list of disappointment and shattered illusions?

Say it ain't so! Say you can begin to make it better! (Better, better, better! Na, na na na-na-na-naaa! I knew I'd make Hey Jude work in the end!)

Au revoir!


Friday, 28 October 2011

27 October 2011. Letter 48

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 27/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 35 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Hello! Is it me you're looking for?

I'll level with you, chaps: I wonder where you are. And I wonder what you do. Are you somewhere feeling lonely? Or is someone loving you? I do hope you're not feeling lonely! I do hope someone's loving you! I hope lots of people are loving you! In a fraternal, non-saucy way, obviously. A familial, rather than over-familiar, way.

In fact, I like to think of the whole First Great Western family as a big... well, family. Not a dysfunctional family, like The Simpsons, or the Wests, or the Gaddafis. But a nice family. The Waltons, maybe. Or the von Trapps. A nice big musical Alpine family, Mark! Perfectly in harmony! And who hold no truck with any of those over-keen goose-stepping types who come round trying to romance the eldest daughter! That's exactly the kind of family I think of when I think of the First Great Western family!

It's a beautiful image, Mark. I shall add it to my list of favourite things. (Somewhere between whiskers on kittens and silver white winters that melt into springs.)

Anyway. Enough of these musical musings. Lovely though they are, we're here for graver, more serious reasons. The trains delay and fail, Mark! The call-centre cannot hold! Last night... oh, last night was grim. Were you called back in to the office, Mark? Were you summoned from your karaoke bar to get communicating, Sue? (Thursday night is the new Friday night, after all! I've written that feature a few times. I've also written Monday Night is the new Friday Night, Sunday Night is the new Saturday Night, Staying In is the new Going Out, Work is the new Play and, slightly bizarrely, but it was for the Sunday Times and they were paying so who was I to argue, Gambling is the new Yoga.)

Did you both immediately drop whatever you were doing (the remote control, Mark? The sambuca, Sue?), rush into the street, holler a Hansom and hot-foot it back to the First Great Western Command Centre as fast as the driver could legally, safely and responsibly take you? I'll bet you did! And quite right too! The trains were all up the proverbial and it was all hands on deck to make sure you could continue to work tirelessly to ensure the service you provide is as good as possible!

(Tirelessly, Mark! I love that! Working so hard you don't even get tired! Tiredness is for the weak! Fatigue is for the worthless! We can work and work and continue to work and not even get tired! We are First Great Western and we are tireless!)

So it seems there was an incident last night. Something had happened near Reading. Something, so the rumours go, rather grim. Our conductor announced it as a "blockage" on the line. That didn't sound nice to me. That sounded like a euphemism.

If the "blockage" was the fatality I suspect it might be, then that, in fact, is awful. If it was an accidental fatality - by which I mean the kind of fatality where the person involved did not intend anything fatal to happen at all - then it is immeasurably awful. And please don't think for a moment that I intend to trivialise or belittle that awfulness in any way. I don't.

But, Mark, it happened. And what we have to do, is deal with the consequences as they affect us in the best way we can.

Your job - or so it seems to me - is to make the trains run on time. In good times and in bad. To deal with the slings and arrows and outrageous misfortune and signal failures and busted engines and chipped windscreens and even fatalities... your job, so it seems to me, is to take arms against this sea of troubles, Mark - and by opposing, end them.

(I can't take credit for the inadvertent poetry of that paragraph, Sue, much as I'd like to. I was actually paraphrasing the immortal words of William Shatner, in the seminal 1967 Star Trek episode: Polonius and the Arras of Uranus. I know that some believe that William Shatner was not actually the author of those words, and that they were instead the work of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, but I don't think we need to lend credence to that kind of hokum, do we?)

So. We need to deal with delays when they happen, no matter why they happen. And as far as I can tell, Mark, delays occur for one of three broad reasons. Either it's Network Rail's fault, or it's your fault, or it's some random fault (like a fatality). But the responsibility for getting me home on time, for coping with the delay, for dealing with the situation, is yours alone. You're the one running the service. You're the one taking my money.

And this is the thing, Mark. You're taking my money. Not only that: I'm paying in advance!

How many other service industries can you think of operate on the model that the customer pays in advance? And not only that, but having paid in advance, if the thing he's paid for turns out not to be what he thought he was paying for - let's say he can't get a seat, or the toilets aren't working, or the service turns out to take half as long again as it was supposed to - then he's supposed to just put up with that? He's supposed to just accept it? Day after day, week after week, months and years on end until the last syllable of recorded time? (That last bit was stolen from Shatner again. Sorry.)

And not only all that - but then he's expected to be so happy with this sorry state of affairs that he'll gladly accept a price hike for that service of more than twice the rate of inflation? Two years running? For more of the same?

Mark: can you think of any other service industry that operates on such principles? That asks people to pay in advance for such a service? Sue? No? No.

So yes, Mark, a fatality on the line is an awful thing. But you know what? Maybe you should have a system in place to cope with such awfulness? And you know what else? A fatality on the line makes me feel that time is short and life is cruel and maybe every single minute is precious. And not to be wasted on unnecessary train delays.

Oh dear. Am I ranting? Am I raving? (Not that kind of raving, Sue! Not the glowsticks and saucer eyes and arms in the air kind of raving! We're not on our holidays now!) I do apologise! Let's calm things down. Let's change things up. Let us, as the late Jim Morrissey, singer of psychedelic LA rockers The Smiths, said, change the mood from sad to gladness. (Or was it the other way around?)

Whatever shall we discuss?

I'll be honest: I'm not in the mood for current affairs, Mark. The doings of the day are not floating my boat. The issues of the moment are failing to light my fires. It's all so grim! And after the whole Colonel Gadd-icky thing, I want to keep off the grimness. I want something feel-good, Sue! Something to make us all feel better!

I know! I've got it!

I read in my super soaraway today that company director's pay is up, up, up, Mark! The big men at the top - they're seeing out this recession in style! They're showing the rest of us coping on below-inflation pay rises, or no pay rises, just how to do it! Forty-nine per cent, on average, Mark! Not bad!

It cheers me up no end, Mark! I do hope you're among those corporate winners! I do hope you're getting your bonuses and incentives and share options! I'd hate to think you were the only MD in town not invited to the party! Please tell me you're not having to scrape by like the rest of us, Mark. Please let it not be that you'll be wondering how you're going to afford to travel on your own trains once the price rises kick in after Christmas!

Au revoir!


Mark! Back once again with the renegade master!

Dear Dom,

Thank you for your email and apologies for the delay to your journeys.

On Friday our 18:51 service developed a mechanical fault at Paddington which although was quickly repaired meant that our service had missed its scheduled path and subsequently arrived into Oxford 34 minutes late.

On Monday and Tuesday our 08:06 service to Paddington ran behind trains that were running late and caused a 7 & 10 minute delay to your arrival into London.

As I have mentioned before I view any delay as a disappointment and as a failure on our part to deliver the expected service. To address this we always review our own performance to see if we can do things better and I have a team who work tirelessly to ensure the service we provide is as good as possible. We don't get it right every time and clearly there is more to be done. You have my assurance I am committed to ensuring we will do better.

Kind regards


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

25 October 2011. Letter 47

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 25/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 13 minutes.

Mark! Sue! What's the story, Mark and Sue-ey? Do you need a little time to wake up? Do you need a little time to rest your mind?

No? Good! Great! Let's get down to the nitty and the gritty then. Let's get our hands dirty. Let's roll up our sleeves and remove our rings and lather up our forearms and prepare to plunge, James Herriot-like, up to our elbows in the fundamentals of train travel. Does that sound agreeable to you? It does? Wonderful! Here goes, then...

It is with a heart made heavy by responsibility and a soul weighed down by the burden of bearing bad news that I feel I have to inform you, Mark, that once again, one of your trains ran late. And perhaps most pertinently from my own perspective, the train in question was supposed to be carrying me to work.

I know. I know. My head is bowed, my brow is furrowed. Me eyes well up. Why must it be so, Mark? What, in the words of the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield's 1987 Number 2 hit (as you doubtless remember, Sue, it was kept off the Number 1 spot by Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up, although of course it did reach the top of the charts in Ireland - the Irish, presumably, being less enamoured of the Newton-le-Willows warbler than the rest of us), have I done to deserve this?

It was delayed by 13 minutes, Mark. That's 21 point six recurring per cent of an hour, Sue. That's enough time to listen to Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up 3.67924528 times! And if you think 13 minutes motionless on a tatty old train feels like a long time, just try listening to Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up 3.67924528 times!

The difference, of course, is that I can choose whether or not to listen to Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up 3.67924528 times (depending mostly on how insane I might be). And I did not choose to spend an extra 13 minutes on your train. In fact, I had paid you a substantial amount of money to make sure I did not spend those extra 13 minutes on your train. It was a specific part of our unspoken contract.

So, anyway. Here I am. Cheated out of my time by your inefficiencies again. Come chasing petty recompense again. And what shall we talk about today? What's going on in the world?

How about the Eurozone Crisis, Mark? Nah, too prosaic, too easy to sort out. It'll never take me 13 minutes to cover that! I can do it in a single sentence. You want my solution to the Eurozone Crisis? Sell some of Greece to Germany. Simples. The Greeks get their money, the Germans get that nice spot of land by the Med they've been after for a while, none of the banks default, job's a good 'un. Or, as they say in the Fatherland: Das ist gute arbeit!

What about Colonel Gaddafi, then? (You know Colonel Gaddafi, Sue! Funny looking Libyan chap, friend of the Blairs, valued customer of the British arms dealing community, occasional flogger of Semtex. Got lynched by a mob recently. Rum old business all round.)

Hmm. You know what, Mark? I'm not going to discuss Colonel Gaddafi with you. It's just too gory. Just too... icky! Colonel Gadd-icky, that's what I call him!

Ooh, I know! Sue! John Terry! Captain of England! Lion of Chelsea! Alleged racial abuser of opponents and supposed cuckolder of team-mates! Shall we talk about John Terry, with his sub-Sid Vicious hair and his sub-standard morality? Shall we chew the fat over John Terry, with his deeply dodgy Dad and his supposed mocking of American tourists in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks? Shall we, Mark? What say you, Sue? Yes? Okay then, let's do it!

You first!

What's that you say? No? Oh. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps we should stay clear of the whole racism in sport issue. Perhaps we shouldn't get embroiled in that particular imbroglio. Perhaps we should stick to what we know. Good thinking, Sue! Good communicating!

So. Sticking to what we know, then. And what, my controversy-dodging comrades, do we know? Do we know, for example, why the trains are always late? Do we know why they're overcrowded? Do we know why they're so expensive? Do we know any of these things?

Because if we do know these things, Mark, then the next question must surely be: why are we allowing things to continue in this sorry state? Because we do want to improve, don't we Mark? We want the trains to run on time! We want people to be able to sit down when they've paid outlandish amounts for their tickets! We want to not have to raise ticket prices by twice the rate of inflation for two years running whilst in the midst of the worst recession in living memory! Right? Right!

So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to make some positive changes, Mark... or will we simply do what John Terry always does? Will we just mutter a few insincere apologies and carry on as before?

What do you think, chaps?

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

24 October 2011. Letter 46

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 24/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: nine minutes.

Hark, Mark! Ooh! Sue!

How, as the funny fat one from Friends used to say so hilariously, are you doin'? Are you good to go? Are you hot to trot? Are you champing (chomping, Sue? What do we think? Champing or chomping? Does one champ; or does one chomp? I'd welcome your input on this one) at the bit? Are you ready for the off?

You are? Good! Great! Super smashing fab! There's nothing like a positive attitude, Mark! There's nowt so uplifting as a can-do spirit! You guys should keep that up. You should make it compulsory. You should lead the entire team at the First Great Western Command Centre in daily motivational sing-songs. Let's get singing, Sue! Let's get singing glorious songs of positivity and optimism!

If we can't perform on the track, as it were, let's at least feel good about ourselves off the track! If we can't come up with the actual goods running-a-train-company-wise, let's at least keep smiling as if we could! If we can't walk the walk, let's talk the talk! Let's sing the songs! The important thing, Mark, is not how we perform: but how we're seen to perform, right?

Thought so.

Anyway. After Friday's epic 33-minuter and yesterday's corresponding seriously long letter, today is a day of relative relief for us both. My train to work yesterday was only nine minutes delayed, Mark! Well done! Give yourself a big pat on the back! And guess what? By only wasting nine minutes of my day, you can justifiably claim to have improved by around 366.7 per cent on Friday's performance! Nobody could argue with figures like that, Mark. Nobody. Except perhaps a madman. Or a pedant. Or a, you know, stickler. A mad, pedantic, stickler. And who cares what they think, eh? Silly sticklers.

So, we're agreed: by running the 08.06 service from Oxford to Paddington yesterday in such a brilliantly efficient way that it only arrived nine minutes after it was supposed to, you've effectively improved your service more than three-fold. Brilliant! That's the kind of thinking that gets you nominated for Train Operator of the Year, is that! That's the kind of operations that get you an 80-whatever-it-was per cent approval rating! Fantastic work! Outstanding!

Hang on!

Hold up!

Wait just one cotton-pickin' moment!

Major rethink in progress, Sue!

I may be wrong about that!

You've gone and tricked me again! Oh, you and your positive attitude, Mark! You and your confounded sunny outlook, Sue! Making me think that I should be grateful my train was ONLY delayed by nine minutes! Giving it the old glass-half-full thing! Clever, Sue! Fiendishly clever! Diabolically clever! Infernally clever! Devilishly clever! Ooh, you're good!

But the facts, as the funny fat one out of Friends never once said, are indisputable. The facts, in fact, remain - regardless of the rosiness of the tinted spectacles through which they are viewed. My train was nine minutes delayed.

The glass, Mark, may be half-full, or half-empty, but either way, the glass does not have the required amount of liquid in it. The glass is missing liquid. I paid for more liquid! Where's my liquid? We should not be grateful for a nine minute delay just because it's not a 33 minute delay! It's still nine minutes out of my life, Mark! You owe me more liquid!

Oh: and before I go, ponder this. I write these words on the Tuesday morning train. We're currently running, according to my clock, some 13 minutes behind schedule. Expect me to come chasing you for those minutes tomorrow, Mark! Start looking for liquid, Sue!

Au revoir!


Monday, 24 October 2011

21 October 2011. Letter 45

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 21/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 33 minutes.

Mark! Sue! There you are! Thank goodness for that!

How the blue blazes are you, Mark? What's the word on the streets of Sue-town, er, Sue?

I do hope all is lickety-split and tickety-boo. I do hope all is ship-shape, Bristol fashion and best in show. I do hope this letter finds you, as it does me, in the pink!

I was so pleased to receive your latest response, Mark! I don't mind telling you: it fair made my day. Oh, who am I kidding: it made my week! I'm not ashamed of it, Mark! Every day, I sit poised over my inbox, clicking, reclicking, double-clicking and refreshing, hoping for some small sign you still care. Every day, I wait with held breath, with limbs all a-quiver and heart all a-flutter, desperate for word of your intentions towards me! Every day you don't write feels like a season in purgatory, Mark! A moment without word from you, Sue, is like a lifetime of silence!

So, yes. Thankyou for your last letter! It may not have been the longest, most comprehensive, or even the funniest letter you've ever written me - but that's ok. I know the pressure Sue's under every day, and we can't all communicate brilliantly every single time we communicate, can we? (I know I certainly can't.) The important thing is, you took the time and made the effort to reply to my concerns. For that I am genuinely grateful.

Your train service may be a disgrace, Mark, but you are gentleman enough to reply to my rants and rambles - and I do appreciate it. Please don't think for a moment I don't.

Anyway. Enough of the girly stuff. To business, Mark! To the deeds of the day and the matter in hand! Once more unto the beach!* Sharpen up a fresh pencil, Sue, and prepare to take notes! We've got 33 minutes to get through today. Thirty-three minutes of my time you wasted on Friday night - and 33 minutes I now accordingly intend to waste of your Monday afternoon.

It's a tall order - but we're pretty tall guys, you and I. Together we can do it. (Sue: you're no hobbit yourself. We're all three of us tall guys! Let's all have a big tall high five! Alright! Go Team Tall!)

So, Mark. Sue. Friday was not a good day for me. It should have been a great day! Stone Roses tickets were up for grabs! Two hundred and twenty thousand of the blighters! Surely, thought I, one or two tickets out of 220,000 should be gettable? Surely, thought I, one or two tickets out of 220,000 would be an achievable goal?

I'd even made preparations. I bunged the office intern the promise of a free drink to (wo)man the phones for me until I got in - just on the off-chance that all the tickets should go in the first 14 minutes they went on sale or something outlandish like that. I'd given her my ticketmaster passwords, my email log-ins, my credit card details... in short enough information about me for her to effortlessly thieve my identity and clean out my bank accounts. I told her if she got me four tickets I'd buy her drinks forever. (I didn't actually mean that, of course, but, hey, life is unfair and we all have to learn these lessons the hard way, right?)

She hadn't got tickets by the time I got in to work, Mark. I was forced to sack her on the spot.

And an hour later, after much refreshing of the internets, after repeated re-pressing of the redial button and a great deal of the kind of colourful language that is generally not encouraged in office environments, I remained ticketless. I'm not going to see the Stone Roses play at Heaton Park, Mark. I won't be one of 220,000 middle-aged Mancunian men in fading 20-year-old t-shirts getting drunk and over-excited and singing the wrong words to "I Am The Resurrection". (Or rather, I will be middle-aged and drunk and dressed 20 years out of date and singing badly... but just not in the presence of the Stone Roses when I do so. I'll be at home, like I usually am when I'm doing those things.)

Of course, none of this is your fault - but I feel it's relevant to the letter. Just to paint a picture of my day. Just to get an insight into the fact that I wasn't in the best of moods.

And let us not forget the real tragedy of the situation, Mark, the real victim of the piece. That poor intern, Mark! Because she couldn't get me those tickets, all her years of study and application have gone to waste. It's a crying shame. I feel terrible. Poor girl.

So. I get through the day without further negative incident. But not too much positive either, if I'm honest. And fast-forward eight hours or so and I'm running for a train at London's newly re-ceilinged London Paddington Station. Look at me go! There I am, Sue! Legs pumping! Chest heaving! Arms wheeling! Feet pounding! Watch as I bob and weave through the crowd, shimmying and chicaning past the commuters and tourists, powering down Platform 8 to get a place on the early train home!

It was like Coe vs Ovett in Prague, 1978 Mark! It was like Ovett vs Coe in Moscow 1980! It was exactly like Coe vs Ovett vs Cram in Los Angeles 1984! (That was the year Sebastian Coe used a rude word after he won the 1500 metre Gold, Sue - I'm sure you remember. But it was okay - because he's a nice middle-class boy. If, for example, ooh, I don't know, Wayne Rooney, say, ever used a rude word on the football pitch, it would be an outrage! A scandal! I'd be disgusted!)

What was I saying? Oh yes - I made the train, dudes! I may have been in a no-ticket-induced bad mood, but at least I got the early train. I was going to have a rare night home before eight. I may have even made it back in time to tell a goodnight story. (Always bleeding Thomas the Tank Engine, Mark, but what can you do? My little boy is only two. And he's going to keep listening to Thomas until he learns to love him.)

And then... well, do you really need me to tell you? Can you not guess? Shall I give it some colour about sunset over Slough and the mists above Maidenhead and the dark skies through Didcot? Shall I get busy with the adjectives and the adverbs and the conjunctions and the conjugations? Shall I show you my diphthongs and show off my indefinite articles? Shall I? Shall I? How many ways can one describe the experience of sitting in a stationary train while one's life sighs slowly away? How often can I keep stressing the gradual collapse from frustration to resignation that your overly-long journeys are inducing in me?

The answer? Honestly? Quite a few ways, it seems. And remarkably often. It puts me in mind of something I once read, Mark. Let me illustrate.

It puts me in mind of the words of (I think) Martin Amis, Sue. (You remember Martin Amis, don't you? Nippy little left-footer, played on the wing for much of the late 70s and 80s. Handy in the box, by all accounts. Tenacious, tendency to showboat, but capable of game-changing moments all on his own. Crap at football, mind.)

Anyway - he once said that the whole history of literature, writing, words 'n' that, is the story of a gradual downward journey. Back in the day, Mark, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, men wrote about Gods. Exclusively, pretty much. All them Greek fellers, Mark: they loved a bit of it. And it was all people wanted to hear about - Zeus this, Poseidon that, Aphrodite the other. Gods, gods, gods (and the odd demigod). That was the thing.

Race through the years a bit, Bruce Forsyth's on the stage of the Globe introducing hotshot new playwright Billy Shakespeare and it's all about Kings and Queens. Henry IV. Henry V. Whatsischops in Scotland. That one with the hunchback who needed a horse. "Give us Kings!" the mob cries! "We want more Kings! Even made-up Danish ones who mope about for three hours!"

And so it continues: as time passes, the subjects grow ever less lofty: from gods to kings, then great heroes, great lovers, then doctors, lawyers, the middle-classes, the masses... and finally the lowest of the low: the chick-lit heroines. Bridget Jones, Mark. The girls in those appalling Louise Bagshawe books.

Except that's not the lowest is it, Mark? (Not even Louise Bagshawe!) Because I've written something like 25,000 words now on what it's like to look out of a train window. Men used to write about Gods, Mark! And I've devoted 25,000 words to the experience of being bored in a stationary train carriage. What does that make me, Mark?

I'll tell you what it makes me. I fear it may make me the man who marked the death of literature, that's what.

The thought did not add to my good mood on Friday evening, Mark. I'd had a day in which I'd managed to not get Stone Roses tickets, ruin the career of a perfectly good intern simply because she couldn't get me Stone Roses tickets, look ridiculous running through Paddington station and to top it all, come to the realisation that I represent the death of English Literature. Dude. I was bummed out!

I went to bed properly moody, I don't mind telling you. The current Mrs Dom was most discombobulated.

So what am I to do, Sue? How can I regain my spark, Mark?

Should I take affirmative action, somehow? Should I finally start work on that novel I keep talking about? The one that's just waiting on the six-figure advance before I can be bothered beginning? Should I take up poetry once more? (I gave up poetry after The Incident, Mark. Don't ask me about The Incident! We must never discuss The Incident!) Do you think screenwriting might prove to be my saviour? Should I plunge once more, headfirst and thirsty and with mouth agape, into the murky waters of tabloid journalism?

I guess what I'm asking, Mark, is: should I pursue more important and meaningful ways of expressing myself? Rather than moaning to the Managing Director of a failing train company, that is?

Or, and this is a radical idea... should I just keep bullishly banging on and try and pin the blame for the death of English Literature on someone else? Like, for example... Network Rail? Whaddyathink, Sue? Can we communicate that bad boy?

I literally cannot wait for your answer! Tell me! Tell me now!

Au revoir!


*That's a joke, Sue. I know it's not really beach. It's "Once more unto the bridge," right?

A new letter from Mr Mark!

Dear Dom

Thank for your emails and I am sorry for the recent delays to your journey.

On the 13th our 08:51 service was late after it suffered a power failure. Our 09:01 was delayed when the windscreen was chipped by a stone and our 19:22 that evening was held up waiting to get into a platform at Reading.

On the 18th a signal on the Badminton line caused problems for many of our morning services. I was pleased when Network Rail were able to fix this quite quickly but the impact on our passengers journey's was very frustrating.

On the 19th another signal problem, at Didcot this time caused further delays.

I really do want us to do better and we'll continue to work hard alongside our colleagues at Network Rail to provide a better service.

Thank you again for your email.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

19 October 2011. Letter 44

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 19/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Mark! Sue!

I can feel the earth begin to move! I hear my needle hit the groove! You know what I'm saying? You catch my drift? You down with where I'm at? No? Oh. Okay. Let me explain...

Things aren't all bad, Mark! The sun also rises, Sue! Yeah, so we're all having our mid-life crises, and yeah, summer's over and a long and bitter winter is forecast (I can expand upon that forecast for you Sue! You know, what with my meteorological skillz and everything. I can give you the information on the precipitation! I can give you the lowdown on the snowdown!), and yeah, inflation's rising and savings are melting and no one's got the money to pay the gas bill any more, and yeah, the government is turning out to be every bit as corrupt and self-serving and incompetent as any gang of old Etonians was always going to be, and yeah, so your trains are slow and filthy and overcrowded and traveling on them costs a ludicrous amount of money for the pitiful service you're providing... but, you know, Mark, it's not all bad.

It's not all bad, Mark! The important thing is to look on the bright side! Ignore that enormous dirty great whopping big cloud that's obscuring, like, the whole sky... and check out the silver lining!

The Stone Roses have reformed, Mark! Ian and John - they're bezza mates again, Sue! Mani's somehow managed to stay alive! And Reni may not actually be wearing his Reni hat, but I am assured that he will once again just as soon as he gets back behind that drum kit. Cometh the hour, Mark, cometh the men! Life may not be the grim and unremitting dark carnival of pain and drudgery and general being-beaten-about-the-head-by-The-Man charade that it appears to be most of the time! There may yet be hope in the proles*, dude!

The Stone Roses are coming again, Mark! Will you be poised over the phones at 9am on Friday, jabbing the redial button while muttering the lyrics to Love Spreads? Have you dug out your "On the Seventh Day God Created Manchester" t-shirt and your super-baggy flares? Are you teasing your hair into curtains again and practising your best "kiss me where the sun don't shine" pout? Are you dropping your hips and rolling your shoulders and getting your Whitworth Street pimpwalk on?

Same here Mark! Me too! It's exciting isn't it? It's almost as if we're back in the 1980s - what with the civil unrest, the rising unemployment, the collapsing industries, the disenfranchised youth, the arrogant port-swilling fat-cats in the city and Westminster, the shambolic trains... it's almost as if we're back in the 1980s - when the Stone Roses came along and made everything alright again!

Some facts, Mark:

1. A young Ban-Ki Moon was first inspired to take an interest in the work of the United Nations after attending an early Stone Roses gig at Liverpool University. He was one of only 26 people in the audience that night, Sue. All of them have since gone on to successfully hold high-ranking positions in humanitarian organisations.

2. Pope John Paul II once described the first time he heard the chord progression in the Stone Roses' second single Sally Cinnamon as the most profound religious experience of his life.

3. If you play the B-side to Fools Gold backwards, you can clearly hear a voice urging: "Bring down the wall. Let Germany be reunified". Less than a year after recording that song (What The World Is Waiting For), the Bayern Wall was indeed brought down and North and South Germany were once again free.

4. Margaret Thatcher was urged to resign by members of her cabinet soon after the release of the single One Love. Michael Heseltine is said to have reassessed his whole world view after hearing the distinctive Led Zep-influenced opening guitar riff. (Sadly he later reverted.)

5. Every 45 seconds, someone, somewhere in the world, hears Ten Storey Love Song and smiles.

You can't argue with those kinds of statistics, Mark. There's no manipulating those kinds of facts, Sue. They speak for themselves.

So, yes. I'm excited! I'm beside myself with excitement! And you know what I'm going to do next, Mark? I'm going to write to Ian Brown! I'm going to ask him to do something about the trains! Brilliant plan, no? Inspired? And let's face facts - nothing else seems to be working.

Unless you've got a better plan, Mark? Do you have a better plan for making the trains run on time than writing to a former pop star? I do hope so!

Au revoir!


*That's George Orwell, that is, Sue. Perhaps most famous for his seminal work 1984 - but it's also worth checking out the prequels, Se7en, made into a film starring Brad Pitt and 10, with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek... as well as the sequel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They're slightly different in style to 1984, but well worth persevering with. He also wrote The Road to Wigan Casino: certainly the most important novel about the 1970s Northern Soul movement.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

18 October 2011. Letter 43

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 18/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: eight minutes.

Mark! Sue! What news on the railroad? Do our engines gleam, Mark? Are our pistons shiny and bright, Sue? Do our carriages stand tall in the morning sun? Do our brave ranks of locomotives make the heart sing for Isambard, England and St George?

Good! Excellent. Well done! Looks are important, Mark. Don't worry about the results, so much. Appearance is paramount! That's why we have Directors of Communications, right Sue? (Even when they operate largely by stealth. Even when they - and this is the really clever bit - don't appear to communicate at all!)

I've been thinking, Mark. I've been thinking about growing old and growing up. I've been occupied with intimations of my own mortality. (It's all part of this mid-life crisis I'm having, you see. The one that includes the pair of you, the vinyl record collection I brought down from the attic and insisted on putting on our new shelves at the weekend, and of course my burgeoning relationship with Brandy and Sandy, the 19-year-old stripper twins I'm bankrolling through pole-dancing school.)

The world is turning, Mark. The shadows are lengthening, Sue. The woods decay and fall. And at my back I always hear, time's chuffing steam train drawing near...

And I've been thinking. What do I really know? Now I'm a grown-up, I mean. Now I'm out of short trousers. What have I learnt? What is performance and what is just... appearance? What's real and what's just for show?

Obviously my extensive knowledge of particle physics is a given, and clearly my expertise on the fall of the Byzantine Empire (and its subsequent ramifications for the reign of Henry VIII and direct impact on Napoleon Bonaparte's assault on Edge Hill and the taking of Iwo Jima) is beyond question. Of course my in-depth studies of meteorology and my peerless musings on the poetry of Eric Cantona and the musical output of the Longsight area of Manchester 1986-96 have received plaudits worldwide. All of this is a given, Mark. All these things are known, Sue.

But, you know, apart from all that - what do I know? I mean, really? What do I really know?

Let me answer that with a story, Sue: let me shine a light into the murky, almost limitless depths of my ignorance.

The other day, Mark, I found myself chatting to a young lady. (I know, dude! She was totally hot, too! I mean, if only her name rhymed with Brandy or Sandy and she was one of three stripping triplets then she'd have been quite literally perfect!) Anyway, we chatted, and in the course of our conversation she happened to mention her fondness for ostrich burgers. Or emu burgers. One or the other. Either way, Mark, she was up for roasting the flesh of flightless birds. She was keen on plucking 'em and stuffing 'em and sticking 'em between two bits of bread and fully masticating 'em good 'n' proper.

And you know what I said, Mark? I said "Ostrich, emu, what's the difference?"

Oh, the shame! I blush, Mark! My head hangs! My tail slips forlornly between my legs! The shame!

It only turns out that ostriches and emus are completely different flightless birds! It only turns out that one's of the genus Struthio and the other of the genus Dromaius! I should have spotted that, Mark! It only turns out one has three toes and the other two toes! I should have known that, Sue! It only turns out one lives in Africa and the other in Australia! I should have... actually, I'm not so bothered about that, to be honest. Both are south of the M25, innit? Brighton, Marbella, Africa, Australia... what's the difference?

My point, Mark, was that it brought home to me, in what I can only describe as quite literally the starkest terms possible that, when it comes to the important things, I remain a child. A helpless, gurgling, empty-minded child. An idiot child, if you will. And all else is smoke and mirrors, Mark. It's sleight of hand and misdirection, Sue. Apart from those few areas of expertise mentioned above, I'm all about appearance - and not about performance.

What about you, Mark? Have you ever felt this way? Do you feel wide-eyed and helpless? Do you feel ignorant and naive? Like an empty vessel? Are you like me, Mark, covering up the faults with showiness and good looks and a bit of blather about the iambic pentameter? Did you know the difference between emus and ostriches, ostriches and emus? Is First Great Western really all about getting good results... or is it just about presenting results well?

Deep stuff, Mark! Eye-opening! Thought provoking! And I haven't even mentioned the Stone Roses reforming!

Au revoir!


Friday, 14 October 2011

13 October 2011. Letter 42

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 13/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: five minutes.

Mark! Sue! Hey, you! (And you too!)

Guess what? You know how I said how those minor, under-seven minute delays weren't registering on my radar? Well Papa got a brand new radar!

And I figured, sure, you can ask: what's five minutes compared to, you know, 20 minutes, or 28 minutes, or 38 minutes? (Twenty-five per cent, 17.86 per cent and 13.16 per cent respectively, but let's not get hung up on the whole numbers thing, eh?) But at the same time, five minutes is still indisputably five minutes. This much, as Mr Tony Hadley, jet-black-haired, slightly-too-pudgy-for-his-leather-pants singer with Spandau Ballet still insists, is true. And in this case, it's five minutes I didn't intend to spend on one of your trains. And now it's five minutes you owe me back.

Besides, Mark - that five minutes gives me just enough time to congratulate you on your Private Eye appearance this week! At the top of page 12! Under the rather brilliant headline "Ticketing-boo"! You must be very proud!

I've been in Private Eye myself, you know! I know what it's like, dude! Prepare for the media scrum! Steel yourself for the celebrity circus!

Shall I tell you about it? Will it make you feel better? Oh, okay then. Seeing as we're all here.

The first time I was in Private Eye, Mark, was when young Euan Blair was picked up by the rozzers, drunk and incapable in Leicester Square, aged 16. (Bless!) I subsequently wrote a piece for the papers reminiscing about the time I was fingered by the old bill myself, 15 years old, drunk and I fear all-too-capable, in the company of some young ladies by the bins round the back of Superdrug in Altrincham. (Those were the days, Sue!)

Private Eye held up my shock confessional as an example of cheap hackery, Mark! How very dare they! As if that wasn't cheeky enough, they also chose to put the headline "I was a teenage drunk - it was cool" on it too. (Which, to be fair to them, was pretty much what I was saying.)

But still! The monkeys, Mark! The saucy little sausages!

The other time I was in Private Eye was after I wrote a passionate article in the Sunday Express, defending the right of the popular rap artist Eminem to perform in this country. (This was in 2001, Mark: Eminem was considered subversive back then, and Mr Tony Blair wasn't keen on letting him get on stage at all.) Anyway - Private Eye seemed to find it a source of some amusement that I declared the rapper to be the foremost poet of his age and "the best proponent of sprung rhythm since Gerard Manley Hopkins".

I still don't know why they think that's funny, Mark. He is, isn't he? Any literary critic could tell you so.

So, anyway, I feel your pain. I've been there too. I've suffered at the sharp end of the country's foremost satirical magazine.

The only difference would seem to be that in the case of my bold claims about teenage drinking and poetic rap artists I was basically right... and reading the article they've published about your ticketing fiasco, it would seem that you're, well, not.

Still. Never mind! Onwards! Upwards! Here's to a better week next week, eh?

Au revoir!


Thursday, 13 October 2011

13 October 2011. Letter 41

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.51 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 13/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 38 minutes.

Oh Mark! Oh Sue! Oh dudes! What will become of us? Where do we go from here? Is it down, as the hugely-underrated (but not by me, Mark! I liked them! I'm not ashamed to say I still like them! And I speak as the former rock & pop editor of no less a musical authority than the Daily Express! You better believe it!) 80s soul-pop purveyors Haircut 100 opined, to the lake, I fear? (I think it must have been a metaphorical lake, Sue. "Lake", if you will.)

I do hope not, Mark. I don't want to go down to the "lake". I fear the "lake"! I've been to the "lake" before and let me tell you, Mark, it's a horrible place! A dark and dank and dismal place! There is weeping and gnashing of teeth, down at the "lake"! There are ululations! I hate ululations! Mark, Sue: let us never speak of the "lake" again! For the love of God, talk to me not of the "lake"!

So, if not the, you know, the (whisper it) L - A - K - E, then where do we go from here Mark? Downhill, it seems. Downhill fast. Or rather, downhill slowly. All these delays - they're not getting any better. They're getting worse, aren't they?

Do you remember those heady early days of summer, Mark? Those budding June mornings and purple-hued June evenings, when I would write to you after delays of five, or six, or seven minutes? It all seems hopelessly idealistic now, doesn't it? These days, Mark, I don't even bother registering delays of five minutes. These days, Sue, anything under seven minutes hardly shows up on my radar. (That's a metaphorical radar, obviously, Sue. I don't have an actual radar. Be sensible!) These days, mes petites antagonistes, it's all or nothing, isn't it? A week of relatively good service followed by a week of utterly appalling service.

These days, you're rocking the double-or-quits line, when it comes to delays. You're either not delayed at all... or you're delayed by a proper amount of time.

Thirty-eight minutes, Mark? You delayed me by 38 minutes this morning! And now I've got to bang on here for long enough to waste 38 minutes of your time in return? Are you having a laugh? Are you having, as our Lambeth-walking friends from the gutters and slums around Bow Bells like to put it, a turkish bath? Thirty-eight minutes? For goodness sake, Mark!

I am less than 82 per cent happy with your service! And less than 82 per cent of me is happy with your service! (Sue! Clever, eh!) And despite your much-trumpeted award (given, as you've so helpfully pointed out, in February 2010 - so presumably that was for the preceding year? So - 2009 then?)* I'm afraid that right now (ie, October 2011) you're really not coming across like the Train Operator of the Year (ie, this year) in any significant way. Or even in any insignificant way, if you want to be pedantic about it.

So. Why was I so delayed this morning? What's the reason for my lost 38 minutes?

The irony, Sue, as you'll be sure to appreciate, is that I don't normally even catch this train. I had a lie-in this morning, Sue! I didn't need to be in London until 10.30 - so I eschewed (love that word, Sue! Eschewed! Es-chewed! Eschewed!) my usual train, kept my head under the duvet, ignored the plaintive wailings of my wet-pyjama'd children, and caught an extra half hour of zeds! How sweet it was to sleep this morning, Sue! You should have seen it!

And you know what that meant, Mark? That's right! It meant that by the time I got to the station, fully 45 minutes later than usual, I was still riding that lie-in high. I was surfing on the crest of a totally rad easy-start-to-the-day wave. I was good to go, hot-to-trot, ready to roll and keen as mustard. I was cool, Mark. I was cool and the gang. I was Coolella de Vil!

Moseying through Oxford station, Mark, winking at the pretty girls and fist-bumping the boys and blowing kisses to the babies, I cast a casual glance skywards, towards the winking monitors, the tidy screens with their lists of the comings and goings, their toings and froings... and saw my train was running late.

What? Late! My train was running late, Mark! The (metaphorical) lights went out! The (figurative) walls came tumbling down!

And that's when I did some quick thinking, Mark. That's when my brain sprang into action, when all my neural pathways sparked and hummed and fizzed into life and came up with a brilliant solution! The 08.51 was expected at 09.11, Mark... but the 09.01 was running on time! Bazinga! I'd jump on that, pen a quick couple of paragraphs to cover the 10 minutes delay, and still make it into London's fashionable Central London in order to make my appointment with the MAJOR HOLLYWOOD SUPERSTAR I was supposed to be interviewing.

Oh, did I mention I was interviewing a Major Hollywood Superstar this morning? No? Well... I was. And I was supposed to be at his hotel at 10.30.

Mark: I caught the 09.01 train. And the 09.01 train ran late. It dawdled. It dribbled. It dossed around near Didcot. It idled and sidled through Slough and Southall. It did something close to nothing near Hayes & Harlington. I arrived into Paddington at just shy of half ten. Thirty-eight minutes later than I originally planned to.

Dude! I was going to be late for the Superstar! I was going to keep the Superstar waiting!

It was not going to make me look very professional, Mark. It was not going to make me look like a man who is used to consorting with Tinseltown talent. It was not going to create an impression of easy familiarity with red-carpet-treading film royalty. It was not going to make me look like a very good journalist, in short. It was going to make me look like the kind of person who can't even catch a train on time - never mind handle the rigours of a top-class cultural interrogation with a Major Hollywood Superstar.

For the second time this morning, Sue, the adrenaline kicked in.

I was up and out of my seat before we passed Acton, Mark! I was into the vestibule quicker than you could say "vestibule"! I was poised by the door before the train had come to a complete stop! And then... Boom! Out of the door! Wallop! Down the platform, quick as my limited edition Adidas Franz Beckenbauer trainers could carry me! Shwing! Through the ticket barriers! Zoiks! Dodge the tourists congregating gormlessly on the other side of the ticket barriers! Badabing! Power through the station! Sling! Down the steps to the Bakerloo line!

Sue: I was like the Green Hornet, dude! I was burning up Paddington station on the pineapple express! I was... superbad!

And you know what else? My Major Hollywood Superstar was running late too. The thing is: he's a Superstar, Mark. He doesn't do on-time. He makes his own rules. Petty considerations like clocks and hours and the passing of the sun across the sky mean nothing to him. He's Hollywood, baby, he calls the tune, time-wise. All we can do is dance along.

I got my interview. I won't get sacked. It's all turned out ok. (Thankyou, Sue. That means a lot, coming from you.) But, still. The principle remains, does it not?

You are not Major Hollywood Superstars, Mark and Sue! The ordinary rules of time do apply to you! The minutes and the hours by which us ordinary folk divide up our lives must also divide yours! Or to put it another way - when you say you're going to run a train according to a particular time or schedule, and when I pay you to do just that, and when the results of all that has an impact on me being able to do my job, just do it, alright? Just do your jobs. Thankyou.

Au revoir!

Best Storywriter, St John Fisher Primary School

*In September 1981 I was awarded "Best Storywriter" in my Primary School - thanks mostly to my (then) magnum opus "The boy with the wiggly pencil". If you can still be calling yourself Train Operator of the Year fully one year and eight months after receiving that award and two years after the year to which the award would seem to be referring, I see no reason why I shouldn't continue to call myself Best Storywriter. Right? Cool. That's what I shall do, from now on. (And I should also point out that the film rights to "The boy with the wiggly pencil" can be made available, should the right offer come in. Federico Fellini has already been in touch via twitter. And Roman Polanski's people have made advances - though they were talking about changing the title to "The 13-year-old girl with the wiggly pencil" and I'm really not sure about that at all.)

A rather defensive letter from Mr Mark Hopwood

Dear Dom,

Thank you for your emails.

On Friday 7 October our 18:33 service to Penzance developed a mechanical problem in the Acton area. We were able to get that service up & running again however a number of following services were held up, including the 18:51 from Paddington.

On Monday morning, a signal problem, again in the Acton area caused a number of morning peak services to be delayed.

On Monday evening, your train was delayed when a goods train left too early. I know how odd that must sound but the timetable agreed, for all trains that operate on the network, be they freight, passenger or goods services, is very precise and if any train runs outside of their booked 'path' it causes all sorts of problems. Trains that should have run ahead of this goods train got caught behind instead. This caused a hold up at Airport Junction, one of the busiest junctions on our network, particular at peak time. Unfortunately, our 18:51 to Oxford was one of the trains affected.

The National Passengers Survey (NPS) is undertaken independently by Passenger Focus and includes all Train Operating Companies which operate in the UK. The last report for First Great Western saw us score 82% for 'overall customer satisfaction', and it goes without saying that we are always trying to better it, year on year. You can find more details here:

And yes we were named Train Operator of the Year in February 2010 following a significant improvement in the performance and reliability of our services compared to previous years. I am still very proud of this achievement, not just from a business perspective but on behalf of all our staff and colleagues for their dedication and hard work. We tend to receive the most attention when thing go wrong, which is of course understandable, but we've also made good progress. We'll carry on doing our best to improve our service for our customers, which is our most important goal.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

10 October 2011. Letter 40

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 10/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Word up! (It's the code word - no matter where you say it, you'll know that you'll be heard!)

We're having a busy busy week, aren't we? We're busy as bees, us busy three! So much so that I'm still writing about monday's delays on a wednesday! Mark, Sue: I'm congested. I'm backed up. I'm overcrowded. I've got (metaphorical) leaves on my (metaphorical) line and it's (metaphorically) messing up my whole letter-writing-schedule shizzle!

Luckily, this letter is designed to only waste 10 minutes of your time (in recognition of the 10 minutes of my evening you wasted on Monday) - which means that compared to recent correspondence, it's a mere memo. A footnote! A text message! It's a simple irritation, Sue, as opposed to a full-on, er, rash. (Maybe I'll drop that analogy right there.)

Anyway! How have I been occupying myself, I hear you asking? How have I been filling these dead minutes you keep heaping upon me? Good question, Mark! I'm sure glad you asked, Sue! I've been immersing myself in technology, dudes! I've been embracing the cutting edge! I've only gone and discovered the most marvelous invention, Mark! It's called the "internets", and I believe it could change the world!

You know what the first so-called "website" I "logged" onto was?* Only the First Great Western website! Well done, Sue! Well done on getting yourself a website! It looks lovely, too - blue is so your colour! It's got bits to click on, and lovely pictures of you all... it's got, literally, everything! It's a marvel of harnessed technology, Sue - and a fitting testament to the man who first discovered the internets, the late, great Steve Jobs, founder of Amstrad and one of the leading Bletchley Park codebreakers. He did not die in vain, Mark!

I do have one small quibble, however. Under the section headed "Train Operator of the Year" (for real, Mark? You're really the train operator of the year? Which year? This year? How many other train operators were you up against? Who decided you were train operator of the year? Are they insane?) - under that section, Sue, you make the following bold claim:

"82 per cent of our customers are happy with the service we provide."

I would like to take issue with this statistic, Mark. Now I know we've already established that mathematics is not the foremost of my many talents, but, really, 82 per cent? Happy? I wonder if you could clarify this claim for me, Sue? Specifically, the following points:

1. How many of your customers did you actually ask, in order to arrive at this staggering statistic? Did you ask, for example, all of your customers? Or only a certain number of them? If so - how many exactly?

2. How did you ascertain that these customers are in fact "happy with the service we provide"? What was the exact question you asked? As I'm sure any Director of Communications worth her salt knows, two seemingly-same questions can be phrased in such a way as to give very different answers. Was the question: "Are you happy with the service FGW provide?" - or did you, for example, ask people to rate the service between 1 and 5 and accept anything from 3 to 5 as counting for "happy"?

3. When did you ask people? Before or after they got on one of your trains?

4. Who did you ask? Regular commuters, or those traveling less often?

Plenty to be getting on with then, Sue! I await your answers with breath baited, pen poised, legs akimbo. Let's see you communicate like only you can! Let's do it, Sue! Bazinga!

Au revoir!


*I won't mention the other websites I found on the internets, Mark. Except to say that there seem to be an awful lot of free-thinking ladies out there.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

10 October 2011. Letter 39

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 10/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 28 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Up and at 'em, tigers! Best feet forward! It's a new day, it's a fresh delay, it's a whole heap of words coming your way!

Oh Mark. Oh Sue. Whatever are we to do? This morning's train was a shambles, a stuttering wreck, a limping farce, a hobbling imitation of a good service... and that means I've got a whole 28 minutes of your time to waste. You owe me, Mark! You too, Sue! You owe me 28 minutes of my life - and as the opening credits of the seminal 1980s TV series Fame had it, here's where you start paying. In sweat. Well, not sweat, exactly, that would be frankly disgusting, wouldn't it?

Mark - I don't want to see you sweat. Sue - I... well, I'll think that one over.

Anyway. Sweat aside, I've got 28 minutes of your time to take up today, 28 minutes you took from me on the morning train... so settle down and make yourself comfortable. Get that work experience boy back, give him a farthing and pack him off to Costcutter! You're going to need good strong tea, Mark! You're going to want a bumper pack of Chocolate Hobnobs, Sue! You're going to need to slip off your shoes, put your feet up, lie back and think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel!

Mark, Sue: as the book has it: we need to talk about First Great Western. (Interesting aside: are train companies born inept, or do they become so through the inattention or indifference of those in charge of them? Is it nature, or nurture? Was First Great Western doomed from the start, or did something happen in those formative early years that set it on an irrevocable course for incompetence? We need to talk about First Great Western, Mark! And then we need to make it into a film! Preferably starring Tilda Swinton! Sue - we'll have to think of someone to play you, as well.)

So what happened on the 08.06 yesterday, Mark? What became of my promised service, Sue, set out in black and white on the timetable, communicated so efficiently, so clearly on paper, online and on those little TV screens in the station?

We were tardy setting off from Oxford, we were slow into Didcot, we were delayed into Reading... and from around Slough onwards we crept ever slower, inching towards London by laboured degrees. Like a downward smoke, we were Mark! The slender train along the track did creep, and pause, and creep again.

It sounds poetic, but it wasn't. It was rubbish, Mark! It was not what I had paid for! And the whole sorry performance lasted half as long again as it was supposed to! (Is that right, Sue? Half as long again? Is that 150 per cent of the journey time? Mathematics isn't my strongest suit, as you well know. Of all my suits, mathematics is possibly the least strong. Pop music, meteorology, particle physics - these are all strong suits. Poetry, history, entomology, etymology - these too are my strong suits. But mathematics? Weak suit. Not that it matters, Sue: the way I see it, for communicators like us, mathematics is probably only about 48 per cent as important as etymology, or 5/6 as important as meteorology. Proportionally speaking, mathematics is a statistical irrelevance when it comes to particle physics. Right? Right.)

What was I saying? Oh yes! It was rubbish, Mark! It was not what I had paid for!

Now I understand there is a school of thought that says that the pleasure of traveling is in the journey itself, Sue - but I don't believe this to be the case when you're on a commuter train and you're late for work and it's costing you a stupid amount of money each month to do so.

I understand that there is a philosophy espousing the idea that slow travel is in fact the only way to travel, that the joy of the journey is in the journey itself... that destinations, as the great Buddhist teacher Yogi Bhearandboobu taught, are simply addenda to the sublimity of the process of reaching them... but I also believe that in the case of the 08.06 First Great Western service from Oxford to London Paddington, the Yogi was talking right out of his Ashram.

Trust me on this one, Mark: there is nothing sublime or spiritually uplifting about the long stretch from Slough to Southall, as viewed through the windows of one of your trains at snail-speed. That is not the path to nirvana. It's not even the path to Pearl Jam! Wa-hey! (Sorry. Bit of a grunge joke there. Momentary lapse of seriousness. Won't happen again. Do excuse.) No, Mark. Crawling through the encroaching borders of Greater London's western edge is just dull and tedious.

Don't get me wrong, Mark. I've nothing against travel, per se. Sue: I can be as romantic about the open road as the next man. (More so, depending on who the next man might be.) Let me illustrate, let me illuminate, with a tale from my youth.

The early 1990s, Mark, were, as you will remember, a bit of a lost time for most of us. We were languishing in the dog days of a thoroughly rotten Tory administration, the Acid House dream had sweated itself out into a mess of drugs and violence, and people were even beginning to take Pearl Jam seriously as a credible rival to Nirvana. And me: I'd been prematurely ejected from University (careful Sue!) and was spending the greater part of my time signing on to what our cockney cousins refer to as "the sausage roll".

My parents, meanwhile, had come into some property, down in sunny Spain, down on the Costa Brava.

So the scene was set. I was at a loose end, my Dad was recently retired, we both had poetry in our souls and time on our hands, and together we came up with a plan. A beautiful plan, Sue! We had this idea of buying a couple of mopeds, of driving them down from Manchester to the wild coast above Barcelona - of seeing the real England, Mark! And then the real France! And then a bit of the real Spain! Of crossing the Pyrenees on two wheels! Of doing it all at about 40 miles per hour! Of taking a summer off, hitting the open road, and freewheeling through Europe on a pair of second-hand Vespas! Beautiful, no?

Beautiful yes, senor y senorita! We were going to be lead by our hearts and whichever way the wind blew us! We were going to point our little scooters midway between the rising sun and the setting sun and lay ourselves open to adventure! I was going to keep a diary, Sue, it was going to become the great road trip story of the century! It was going to be a cross between On The Road and A Year In Provence! (I even had a title ready: On The Road (For A Year In Provence). Not bad, eh? Snappy!)

But the point is this: the joy of the journey, Mark, would be the journey itself.

Of course, we never did it. But we should have, Mark. We totally should have. And now, of course, we never will. As no less an authority than Elvis Presley put it: it was now or never*.

It was never, Mark.

And now? Now I travel on your trains everyday. I don't gaze across the wide Massif Central and into the grassy foothills of the Pyrenees. I stare at broken down warehouses on the edge of Slough. There's a lesson in this story somewhere. I'm not sure it's a very nice lesson. Certainly not the kind of lesson the great Buddhist teacher Yogi Bhearandboobu would consider giving.

Au revoir!


*You wanna hear a secret, Sue? I used to think my Dad was Elvis. I never told him that though. I never told my Dad, either.

Monday, 10 October 2011

7 October 2011. Letter 38

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 07/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 21 minutes.

Mark! Sue! What's the story? What's the Jackanory? What, in actual fact, is the Tobermory?

I'll be honest with you (I'm always honest with you, Sue. It's my only weak spot. Honesty? It's my heroic flaw! It's my Achilles' heel, my Beckham's metatarsal, my Gazza's cruciate ligament. It's the rod I make for my own back, is what it is. Why, Sue, if it wasn't for that meddling honesty...) - I'll be honest with you, I'm disappointed. I'm not angry any more, Mark; I'm disappointed.

Last week wasn't so bad, you know? It was okay! Actually, scratch that. It was better than okay! It was... tolerable! Last week was totally tolerable!

Sure, you screwed up Tuesday, but, you know, nobody's perfect, right? (Not even Achilles. Not even Beckham. Not even Gazza!) I don't mind telling you, I felt good about last week, Mark. Right up until going home time on Friday. Even as I ducked my head and scurried rodent-like out of the office at bang on six while the boss's back was turned. Even as I turned up my collar and sneaked into the stairwell while various "line managers" (what on earth is a line manager, anyway? What lines do they manage, exactly? Who invented this term, "line manager"? They must explain themselves! I demand an explanation! Bring to me your line managers and have them define themselves!) were distracted. Even as I set my teeth and powered my way purposefully through the Circle and Bakerloo lines to Paddington Station, gateway to the glorious West!

Through all of this I felt good. As Nina Simone herself was disposed to put it: I was fee-eee-eee-eeeling good. (The popular sci-fi-rock trio Muse later expressed the same sentiment, of course, though to my mind in a rather overblown and embarrassingly faux-operatic style. Nina Simone can be interpreted in many interesting ways, Mark, but channelling the spirit of Rachmaninov and Brian May is not the way to do it. I think we can all agree on that.)

So, to cut to the chase, Mark, at around 18.51 last Friday, things looked good and you were headed for a most tolerable one-delay week. Not bad, son. Not bad at all. (Admittedly, I did catch two trains less than normal last week, Sue, thanks to an unscheduled sleepover at my brother's house in London's fashionable West London. But still - fair's fair... and I'm nothing if not fair, Sue. It's my only other weak spot. Fairness (and honesty)? They're both my heroic flaws. And before you laugh, consider this. Achilles had two heels, Sue. Becks had two metatarsals. (He may actually have had ten - I can't be bothered googling to find out - but you know what I mean.) Gazza certainly had two cruciate ligaments. And I don't think I can put it plainer than that.)

Where was I? Oh yes: being fair and honest. Last week was what we'll call your good week. And then... and then... and then... oops! You did it again! You played with my heart, Mark. All your good work undone! All your progress, your achievements, your one-delay-in-three-and-a-half-days - torn and rent asunder! Cast upon fallow ground, like so much curds and whey!*

Oh I could talk now for a few hundred more words about how bored I was, then how I angry I became, then how disappointed I felt... but you've heard it all before, haven't you? You've heard it 38 times now! The record's wearing thin, Mark! The CD's wearing out! The MP3's gone DOA! Aren't you becoming tired of listening to this same old song? God knows I have. Getting these trains of yours, suffering the same delays expressed in the same old ways... It's like listening to Muse covering Nina Simone, Mark! It's no longer like watching a cultural iconoclast redefining both popular music and what it means to be a woman in three short minutes (okay, Sue, I know I'm losing control of this metaphor, but bear with me, I'm on a roll here) - it's become like watching a funny-faced man with silly spiky hair and an electric guitar flail about a bit like a big prawn. Whilst singing a Nina Simone song.

You know? You know what I mean? Thought you would. Clarity's the thing, Mark! Clarity, and fairness, and honesty. So, to be clear, and fair, and honest (and to use the oxford comma to - even if I say so myself - devastatingly effective, er, effect) I'm not going to describe how I felt sitting in carriage C of a stood-still train on a dark and dreary Friday afternoon in October... because we all know how that feels. We know this song off by heart.

On the other hand, of course, I do have some time of yours to waste, so I better talk about something. You owe me 21 minutes, Sue! We've got 21 minutes to go! According to my deeply-ingrained work ethic, that means a certain amount of words are required from me! I got responsibilities here! Duty - that's the thing! (Duty, along with clarity, fairness and honesty.)

Increasingly Mark, as I grow older, as I totter into the October of my years, as I race towards the inevitable mid-life crisis, I realise I'm defined by my wordcounts. Writing words - and then counting them - that's what I do, dudes! That's what I is! For example...

I was talking to someone, as it happens, on Saturday, Mark. (A bit of context, a little bit of scene-creation, just so you can fix it all nicely in your head: we were collecting woodlice together. We were rolling over logs and looking for the 14-legged, armour-plated, exoskeletal little so-and-sos. We were picking them up and putting them in plastic cups and showing them to four-year-olds. No idea whose four-year-olds they were, mind - but at least it kept them off the streets, you know? At least it stopped the little hooligans from looting Toys R Us.)

Anyway, do you know what he said to me, Mark? No, not that. Nor that either. Sue! He most certainly did not say that! Behave!

No, he didn't say any of those things. He asked me instead how many words I'd written in my letters to you these past five months or so. I said I had no idea (I have no idea, Sue!) - but I of course pointed out that every word was not only chosen carefully, chewed over, ruminated, cogitated and deliberated upon, but that no single word was ever used superfluously. Brevity, that's the thing, I said to him, Sue. (Brevity, along with duty, clarity, thingy and the other one. Honesty.)

Anyway, he did some mathematics then, Sue. I know! He's a clever chap! And do you know what he said to me then? He said that 37 letters, with an average wordcount of, say, 600 words per letter (the longest has, I believe, been nudging the 2000 word mark) made for a rough total of 22,000 words I've written to you!

Twenty-two thousand words!

Dude of Dude Hall!

I didn't even think I knew 22,000 words! Twenty-two thousand words, Mark! Did you know that's exactly the same number of words as there are in the Magna Carta? Or the complete works of Shakespeare? Did you know that's exactly the same number of words as there are in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or the writings of Sun Tzu?

I had to go away and lie down, Sue! I came over all faint! I still haven't recovered from the shock!

Au revoir!


*That's from the Bible, that is, Sue. Crazy book! Exactly 22,000 words long, too. Spooky!

Mark! I thought you'd never write again!

Dear Dom,

Thank you for your emails and I am sorry for the lack of response so far.

At 16:30 on Monday we were informed of a signal problem in the Maidenhead area, which caused a number our services to be delayed while Network Rail's engineers fixed the defect.

Tuesday evening an identical signal problem occurred in the Gloucester area and regrettably, took far longer to repair. Even though the root cause of the problem was further up the network, a disruption like this can cause a number of trains to be held up and impact services throughout the evening peak period .

This morning, we faced another signal problem. We will keep pressing Network Rail to do better.

On Thursday our 08:06 service was held up when the train in front developed a mechanical problem and subsequently arrived into Paddington 16 minutes late. The 19:22 Paddington to Oxford service was delayed leaving Paddington station when a passenger, who was running late, attempted to board the service through an open window, after the train had commenced departure. Operating our services safely will always be a priority and concerned for the passengers safety the train was brought to a halt and the passenger asked to leave the service, which departed 7 minutes late as a result.

I do appreciate the frustration caused and I am just as disappointed as you are with these delays.

Kind regards


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

4 October 2011. Letter 37

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 04/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 20 minutes.

Marky Mark and Sue - where are you? We've got some work to do now!

Your silence, Mark... it's killing me. (Sue: you've been on holiday, fair dos, and, let's be honest, you never have been the most voluble of correspondents, have you? You're a proponent of the "less is more" style of Communications, right? Stealth communications, Sue!) But Mark, wherefore art thou? I miss you, dude! I miss your letters! Here I am, pouring my heart and soul into oh-so-carefully constructed paragraphs, here I am, sweating over sentences, worrying over every ellipses, stressing over every semicolon... here I am, breathless with anticipation of a reply, my heart leaping with every new "ping!" in my inbox... and still you don't write back.

Have you forgotten about me, Mark? Have you grown weary of what we had, Sue? You're breaking my heart, guys! First you waste my time - regularly, relentlessly, remorselessly - and now you break my heart. Literally. (Not literally, Sue. Of course you've not literally broken my heart. But I am, nonetheless, shattered. I'm literally shattered.)

It's also rather rude, is it not? Especially when your self-professed commitment to customer satisfaction and striving to make First Great Western the best possible train company you can did include a promise to write back to me every time I wrote to you. What's happened to that promise, Mark? Don't you want to be the best any more? Don't you want to strive to improve the First Great Western customer "experience"? Don't you think I'm worth the bother? Don't you think, as a customer, as the poor sap who pays your wages, my complaints are worthy of your attention?

But perhaps I'm being harsh. Am I being harsh, Mark? Sorry if I'm being harsh! Perhaps it's not your fault. Perhaps your email is up the Swannee? Perhaps the world wide web is congested? Perhaps the internets are experiencing problems with Network Rail? (They seem to be to blame for just about everything else you're not doing right.)

Perhaps, perhaps. As Mark "Lawro" Lawrenson said: The world is full of perhaps, Gary.

Let us move on, Mark. I'm nothing if not a magnanimous man, a forgiving sort of cove, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, assume your silence is something entirely out of your control, take it that you plan to write back to me very soon, and move on. Let us speak no more of this sorry business, Mark!

Besides: I've got a whole new delay to tell you about! It's Tuesday morning as I write, Sue: the weather is breaking, the rough October winds are gathering pace, the boughs are shivering, the leaves are falling, autumn is coming... and I'm sitting in Coach C of a stationary train, looking at the empty fields around Didcot Parkway station and dreaming of being somewhere else.

Actually, that's not strictly true. I'm not dreaming of being somewhere else at all. I'm dreaming of the Quantity Theory of Everything.

Have I told you about the Quantity Theory of Everything? It's a good theory, Mark! It's a humdinger! It's totally going into that Great Important 21st Century British Novel I'm so close to getting round to beginning to think about writing (in truth, Sue, I'm just waiting for the right deal to come along, you know what I mean? The book is all there, fully-formed in my head, wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside me, waiting to be written... but I'm just waiting for the deal, y'know? I ain't doing it for art, Sue! What do you take me for?)

Anyway: the Quantity Theory of Everything! We've got 20 minutes to waste together, Mark: plenty of time to fill you in proper-style. What is it? It's Buddhism meets mathematics, Mark! It's Buddhamatics! And it all began when I briefly and insanely gave up smoking a few years back.

Mark: a few years back, I briefly and insanely gave up smoking. Before then, you should know, I was a committed, dedicated smoker. I smoked for England, Mark! I smoked because it's cool, because it's big and it's clever and because it made me loads of friends. I also smoked because, uncannily, I looked exactly like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause when I smoked. (I also looked like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, and, oddly, like John Travolta in Grease when I smoked.) I also drank a fair bit (I drank because it's also cool, big, clever, etc... and because I looked exactly like Jeff Bridges in the Big Lebowski when I drank. And John Belushi in Animal House. And Mickey Rourke in Barfly.)

But that was pretty much the extent of my vices, Mark. I smoked a lot, I drank a fair bit, and, barring a bit of action every Grand National, I rarely gambled.

And then I gave up smoking.

And you know what happened? I started drinking more! And then I started gambling! I got into online poker! I gave up smoking and suddenly there I was, of an evening or a weekend, looking for the Full House, bluffing and raising and chasing the big blind! It was as if the reduction in one vice meant a corresponding increase in all my other vices! Vice finds its own level, Mark! Cut down on one, and the rest will take up the slack. Vice finds its own level: we all need our own personal amount of vice in our lives. And you cannot escape your vice level, Mark. It's a level you were born with. You just have to find the right combination of vices to make it manageable.

You know what I called this theory, Mark? I called it the Quantity Theory of Vice. And it works. When I started smoking again, I eased off on the Online Poker. My vice levels auto-corrected! (I also looked a great deal cooler again.) These days I don't smoke quite as much as I used to, I drink quite a lot more, and I don't gamble at all. My vice levels have leveled out again.

Not bad, eh? Mathematics and Buddhism! (And vice.) All in one handy code for living!

I'm starting to apply this theory to everything, Mark. The Quantity Theory of Everything. Everything, I've decided, finds its own level. Like water. Like vice. You can move it about... but you can never get rid completely. Think of a subject, Mark - I guarantee it works. Think of a subject, any subject. What's on your mind?

What's that you say? Train delays? The Quantity Theory of Train Delays? Well that would say that there is a certain amount of delays that are an inevitability for any train franchise - and that no matter what you try to do, how you try to cope with them, those delays will happen somewhere and somehow. Eliminate one delay-causing issue in one place, and another will have to pop up somewhere else. The Quantity Theory of Train Delays would say that we're essentially helpless in the face of our train delays, Mark! It would say that the delays will happen, one way or another, no matter what we do. It would say that train delays find their own level!

What do you think, Mark? Is it a good theory? Do you believe in the Quantity Theory of Train Delays?

And more importantly, will the Quantity Theory of Everything fly? Will it help make the Great Important 21st Century British Novel as good a book as (for example) Tuesday's Child by Louise Bagshawe (now Mensch)? Could it? Could it really? As good as that? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Or failing that you could just write back and give me your theories on why your trains are so often delayed.

Au revoir!