Wednesday, 21 March 2012

20 March 2012. Letter 97

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 20/3/12. Amount of my day wasted: 22 minutes.

Word up Mark! Word to yo’ mama, Sue!

How’s tricks? How’s treats? Told you tomorrow would come, didn’t I? We didn’t have to wait too long at all! Barely, what, 24 hours? About as long as it takes the world to turn once? A single dusk, a sole night and a solitary dawn? That’s about how long it’s taken for tomorrow to come.

And with it has come another delay, another chance for me to put (metaphorical) pen to (figurative) paper, to put (literal) finger to (actual) laptop and once again renew our acquaintance. The trains may still be up the swannee, but at least it means we get to talk again! Every cloud, Mark! The sun also rises, Sue!

So: what’s happened, Mark? What’s occurring, Sue? What’s with these trains of yours?

It seems that of late it’s been the evening service that has been letting the side down, eh? A seven minute delay on Monday and then on Tuesday, a… well, I don’t know yet how long it’s going to be. I’m writing this on Tuesday night, you see, on the train as the delay happens around me. I’m writing in real time! Exciting!

But I’m thinking it’s going to be a big one. A long one. A big long one, Sue! A meaty delay. A delay of substance. The ten minutes or so we spent dragging our heels around Taplow alerted me to that fact. We’ll have to wait and see just how late we do arrive into Oxford in the end… but right now it’s got all the hallmarks of a classic.

Plump up the cushions, Mark! Refill your favourite pipe, Sue! Stick Classic FM on the old radiogram, ring down for a good fresh pot of tea, bung the work experience kid a fiver from petty cash and tell him not to show his face again until he’s sourced some Hobnobs! Stoke up the fire, stock up on crumpets, make yourselves comfortable, Mark and Sue: because it looks like I’ve got a lot of your time to waste today.

Ready? Sure? Okay… let’s go.

First: a little colour.

So. Picture the scene. I’m sitting on a train, typing away. It’s a train that has been appreciably slowing down since Slough, a train that is already running some 15 minutes late. It’s a train I ran to get, Mark. A train I had to leg it across all of London town to make.

This 18.51 train, Sue: getting it means me leaving work at bang on six. It means trying to slip out on time before my editor notices I’m gone. It means distracting her somehow (“look! An elephant!”) and then, quick as you like while her back’s turned and her mouth’s agape, shrugging on the jacket, grabbing the bag, executing a faultless computer log-off manoeuvre, and ghosting out of the door and into the lift before she remembers the elephant trick from yesterday.

Some days, I don’t mind telling you, it’s harder than others (“look! A crocodile! Look! A marmoset! Look! A gnu!”). Some days, despite all manner of imaginary wildlife materialising in the office, it’s all I can do to get out of Fortress Wapping, charge through the tourists by Tower Hill, jump into the tube and emerge again at London’s Glorious London Paddington, Gateway to the West, in time to make that 18.51.

But tonight, I managed it. Just. (“Look! A great crested grebe!”) Tonight, I ran like billy-o, tossing aside tourists and daytrippers alike, hurdling commuters and kicking over prams and elbowing out the elderly and infirm and leapfrogging the pregnant so I could make this train.

And then what happened? And then we stopped. Around some godforsaken place called Taplow, we paused, and paused… and stopped.

And now I’m compelled to tell you all about it again. In numbing detail. Just so I can try to ruin your day in return. It’s a sick sort of Karma, is it not, Sue?

So. Anyway. Here we are. We’ve moved a little since I started writing. Let me fill you in.

What can I see out of my window just now? Reading. Lots of Reading. And I’ve been looking at it for long enough, I might add, to be able to study it in some detail. There in front of me, Sue, lies all Reading, spread out like some fabulous feast for the eyes, like some sumptuous city-sized* banquet for tired travellers to gaze hungrily upon and dream of what might have been, had we but time and proper train services enough.

Reading looks quite beautiful in the dark, Sue. When you can’t see it properly. When all the buildings are hidden and the lights make patterns in the streets and the skies, like yellow and white constellations. In the abstract like this, Reading looks quite beautiful.

Oh: I can also see a girl on the platform with the shortest skirt I’ve ever surreptitiously gazed at whilst pretending to look at Reading in my whole life. What a skirt, Mark! I own socks with more material than that skirt. It’s the kind of skirt that illustrates perfectly the paradoxical law which states that the shorter the skirt the more attention it commands. When it comes to skirts and attention, Sue: less is always more.

Oh, I’m going to miss this, Sue! Once I stop commuting, I mean. I’m going to miss gazing at “Reading” like this and making up paradoxical and sexist laws of women’s clothing for you! (The sexism is always ironic, of course, Sue. I’m not really sexist. Why am I not sexist? Cos the chicks hate sexists, right? They’re funny like that, are girls. Bless ‘em!)

Anyway. Enough flim-flam. The upshot is this: I’m on a train that’s running behind schedule and I’ve had to interrupt my game of Words With Friends with the deputy chief sub-editor of Esquire magazine (never play a Scrabble-based game against a deputy chief sub-editor, Sue, that’s my advice. Those guys know a lot of words. Even expert communicators like you could come unstuck against a deputy chief sub-editor), haul out my laptop, dig out my memory stick (not a euphemism) and once more think of original ways to express my displeasure with you both. At some considerable length.

Really, Mark. Honestly, Sue. How many times have we had to do this? (Well, 97 now, but you know what I mean.) For how long have we had to play this weary little game together? (Since the end of June last year, but, again, you know what I mean.) When will this madness stop? (Friday, but… see above.)

The thing is, mes petites incompetents de trains, I’m not even angry any more with you both. After all these delays, all these wasted hours, all this lost opportunity and spent money and mornings texting my editor to apologise and evenings texting my loved ones to apologise and both mornings and evenings cursing you and your shambolic, contemptuous, highly-profitable company… after all this, I’m no longer angry. I’m disappointed.

That’s worse, isn’t it? When your parents say to you: Dominic – we’re not angry, we’re disappointed. That was always worse. That was always the line that got me thinking maybe I was wrong after all. (To be fair, I was very rarely wrong.) That was always the line that got me thinking: perhaps I better do better next time.

How about you, Mark? Do you find the disappointment of your passengers more shame-inducing than their anger? If all of us who pay so handsomely for such pitiful performance were to stop shaking our metaphorical fists and instead start shaking our actual heads, would that be enough to give you pause? Would the sorrow of the masses do more than the anger of millions?

It’s got to be worth a try, right? (God knows nothing else is working.) Perhaps once I’ve finished writing these angry letters to you (end of this week, dudes! Friday!) people could instead start sending you pictures of themselves looking sad every time their train is delayed.

You could pin them up on a wall of shame; you could look at them every time you announce record profits, or put up prices, or trouser your inexplicably-justified performance-related bonuses. You could look at all those sad little faces and think: you know what? Perhaps we’re not doing so well, after all. Perhaps we could try putting the customer first for a change. Or at least giving them what they’ve paid for each day. Look at their sad little faces! We need to make them happy!

You could do that. Or you could pin them up on a wall of shame and laugh at all those sad little faces. You could maybe write “suckers!” across the top of the wall every time you announce record profits, or put up prices, or trouser your inexplicably-justified performance-related bonuses. You could think: hoopla! Thanks for all the cash, idiots!

Whaddayathink, Sue? Which sounds the more appealing to you?

Oh, hang on: the train manager has just come on the intercom. He’s trying to tell us something, Mark! We left Reading some time ago; we’re currently lolling aimlessly along the track near Didcot Parkway and he’s about to explain exactly why! Sshhh…


He doesn’t know the reason why. He’s as mystified as the rest of us. He says he’s going to try to find out.

Still: great communication, eh Sue! If it’s a comfort to the miserable to have companions in their misery (and it is, Sue! It so is!) then he’s certainly made me a little more comfortable. Knowing that the people in charge of this train are just as in the dark as everyone else on the train has cheered me right up. We’re in it together!

What shall we do, as we wait to find out the reason for today’s delay? What would you like to know about? What subjects have I yet to cover, these nine months and 97 letters past?

What’s that? My socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins? Are you sure I haven’t done that already? Or was that my Marxist reading of Thomas the Tank Engine? Ah, yes. Okay then! In brief: a socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins…

Really? I’m not sure we have enough time. We’re moving again, Mark! We’ve cleared the cooling towers at Didcot, we’re maintaining a dignified pace towards Radley and beyond… soon, Sue, the favelas and shanty towns around the eastern perimeters of Oxford shall be in sight, and with them, the promise of home!

Do we have time for my socialist interpretation of Mary Poppins? No. No, we don’t. Suffice to say she blows in on the east wind though, Mark. The east wind that blows straight from St Petersburg to the heart of the city of London! She blows in on the east wind to the household of a family called (wait for it) Banks. Banks, Sue. And before she leaves again she’s incited a riot (when young Michael chooses to give his money to a homeless woman rather than invest it in the City) and caused the Banks household to be invaded by an army of dancing chimneysweeps. After that… well, it writes itself.

But like I say – there’s no time. There’s no time, Mark! Oxford creeps into view (or it would do if it were not so dark outside – you know, what with us being 20-odd minutes behind schedule and all), the two pretty students in the seats opposite have nearly finished their bottle of wine and have stood up to adjust hemlines and straighten tights and strap on shoes and debate whether or not they should wear or carry jackets; Oxford creeps into view and the fat man in the seat in front of me has heaved himself upright and is blowing his nose (not such a pretty sight, if I’m being honest); Oxford creeps into view and I need to pack up my old kitbag and head home.

Twenty-two minutes: that was the final tally, Mark. Twenty-two minutes of my life tonight, wasted. Twenty-two minutes late, after all the effort I made to make the train in the first place.

But like I say: I’m not angry, Mark. I’m disappointed.

Au revoir!


*Oh, except Reading’s still not a city, is it, Mark? I saw it on the news. They keep trying to make Reading a city – and the people who decide these things (who exactly are these people, these citymakers?) keep telling them Reading’s not quite a city yet after all. Who got it this time? It was someplace awful, wasn’t it? Chelmsford? Is that right? The mighty city of Chelmsford? That’s just taking the mick, isn’t it? Chelmsford!

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