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.

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