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?

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