Tuesday, 17 January 2012

17 January 2012. Letter 77

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 17/1/12. CANCELLED. Amount of my day wasted: 30 minutes.

Oh Mark! Ooh, Sue! How are you? It’s cold isn’t it? Brrrr! Are you cold? Is Jack Frost nipping at your toes, Mark? Have you got the chills, Sue? Are you both wrapped up against the elements? Are you muffled and swaddled and swathed against the biting wind, the bitter embrace of the season? Do you wear your winter coats, your scarves and hats, your Christmas jumpers? Are we sporting thermals today, Sue? Do you rock a Long John, Mark?

I hope so! Oh, my chilly-fingered friends! Oh, my frozen-toed frères! With our streaming noses and red cheeks and breath that billows around us like steam from endlessly boiling kettles! We are cold, are we not? January has found us, Mark! The winter has come for us at last!

I don’t mind telling you, Mark – I, for one, am freezing. I’m brass monkeys, as our friends in the north inexplicably like to express it. (What is that all about, Sue? You’re the communications expert – what, precisely, are they trying to communicate, when they say it’s brass monkeys? And who on earth first thought of that comparison? Have you ever even seen a brass monkey? A monkey? Made of brass? What the dickens are they on about?)

I am cold today, Mark. I don’t mind telling you. I feel so extraordinary! Something’s got a hold on me. I get this feeling I’m in, well, not motion exactly… I get this feeling I’m in stasis. I’m still, Mark. Still and cold.

Still, apart from the shivering, obviously. Ooh, I’m shivering! I’m shivering and shaking! I’m buzzing like a fridge! I tremble like a flower!

Do you want to know why I am so particularly cold today, Mark? I’m particularly cold because I happen to be sitting on a particularly cold, particularly slow train currently chugging its slow, sleepy way through the petrified countryside between Oxford and Reading. It’s stopping at every frostbitten station along the way, Sue. Places with names like Appleford.

And nobody thought to turn on the heating on this particular train. Nobody thought: you know what? It’s minus three outside. Let’s turn the heating on. People might be cold. Let’s turn the heating on, for our passengers, for the ones paying us to run this train in the first place. Nobody thought: let’s think of our customers, and turn the heating on, because it’s minus three outside and some of them might not want to sit in the cold all the way to London town.

It’s a slow train, Mark; and it’s a cold train.

Why am I on this train? This slow, cold train to London? An excellent question, Mark, but one, I fear, that begs an answer that is unlikely to paint you in a very good light.

Sit yourself down, Mark. (What’s that? You are sitting? Good! Excellent!) Make yourself comfortable, Sue. Crank out the La-Z-Boys, send out for coffee, order up some Hobnobs, hold all the calls, stop all the clocks, set your phones to silent and settle in for a stretch. It’s going to be a long one, Mark. It’s going to be loooong, Sue.

I’m sorry to say that you’ve wasted rather a lot of my time this morning. And so I’m going to have to waste rather a lot of yours in return. It’s what the late Rolling Stones bassist George Harrison called “karma”. I’ve called the Karma Police! You get what you give. You reap what you sow. Settle down, Mark and Sue, and get ready to reap.

So. I am on this particularly slow, particularly cold train, because the train I was supposed to be on this morning was cancelled. You cancelled my train, Mark! Why did you cancel my train? As if getting to work on such a day as this wasn’t difficult enough as it is. (Waking up and getting up has never been easy, Sue.) As if wrapping up and muffling up and dragging my numbed feet through the streets to the station in the struggling light of dawn wasn’t hard enough, Mark – in these frozen mornings in mid-January. As if your trains weren’t unreliable enough. Now you’re cancelling them?

And so I stood on Oxford platform as the mercury dipped below minus three, Mark, swearing under my breath and stamping my feet and trying to think of a New Order lyric I could slip into the letter that would I be writing to you today; and so I stood there, chilled to the bone with all the other swearing, foot-stamping, New Order lyric-remembering other commuters, and I thought to myself: why have they cancelled my train? And I thought to myself: is this ever going to get better, Mark?

I mean: seriously. Is this ever going to get better?

Something has to be done, surely? We can’t go on like this, Mark. We can’t go on together, with defective trains.

Or rather: you can’t go on like this. Treating your passengers, your customers, the ones who pay your wages and keep you in profit, the ones who keep your profits high and your bonuses handsome, the poor saps who stump up above-inflation price hikes year after sorry year for a service that never gets noticeably better… you can’t keep treating them like this, Mark. Can you?

You’re taking our time, Mark, and you’re taking our money. And you’re treating us with nothing but contempt. Are you not just a little bit ashamed? Sure, there’s an excuse for every delay, there’s an explanation for every cancellation (that’s what Sue’s for, right? That’s what she does)… but are you not just a little bit ashamed that it should be like this, day in, day out?

Do you never get pangs of conscience, as you view your various spreadsheets in the First Great Western Tower of Power, as you study first the columns showing increasing company profits, and then the columns showing ticket price rises, and then the columns showing absolutely no improvement to the reliability of the service whatsoever? Do you never feel just a little bit bad about that?

I hope you do, Mark. You seem like a decent chap. You take the time to write back to me, after all, which is definitely the sign of a decent chap. And when I met you that time, back in the salad days of August, the dog days of our summer, you seemed like nothing less than a thoroughly good bloke. So I hope you do feel bad about the state of your company Mark.

Because you know what? I’m beginning to get a little bit tired of it all myself. Have you noticed? After 77 letters and around 50,000 words in less than seven months, are you beginning to pick up on the fact that I’m starting to get a touch touchy about your shambolic excuse for a train service?

Is my frustration becoming evident? Is my snarkiness boiling over into outright ranting? Do I rave, Mark? (We’ve discussed this before, Sue! Not that kind of raving! Not the glowsticks and the deep trance, not the white gloves and the bottle of water and the disco biscuits and the happy hardcore kind of raving! None of your on-the-terrace-at-Space action here! None of your memories of the Hacienda in ’88 now! Not that kind of raving at all!)

Do I rave, Mark and Sue? Is it any wonder if I do?

Anyway. Raving or otherwise, let’s get back to the present. Back to life, as Jazzy B and his noted soul-funk collective so beautifully put it, back to reality. Back to the here and now.

My train was cancelled this morning, Mark. And so, after swearing and stamping my feet and all the rest of it, I joined my fellow sufferers and got on the Chugger, the little train that stops at every tin-pot hamlet and one-horse town along the line to London. I did that because that’s what the man on the tannoy told me to do. They even held the Chugger back in the station past its scheduled departure time so that everyone who normally gets on the (cancelled) 08.06 could get on it too.

That was clever of them, wasn’t it, Mark? Hold a two carriage Chugger in the station in order to accommodate all of its usual passengers – plus everyone who normally gets the eight carriage fast service! Ten carriages into two does go, Mark! Abacus, schmabacus, as the Ancient Sumerians might have said, 5000 years ago, when first pondering the complexities of mathematics. Ten into two does go! Abacus schmabacus!

And so in we squashed: ten carriages into two. Into the coldest place on earth we went, Mark. Into conditions Captain Scott would have shied away from; into a train that Ernest Shackleton would have chickened out of… into the polar express (or rather, polar Chugger) we dutifully went.

And I opened my laptop, Mark. With frostbitten fingers I began to type.

And crikey, this train is cold, Mark! It’s colder in here than it is outside! I type this letter to you with my digits turning blue, with extremities numbed and nerve-endings dying and toes no doubt blackening and dropping off. And you know what, Mark? The air-conditioning is on. It’s not only cold in here – but someone thought it would be a good idea to turn the air-conditioning on, to actually blow out more cold air into the already freezing carriages. Seriously, Mark!

A boy could get paranoid, Sue! (Have I used my paranoia jokes before? What’s that you say? I have? Well you would say that, wouldn’t you? Anyway, I saw my doctor about my paranoia – he asked why I was really there and what did they tell me to say to try to catch him out? He said people were always coming in saying they’re paranoid and he wanted to know who was co-ordinating it all.)

A boy could think you’re doing all this deliberately, Mark! A paranoid boy, obviously, a boy with issues and hangups. Not a boy like me. Not the kind of boy who would keep writing letters to you like this. Not a normal boy. A paranoid boy, with hangups and issues. That kind of boy could begin to think that all these delays, the cancellations, the freezing, overcrowded trains with the air-con blasting out… that kind of boy could begin to think you were doing it all deliberately.

Absurd, right? Crazy! Crazy as a coconut! Of course it’s not that. Of course you’re not doing it deliberately! You’re not actively malicious, are you Mark? You’re not intentionally cruel! I’ve met you! You’ve written to me! You’re not the kind who could smile, and run late trains as you smile.

So… given that you’re not doing all this deliberately, actively, intentionally, what does that leave us with? If it’s not deliberate, what is it?

If it’s not deliberate, Mark, these delays and cancellations and overcrowdings and price-hikes (actually, that bit is deliberate, isn’t it?) and stupid decisions like cooling your trains down on the coldest day of winter – if it’s not deliberate, it must just be… incompetence.

Right, Mark? Does that make sense, Sue? If you’re not running such a shoddy, shambolic, sorry excuse for a train franchise deliberately ineptly – then you must be running it incompetently. That it’s bad is beyond question (see the previous 76 letters for evidence of that). The question is why it’s bad. And if you’re not making it bad on purpose, then it must be bad by accident.

As you know, Mark, I’m a journalist. I write stuff for a living. Someone asks me to write something about someone, and I think for a bit, research for a bit, stare at the blank page for a bit, and then start writing. And when I’ve finished, I give what I’ve written to the person who asked me to write it, and if that person is happy with what I’ve written, I get paid. And then they might ask me to write something else.

If I write something they’re not happy with, they might come back to me and ask me about it. “Why did you write this?” they might say. Or, “What’s your evidence for writing that?” Or even, “Why do you insist on trying to get New Order lyrics into a piece about noted French/Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo?”

And if I say I wrote it that way deliberately and they still don’t like it, they might point out why it doesn’t work and tell me to do better next time and (if they’re nice) they might still ask me to write something else.

But if, for example, I couldn’t even see that what I had written was bad, if it was simply the case that I am, in fact, a bad writer… well then they’re not going to ask me to write anything ever again. If I’m incompetent, Mark, I don’t get paid. Simple as that.

It’s not a revolutionary concept, Mark. It just happens to be a concept that works in pretty much every part of society except, apparently, the part that involves running a train franchise.

Oh, Mark. Ooh, Sue. What are we to do? How can we take this mess and sort it out?

Do I need to shout louder, Mark? Do I need to holler from the rooftops? Do I need to do more than I’m doing already? Do I need, Mark, to use the power of television?

Okay then! You got it! I shall go on television, Mark! I shall get myself on the gogglebox! I shall invade the living rooms of the nation, Sue, and make my point in High Definition and Surround Sound!

Let’s do it! Let’s do it… next Monday! Let’s do it next Monday, the 23rd of January! Let’s do it next Monday, the 23rd of January at 8.30pm! On BBC1! Let’s do it on a programme called Panorama! I’m there, Mark! I’m already there!

Au revoir!


PS – I got the New Order lyric in, by the way, Sue. I got two New Order lyrics in! And then I got carried away and also got in lyrics by Radiohead, David Bowie, Elastica, Elvis Presley, Joy Division, Soul II Soul and The Avalanches. Plus nods to the New Radicals, Lou Reed and Florence and the Machine. Oh dear. Sorry about that. I’d never get away with that in an article about noted French/Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo. But did you spot them all, Sue? That’s the real question! Did you spot every single one of them?

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