Wednesday, 29 February 2012

29 February 2012. Letter 89

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 29/2/12. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes

Well hello Mark! Sue! Fancy meeting you here! Come here often? Of course you do. You come here all the time. We all three of us do.

So. It seems that perhaps that last week and a bit was a blip, after all. An anomaly, as our egg-headed friends in the science labs like to put it. The exception that proves the rule.

As I write, squashed into a train made up of five carriages less than it should be (five carriages less than I paid for, five carriages less than you promised it would be when I did pay), I can’t help being just a little bit disappointed in you both. For a little while it looked so good back there! For a little while it looked like we’d really turned the corner (can trains turn corners?). For a little while it looked like we were going to grab this running a successful train franchise lark by the scruff of its neck and see if we could pioneer the bold and beautiful concept of giving the customers the service we promised!

We could have been heroes, Mark! Just for one week (and a bit).

And instead… well, here we all are again. Still playing out this silly game of time-wasting tit-for-tat. It’s enough to make you give up hope, is it not?

Mark! Sue! Don’t give up hope! The sun also rises! Let’s be positive! All this talk of going slow – it’s getting me down, my loves. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to dr—actually, let’s not go there. That’s no good at all. That’s not going to make us feel positive. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking of, quoting the Verve like that.

That’s the problem with Richard Ashcroft, isn’t it? He starts a perfectly sweet little song about his funny, furry, favourite pet cat, and before you know it, the poor little blighter’s been tied in a sack and taken to the canal. What’s wrong with him, Sue? What’s his problem with cats?

He just can’t help himself, can he? The scruffy, crazy-eyed, lanky Lancastrian. He does it to himself: and that’s what really hurts.

He wants to cheer up, that’s what mad Richard wants! He wants to write a positive, life-affirming, uplifting tune for a change! He should take a leaf out of S Club 7’s songbook, Mark! Reach for the stars! Climb every mountain higher! Ain’t no party like an S Club Party!

Remind me to drop him a note sometime, Sue. I’ll jot down a few lyric ideas and send them his way. I’m sure he’ll be grateful.

So, anyway. Let’s forget about Mr Ashcroft and his peculiar penchant for feline euthanasia. Let’s talk about nice stuff. Let’s talk, in fact, about me! After all, Mark: our days together may be numbered, and I want to make every moment precious.

What’s that? Yes! Our days may be numbered. The woods decay and fall, Sue. Even the most beautiful flowers in the forest are doomed to shed their petals, wilt and rot away. Even the prettiest kittens face the wrath of Ashcroft eventually.

Here’s the thing. As you know, I’ve been spending my days this last year or two writing and editing for the pleasure of millions of readers of the most read supplement of the most read English language newspaper in the world. (Technically for two of them: but when they shut down the first one, the Sunday one, I was lucky enough to move over to the other one, the daily one. Although that daily one now has a Sunday edition too, of course. I’ve been bounced around the weekends more than most, I don’t mind telling you, Sue.)

I’ve been covering maternity leave, you see: I’ve been stepping into the shoes vacated by the Features Director.

And now… well, she’s had the baby. (She had two babies, as it happens. Crazy!) And she’s coming back to work. What does that mean for us? That means I’m going freelance again, Mark. That means I’m going to be working mostly from home, writing for all and sundry and anyone with a discerning readership and a dirty dollar to offer.

That means I’m not going to be commuting every day. That means, in four weeks’ time, I’ll no longer be catching your godawful trains morning and night – nor paying the best part of five hundred nicker a month to do so.

I know, Mark! Sue: dry your eyes, mate. I know it’s hard to take but her mind has been made up. There’s plenty more fish in the sea. There’s plenty more annoyed commuters on your trains (I can see at least a couple dozen right now). Maybe one of them will prove to be as childish as me and start writing to you too?

(Admittedly, they’re unlikely to have my exhaustive knowledge of pop music, or profound understanding of weather patterns, or winning way with a historical analogy, but there you go. You can’t have everything. You want the moon on a stick, Sue!)

But don’t worry! We’ve still got four weeks together! We’ve still got time to make it to 100 letters!

Do you think we will, Mark? Do you think we’ll make it to 100 delays in nine months? It’ll be a sprint finish, won’t it? It’ll be exactly like Coe vs Beckenbauer in the 1982 Olympics! Exciting!

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

28 February 2012. Letter 88

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 28/2/12. Amount of my day wasted: 13 minutes

Mark! Sue!

Hey you! What’s new? How do you do?

It’s been a long time, Mark. Sue: it’s been a long time since we rock ‘n’ rolled! It’s been a long time since we did the stroll! It’s been a long lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely time! Yes it has!

Old Bobby Plant knew the score, eh, Mark? Old Bobby Plant and his shaggy-haired adventurers in popular music: Swingin’ Bobby Plant and the Flyin’ Led Zeppelins (that was their original name, Sue: not a lot of people know that. That was what Plant and Page wanted to call the band. It took an intervention by John Bonham and the threat by John Paul Jones to set fire to Jimmy’s double-necked Telecaster before they relented and changed their name to the snappier Led Zep. Good old Led Zep!)

Where was I? Oh yes! It’s been a long lonely old time! When did I last have to write, Mark? Was it a whole week ago? A week and a bit? Have you actually managed to make the trains run on time for a whole week and a bit? Unprecedented!

Give yourself a big hand, Mark! Take a moment to reflect on your achievement. Bask a while in the glorious sunlight of a job well done. Give yourself a big hand… and then pat yourself on the back with that big hand. Or if you can’t reach, get Sue to do it.

Sue? Stop communicating for just a second there and give Mark a pat would you? Ta ever so.

So well done for that. I’ve had no cause to waste any of your time for 12 days. Silence truly is golden, eh?

But then, like so much rain after sunshine, like the first frosts of winter after a glorious Indian summer, like the splitting head, broken fingers and inexplicable “intimate” itching that inevitably follows the heady carousing of a big night out in east Oxford (don’t ask, Sue, long story), the good times must inevitably be followed by the bad.

Nothing ever lasts for ever, Mark: and if a week and a bit without significant delays on the Oxford to London line seems like a good old run (and it is, Mark!) then, sadly, I’m here to tell you that today that run came to a stuttering, stumbling, stop.

What happened today, Mark, as we waited motionless on the line near Hayes and Harlington? What befell the service, as we sat around twiddling our metaphorical thumbs and watching through the smeared and smudged windows of Coach C as life passed us by? (Or as close to life as things get in Hayes and Harlington.)

Was it congestion again? Was it a signalling issue? A track problem? Did we miss our departure path?

Please don’t tell me it was anything to do with anything you, as Managing Director of First Great Western, might be responsible for! We don’t need that on top of everything else! We’ve got 99 problems, Mark! Don’t let that be one!

Because you are the Managing Director, at the end of the day. (And at the beginning of the day! And at the middle of the day! All day, as the Davies brothers so beautifully put it, and all of the night!) I’m only writing to you because you’re the Managing Director. Because the power and the responsibility lie on your broad shoulders. And yours alone.

If you’re going to get Sue to give you a big pat on the back when you go a week and a bit without delays, if you’re going to glory in the sublime sound of silence that accompanies a week and a bit without a letter from me, if you’re going to take credit for the good things… then you’ve got to take the blame for the bad.

Because, good or bad, in sickness and in health, either way up it’s all about you. As Danny McFly and the Brothers McFly so beautifully sang, it’s all about you, baby.

Please don’t let me be misunderstood here, Mark. Much as I rail against your railway, much as I moan about your mouldy old service and despair of all the delays you put my way… I am not actually anti everything First Great Western stands for.

I rather like travelling by train, as it happens. (When they run on time.) And as I think I’ve mentioned before, I have always found the vast majority of those who work for First Great Western to be friendly, helpful people. And when things go wrong – it’s not their fault, Mark. They’re just trying to do their jobs. They’re just trying to make the best of what is often a bad situation.

And that’s why I don’t have a go at them. These letters, Mark – they’re not having a go at anyone but you. Oh: and Sue, obviously. The drivers, the guards, the conductors and train managers; the station staff and ticket collectors and trolley people; the repairmen and maintenance staff and engineers; the people in your official complaints department to whom I always cc these letters*; Jo on twitter… the whole extensive FGW extended family. I’m not having a go at them. I’ve never had a problem with them.

It’s not their jobs to make the trains run on time, is it Mark? It’s their jobs to drive the trains, or repair the trains, or handle the admin, or serve up the cups of tea, or take the ear-bashing for other people’s incompetence.

It’s your job to make the trains run on time. That’s what you get paid to do. That’s what I pay you to do. And so I reckon that makes you the only one to blame here. Everyone else is just trying to cope.

The responsibility always lies at the top, right? That’s where the buck has got to end up. That’s where that buck has to stop.

Anyway. Well done on a week and a bit without delays, Mark. It may even be the first time that’s happened since last June (I can’t be bothered going back and checking, but do please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). And wasn’t it wonderful not hearing from me for a week and a bit? Sure, your days may have been a little less pop-music-lyric infused, but, y’know, at least they were quiet, right?

Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s try to do it all again this week! And next! Let’s try to keep running trains on time – and that way I need never write to you again! Oh brave new world, etc…

Au revoir!


*I’m imagining your Official Complaints Department is a pretty vast space, right? I’m picturing it right now – and I’m guessing it looks a bit like that scene in the Matrix where we see all the people in their pods, stacked end on end, one on top of the other, in vast rows and dizzying columns… a city of pods, a megalopolis of pods, stretching beyond the horizon. The whole human species, stored in pods, to the end of recorded time! That’s what I think of when I think of your Official Complaints Department. Only with telephones. And without that big feller offering Keanu different coloured pills to change the world, obviously.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mark Hopwood replies!

Dear Dom

Thank you for you for your emails the week before last and I am sorry for both delays.

Our 08:06 on the Tuesday was delayed following a signalling issue which we are investigating with Network Rail.

On the Thursday, our 18:51 left late after we had to undertake a further safety check and the delay was compounded by a signal problem near Slough.

I am also disappointed that we caused you problems last week too.

Our 18:51 on Monday was delayed by a failed Freight Train.

The cancellation of our 08:06 on 15 February was very frustrating. Jo (and I agree she does do a fantastic job on Twitter) was right to explain that we did have a shortage within our HST fleet. We can usually cope well in these situations and draft in a replacement or a Turbo. It is vary rare that we have to cancel a service outright but I am sorry this was the case on Wednesday.

Your return train was delayed in its way into Paddington by a track problem. It then lost its departure path. Although we are starting to see an improvement in our overall performance these last few weeks, services between Oxford and London have not been as reliable. We are working very hard to address this.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood

Managing Director

Thursday, 16 February 2012

15 February 2012. Letter 87

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 21.18 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 15/2/12. Amount of my day wasted: 14 minutes

Mark! Sue! How do you do? Are you doing the do? Are you keeping on keeping on? Are you doing how you like and liking how you do? You are! Excellent! That’s the spirit, lads! Don’t let them grind you down, Sue! Always look on the bright side of life, Mark!

What’s that you say? How am I? Oh, I’m ok. You know how it is. I’m alright. Getting by. Mustn’t grumble. Can’t complain. Train was delayed again, but what can you do?

That reminds me, Mark: do you want to hear my theory of how geography relates to perceptions of wellbeing? (Admittedly it could use a snappier title.) You do! Great! I warn you, it’s not actually terribly interesting or anything, but I’ve got 14 minutes of yours to waste today, so tough luck.

So here it is. Here’s the thing: if you ask someone from the south of England how they are, and they’re basically fine, they’ll reply: I’m well, I’m good. It’s a positive thing, Mark: they’re communicating the positive in an unequivocal way.

Ask someone from the north, however, and (assuming they are also basically fine) they’ll respond with: alright, you know. Mustn’t grumble. Can’t complain. It’s a positive expressed only in relation to the negative.

Do you follow, Mark? (Of course you follow, Sue: this is Communications 101, right? This is kindergarten Communications!) People from the north, Mark: in general terms at least, look on the positive aspects of their lives mostly in the context of how they’re not as bad as they could be. Things could be worse. Whereas southerners – well, they’re just blind optimists, right?

Okay, look, I told you it wasn’t very interesting. But it’s true. It’s literally true of every single northerner and every single southerner in the country, based on my extensive research of a couple of people I know.*

Anyway! I’m alright. Mustn’t grumble. Not so bad, as it happens. At least the zombie plague currently ravaging the sickened streets of Wapping hasn’t caught up with me yet. At least I’ve not succumbed to the office apocalypse currently laying waste to the features, pictures and lifestyle desks of the country’s most read magazine supplement. There is that.

On the other hand, Mark: I am tired. Oh, I’m so tired, Sue! You should see me! Nodding off in the queue for my morning paper. Narcoleptic in my place on Platform 1. Near-comatose in my seat in Coach C. I’m not sick, but I’m sure tired. I’m all out of gas, Mark! I’m running on fumes, Sue! If it wasn’t for the caffeine and the nicotine and the sugar and the need to write to you about last night’s delay, I doubt I’d even last the journey in today.

I’m tired, Mark. Last night was a late one. And last night’s late one was made still later thanks to another one of your trains running later than it should have. Fourteen minutes late, last night! Eighteen minutes in the morning and 14 minutes in the evening: that’s what you took from me yesterday!

Now, as we know, I’m no Charles Dickens when it comes to mathematics, I’m no Mario Balotelli when it comes to adding up and stuff, but even I know that 18 minutes plus 14 minutes makes over half an hour of delays. In one day.

That’s not really good enough, is it?

The morning we already know about, of course, the existential cancelled train that wasn’t a train at all. So here’s what happened last night, Mark.

So. Wednesday nights, as we know by now, are late nights for me. Wednesday nights are press nights, the nights we put the magazine to bed, the nights we mark up the proofs and sign off the pages and finalise the coverlines. Wednesday nights are the nights we get that bad girl off to the printers and start the presses rolling. And, as I believe we’ve also discussed before, for some reason, every week it seems to involve staying late to get it all done.

So last night I was late. Last night, upon a moonlit dreary, as I wandered weak and weary, across the concourse of Paddington station at just shy of quarter past nine, just in time to make the advertised and paid-for 21.18 to Oxford, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I was looking forward to getting home, Sue. I was looking forward to getting home as quickly and efficiently as possible. And do you know what happened next? Can you guess?

That’s right! We didn’t leave at 21.18! We left at half-past nine! And then pretty soon after that we slowed down a bit. We took it all at a gentle, leisurely pace. We ambled. We moseyed. We mooched home. We got into Oxford 14 minutes later than we should have. And now I’m having to write to tell you all about it, because if running trains late is what you do, then writing to annoy you as much as your late trains annoy me is what I do.

It’s… symbiotic, right? (“It’s… automatic! It’s hydromatic! It’s symbiotic! It’s Greased Lightning! Go greased lightning you’re burning up the quarter mile!”) We’re locked together, Sue! In an everlasting embrace of frustration, incompetence and futile revenge! It’s symbiotic!

Actually, you know what? That reminds me of something. There was a man yesterday, Mark, a man on Twitter. He suggested that if I’m so unhappy with the First Great Western train company then I should have a go at running it myself. He suggested I wouldn’t be very good at it (his exact phrase, I believe, was “could not run a Hornby”). His inference seemed to be that given that I’m not qualified to be Managing Director of a train company as important as First Great Western, I should shut up and accept the failings of those who are qualified and do run the company.

It’s a funny, servile, feudal kind of logic, isn’t it, Mark? It’s all a touch Downton Abbey and know-your-place and you’ll-die-in-the-class-you-were-born, is it not? It’s all a bit, well, na├»ve, no? Suggesting that those who pay for a service should be grateful for whatever they get, no matter how far removed it may be from what they were promised?

Was he being satirical, do you think, Sue?

Let’s say, for example Sue, that you decided to treat Mark to a night out at one of Slough’s finest restaurants. Somewhere classy, something upmarket. Nando’s, say. It’s been a long, hard week of numerous delays and much high-level communicating and you both deserve an evening off.

So away to Nando’s you go: and once you’re comfortably settled in your seats, you decide to splash out and treat yourselves to a small bottle of lager and a plate of chicken each. Lovely!

Only in this Nando’s you have to pay up front. And then once you’ve paid, you’re told that, actually, your beer and chicken won’t be coming at all. But if you’re prepared to wait a while you can have a glass of warm water and a bread roll. It’ll be along sometime in the next hour or two. Maybe.

Now imagine that this terrible Nando’s experience wasn’t a one-off special occasion, but that you had to eat at that restaurant every day, twice a day, and the whole water-and-bread-roll incident isn’t unusual, but in fact happens roughly three times a week, every week. And you always have to pay up front. And the price keeps going up. And quite a lot of the time you have to stand. Next to the toilet. Which is overflowing.

What would your attitude be, Mark? You’d be cross, of course, and frustrated, and quite possibly feel like you’d been taken for an almighty ride by the Portuguese chicken-fanciers… but what would your attitude to the management of that Nando’s restaurant be? Would you think: well, I couldn’t run a Nando’s? Would you think: to be fair, running a branch of Nando’s is probably quite complicated, and so perhaps I should be grateful for whatever bread rolls and warm water and cramped standing space by the overflowing bogs I get, despite the fact I’m actually paying for beer and chicken in a nice comfortable seat?

I doubt it, Mark. I doubt that man from Twitter would think that either. I think it far more likely that both of you (and you too, Sue!) would consider the whole thing a disgrace and feel that you had a perfect right to kick up an almighty stink about it all.

But then, what would I know? I’m just a tabloid journalist, right? I’m not qualified to run a train company!

Oh! Look at the time! Mark! Sue! We haven’t talked about Sean Penn and his unique take on colonialism and the commonwealth! We haven’t discussed how the ex-husband of Madonna and star of Bad Boys and Shanghai Surprise is uniquely placed to offer expert insight into the relative claims to ownership of the Falkland Islands!

Never mind! There’ll always be tomorrow, Sue!

Au revoir!


PS – For legal reasons I should point out that no branch of Nando’s would ever offer such a shoddy service. It would be almost literally unbelievable for anyone to offer such a thing, wouldn’t it?

*I was brought up in the north, Mark. Does it show?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

15 February 2012. Letter 86

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington 15/2/12. CANCELLED. Amount of my day wasted: 18 minutes

Ah, Mark! There you are!

Sue? Sue?

Sue? Anyone seen Sue? Anyone even heard Sue, recently? Anyone detected any sign of Sue, at all? Any indication that the Director of Communications for the almighty and all-powerful, the majestic and magnificent, the bold and beautiful First Great Western train company, keepers of the legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and custodians of the great pulsing pulmonary artery leading into London from the west, may be doing any communicating? At all? No?

Oh well. I’m sure there’s a very good reason for Sue’s uncharacteristic shyness. I’m sure there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for the Director of Communications’ current incommunicado status.

In the meantime, Mark, let’s plough on! Let’s keep going and hope Sue catches up! Let’s leave a little trail of (metaphorical) breadcrumbs and hope she follows before the (still metaphorical) wicked woman of the woods tempts us into her (also metaphorical) house of sweets and gingerbread. Let’s hope those (metaphorical) birds don’t eat the crumbs before we’re trapped and locked up and fattened up ready for the (you guessed it – metaphorical) pot. Let’s – actually, I can’t remember what happens at the end. The children get eaten though, right? The children always get eaten, in the end. One way or another. It always ends badly (no metaphor there, Mark).

So, yes! Let’s skip along, Mark, you and I, like babes lost in the wood! Hand in hand through this mist and murk, together trying to see a way through the delays and cancellations and overcrowded carriages and defective toilets and lack of communication until we reach some kind of happy ending. Let’s hope we don’t get attacked by the Seven Dwarfs or pricked by a spindle or locked in a tower or mugged off by Rumpelstiltskin or whatever. Let’s hope none of that happens, because, frankly, I totally lost this metaphor about 150 words ago, and I’m struggling to think of an amusing way to work in Rip Van Winkle (just because it sounds a bit funny) and I’m failing.

So! Enough metaphorical mixology! Let’s concentrate on the matter in hand. Let us sit down, you and I, as the morning stretches across the sky… and discuss what on earth happened to my train to work today.

It disappeared, Mark! In a puff of metaphorical (sorry) smoke! Just like that! It wasn’t there! It ceased to be! It… oh, on second thoughts, let’s not quote Monty Python. I’m not sure it was funny first time around, was it?

Here’s what happened to my train this morning, Mark. There was no train. The whole thing was a total existential poser! If the 08.06 from Oxford to London is cancelled, did it ever exist in the first place? Just because I caught the 08.06 train yesterday, just because it is advertised on the timetable as existing… if it never actually appears, then can it be said to have existed at all?

But wait! It gets better! I tweeted about it, Mark: I tweeted the lovely Jo, who (wo)mans your twitter feed, which is not a job I envy, seeing as it seems mostly to consist of taking the brunt of all the abuse that should rightly be aimed at the people running the train company, like the Managing Director for example, I tweeted the lovely Jo, who I like because she once commiserated with me when I didn’t get Stone Roses tickets that time, and she kindly tweeted me back with the reason the 08.06 from Oxford to London was cancelled.

The reason the train was cancelled this morning Mark was… (you’ll love this): there was a shortage of trains. In other words: the train didn’t come because there was no train!

Trust me, Sue (Sue! Finally! There you are! Welcome! Come in, pull up a chair! Mark and I are just pulling apart a philosophical Gordian knot! We’re just wrestling with a logical conundrum! There’s tea in the pot, Sue, do help yourself. Or shall I be mother? Milk, Sue? One lump or two? Biscuit? Gingerbread man?) – trust me, Sue, men of less robust intellects than ourselves would have their minds blown by such a concept.

My train this morning was cancelled because there was no train. Stick that on an official looking bit of paper, Sue, add the word “discuss”, and you’ve got an Oxbridge entrance examination right there.

Except, when it comes down to it, perhaps the real question should be: are the philosophical and existential arguments that spring from the concept of a cancelled train that never existed in the first place really the most important thing here?

And the answer should be: no, believe it or not.

In our heart of hearts, from the heart of our bottoms, we three know that the only thing that really matters if the 08.06 from Oxford to London is cancelled is that a lot of people are going to be late for work. A lot of people who paid a lot of money to catch that train are now going to have to wait for later trains, or sit on slower trains, or try to do clever things with different trains involving changing at Didcot Parkway… and none of them will be getting the service they paid for.

Mark! Sue! I’m not getting the service I’m paying for! How many times, in how many different ways, do I have to say it? I’m not getting the service I’m paying for!

Je ne gettez-pas le service comme je payez-for! Mich nicht servicht-zie das ist ein kugelschreiber! Mi spendo, mi no servizio!

And, I’ll be honest with you, Sue: this morning was not a good morning to go cancelling trains. There are two reasons for this. And, because we’ve got plenty of time today, because I’m beholden to waste a big ol’ chunk of your time with this nonsense, just as you’ve wasted a big ol’ chunk of mine with your nonsense, I’m going to tell you about both reasons.



The first reason this morning was not a good morning to go cancelling trains is that, to be frank (can I be both mother and frank, Sue? Let’s find out!) I’m not feeling on top of the world, today. I’m not in my usual rude health. I’m no longer in the pink. There is a virus.

There is a virus, Mark! The offices of the country’s most-read weekly magazine (free with your Super Soaraway every Saturday!) are infected! The sickness spreads like a, er, disease! No one is safe!

Have you seen that film Dawn of the Dead, Mark? It’s like that. It’s exactly like that!

It started in the far corner of the office a month or so ago, when one of the feature writers phoned in sick. She couldn’t stop being sick, Sue! Curled up on the bathroom floor and cold sweating by the sink. Gasping on the lino and shivering over the porcelain. She said it was horrible! She said it was the worst she’d ever had it!

Within days the other feature writer was off too. Same symptoms. Same sickness.

And then the picture director called in sick. And then it hit the entertainment assistant. Last week the lifestyle assistant phoned in with it… and yesterday the lifestyle editor succumbed.

It’s coming for us, Mark! The sickness! The zombie apocalypse! It started in the corner with the feature writer and it’s working its way in mean, nasty little zigzags, across the office floor, through the picture desk, the entertainment desk, the lifestyle desk… devouring all in its path, ravaging and wasting and showing no mercy!

And soon it will be coming for me!

My desk, Mark! It’s the next one up from the lifestyle editor’s! I’m standing, as it were, at the doors of the shopping mall, baseball bat in hand, watching as the shuffling hordes of the undead beat a remorseless path towards me! For how long can I hold out, Sue? I already feel a bit peaky. I already feel a little uncertain around the old midriff. I’ve already got a bit of a shiver on.

Is it just the cheap wine (Aldi Mediterranean red of unspecified country and indeterminate grape, Mark. Kicks like a horse! Kicks like a big clumsy drunken Mediterranean horse!)? Is it merely the out-of-date pizza (Sainsbury’s Value range, Mark: and really, how out of date can pepperoni go?)? Is it simply the collywobbles, some psychosomatically-induced imaginary illness I have? Is it a phantom menace I feel? Or am I about to go under?

Am I to be the next victim of the office zombie plague?

I tell you what doesn’t help, Mark. Standing on a platform staring uselessly at the word “Cancelled” in the morning, trying to work out what the best way of getting to London and work and the source of the zombie infection, might be. That doesn’t help! That didn’t help me, this morning!

I got the chugger, in the end, Mark. The chuff-puff-huffer, the little engine that stops at every little hamlet and village and itty-bitty watering station on the way. I got to Paddington 18 minutes later than I should have.

But that’s not all, Sue! There’s a second reason why this morning was not a good morning to cancel the 08.06 train from Oxford to London.

This morning is the morning after the feast of St Valentine!

And I don’t know about you two, but in my experience nobody feels especially good the morning after the feast of St Valentine. Whether you’re lucky or unlucky in love.

Let’s face it: either things went well last night and now you’re hungover and tired and aching and missing a shoe and have the beginnings of an unfortunate rash and are wearing the same clothes to work as you did yesterday… or else things went badly and you’re hungover and tired and aching and bitter that the only reason you’re any of those things is because you ended up drinking cheap Aldi Mediterranean red and crying into your Sainsbury’s Value pepperoni pizza by yourself all night.

(Or, in one particularly extreme case, because you’re hungover and tired and aching and you’re the third-century Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus and you wake up with the terrible feeling you may have just ordered the patron saint of lovers to be beaten and then stoned and then beheaded.)

The morning after the feast of St Valentine, Mark: not a good morning to cancel a train. Especially in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Even if the official reason for the train to be cancelled is that the train didn’t exist.

Still. Things could be worse, eh? We could live in the Falklands, couldn’t we? And then we wouldn’t even have the support of noted thespian Sean Penn! But that, I fear, is a story for another delay…

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

13 February 2012. Letter 85

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 13/2/12. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes

Mark! Sue!

Darlings! Loveys! Sweeties! How are you? Are you loved up and buffed up and ready for action? Are you feeling amorous and looking glamorous and floating on the sweet winds of courtly love and train management? Do the stresses and strains and worries and relentless tallies of loss and failure simply wash over you today, like so much dirty rain off a honeymooning duck’s back?

I do hope so! I hope that’s exactly how things are today! I hope you’re feeling super! Because, my fellow riders on the love train (“all aboard the love train! Plenty of seats at the back! Passengers without a valid ticket for the whole of the journey on the love train will be charged for a full price single ticket! The love train would like to apologise for the late running of this service today! This was due to the late running of the earlier unrequited-love train. Misread signals were to blame”) – because, my fellow passengers on le train d’amour (as they say in Italy), today is the feast of St Valentine!

And, as I always am on remembrance days for third century Catholic martyrs – and there’s more of them than you might think – I’m in a good mood today, Mark! So good that I almost didn’t bother writing to you about the delay to my train home last night…

But not, on reflection, that good a mood. Be sensible, Dominic, I thought. If you let Mark and Sue off the hook this one time, just because a Catholic priest got beaten, and then stoned, and then beheaded 1800 years ago for trying to convert the Emperor Claudius Gothicus, then you’re going to be letting them off delays every other day of the week!

Steadfastness, that’s the thing, Sue! Fortitude! Shoulders squared, back straightened, jaw set! Chest out, legs akimbo! Big smiles! There’s no point in starting a project like this, in making a commitment like this, unless we’re all prepared to see it through. Even if it must mean writing to you on the feast of St Valentine.

I promised you I would write every time my train was delayed, Mark. I swore that I would waste as much time of yours as you waste of mine. And those kind of solemn vows should not be cast aside lightly. What substandard train management and childish revenge plans have joined, let no man split asunder! (No, nor woman, neither, Sue.)

And so here I am, Sue. Just a boy, in the rain, saying my train was delayed last night again. By ten minutes again. I got home ten minutes late again. I missed the kids’ bedtime again. It’s all happening again and again and again.

Are you familiar with the concept of deja-vu, Mark? The word comes from the German, meaning, in the literal translation, “that weird thing that happens when, like, something happens? And you feel like it’s happened before? Yeah? I know! Freaky! And you’re all like: dude, this has totally happened before! And everyone else is all: nooo way dude! And you’re like, yes way! Totally way!” (The Germans are awfully good at coming up with words that manage to encompass a whole lot of other words, aren’t they, Sue? Excellent communicators, the Germans. Despite the whole sauerkraut and lederhosen and first-half-of-the-last-century military unpleasantness. We could learn a lot about communications from the Germans, Sue. Like how to shout, for a start.)

Anyway. Are you familiar with the concept of deja-vu, Mark? The word comes from the German, meaning, in the literal translation, “that weird thing that happens when, like, something happens? And you feel like it’s happened before? Yeah? I know! Freaky, dude! And you’re all like: dude, this has totally happened before! And everyone else is all: nooo way dude! And you’re like, yes way! Totally way!” (The Germans are awfully good at coming up with words that manage to encompass a whole lot of other words, aren’t they, Sue? Excellent communicators, the Germans. Despite the whole sauerkraut and lederhosen and first-half-of-the-last-century unpleasantness. We could learn a lot about communications from the Germans, Sue. Like how to shout, for a start.)*

Well I keep thinking I have deja-vu, Mark, every time I get on one of your trains and it’s delayed and I’m late home and I miss my kids’ bedtimes. I keep thinking: I feel like I’ve been here before. Sometimes even on days other than those days commemorating the beating and then stoning and then beheading of third century Catholic priests.

And you know what, Mark? I wish it would stop. It’s beginning to wear me out a little, all this deja-vu. And today, of all days in the liturgical year, today, of all days in the Gregorian calendar, I can’t afford to be worn out. Today I need to keep my pecker up, Sue! Today is St Valentine’s Day!

You have no idea what I have to go through on St Valentine’s Day, Mark. You have no idea how draining this day is for a boy like me. I work in an office full of women, you see (much as I imagine the Operations Floor of the First Great Western Command and Control SuperHub to be – only with women instead of men. Okay, I didn’t explain that very well. Try this. Look around, Mark. See all those men? Well imagine they’re all women. And then see Sue? Imagine she’s me. That’s it! That’s what it’s like in my office! I’m Sue!) – I work in an office full of chicks, and if it’s bad enough trying to fight them off for the other 365 days of the year (it’s a leap year remember!) then on St Valentine’s Day, it’s almost impossible.

Almost, Mark: but somehow I manage it. I dig deep, and I pull through.

Can you imagine battling through adversity to achieve something that seems impossible, Mark? Can you think of any aspect of your working life where a little effort and a wee bit of striving against the odds might be in order?

I look forward to hearing all about it!

Au revoir!


*Worst deja-vu joke ever. Sorry. Worst deja-vu joke ever. Sorry.**

**I did it again. Sorry again.