Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Price of Fish

The other week, I briefly mentioned a game I like to play when I'm coming home late and haven't had anything to eat - going around all the shops on the station concourse and seeing what I can afford with the change in my pockets. I think I said coppers, originally, but I have to admit that this was for dramatic effect, and I do include silver, as well - anything smaller than a £1 coin. To better understand why I like this game, you should know that I am a dyed-in-the-wool (whatever that means) packed luncher, who recoils from spending money on lunch or snacks of any kind during the working day (except on certain social occasions). A direct consequence of this is that on those rare occasions whne I don't have a packed lunch with me and find myself dining alone (either because I've forgotten my lunchbox or due to being stood up by a lunch date), my head starts to spin as a result of the massive array of choices avaialble in Soho where I work, and I have to return to my desk to calm down before making a decision. For the record, I always end up in Pret.

Anyway, to return to my station concourse game, what happens is that I do a complete circuit of the station, including Platforms 9-11, checking out each and every one of the outlets on offer (I know the menues pretty much back to front in most of them, but if you're going to play, you might as well play by the rules). This kills about 10 minutes (my trains are every half hour, and if I miss one it's inevitably only by a minute or so - often I get to watch it pulling out the platform - so I generally have about 25 minutes on my hands). Having carried out a thorough audit, I then conduct an inventory of the coins in my wallet. For some reason, it always comes to 93p.

Then comes the really exciting part - or the hard part, depending on my mood and whether I've been drinking:the decision! Now, 93p doesn't stretch very far on the modern day sation consourse, so it invariably comes down to a straight choice between a chocolate bar and a cereal bar, or possibly one of those oaty things witha yoghurt topping that look like something you'd feed a hamster. Generally, I plump for a well-known brand of cereal bar of which I have a plentiful supply at home, thus ensuring that I can beat myself up on 2 counts - frittering away money which could be spent on something more important, and frittering it away on something I could have brought with me from home if only I'd had the foresight. No matter, I always get a real buzz of the kind that only such wicked indulgence can provide. It's good to get excited by little things.

If I ever find that I have more than a pound's worth, I shall probably need to lie down in a darkened room.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Road to Hell (and Luton)

Delays, delays, delays. Now I'm not one to moan about the trains (doesn't really fit with the Happy thing), but that was a heck of a week, commuting-wise. First, on Monday night I went for a quick drink after work with a friend, intending to cunningly avoid Coronation Street and Eastenders (Monday night, for the uninitiated, is triple-whammy night), thus enabling The Wife to watch them in peace), arriving home in time for a bit of dinner and a cuddle. Alas, my best-laid plans were scuppered by "an incident at Potters Bar" causing 25 minute delays. Tuesday brought more of the same - only this time we actually got stuck for something like 20 minutes right outside my "home" station - I wouldn't have minded so much except that I was trying to get to Sainsbury's, before it shut, to pick up some samples for a meeting I had the next day - thank goodness for off licenses. Still, it did give me a chance to wade through one of London's new free newspapers - London Lite. The verdict? Well, it is free.

I was late home on Wednesday and Thursday too, but that was down to last minute panics about meetings keeping me in the office, rather than any failings of the transport system. And it did enable me to play one of very favourite station games: going round all the foody places on the concourse to see what I can afford with the the coppers in my wallet. Good thing I like cereal bars.

But the week's real adventure came on Friday, when I headed to Northampton for a meeting. Getting there by train from Hertfordshire, where I live, would involve a complicated sequence of mini-commutes, either into London or Luton (I think), to pick up a connection. It made sense, therefore, to forgo the railways for a day and get behind the wheel of the family car for the drive up the M1, thus enabling me to compare the trials of railway travel with the tribulations of the automotive equivalent. Now, each has factors in its favour: in the car, as any petrol-head will tell you, you're enclosed in your own space, you can play your music as loud as you want without incurring the wrath of fellow passengers, and of course you get from door to door, without having to worry about getting to and from the station at either end. On the train, on the other hand, you can read books, drink coffee, or even have a nap (although this does leave one prone to lolling, dribbling, open-mouth syndrome, which can cause embarressment and considerable loss of credibility). Both, of course, leave you equally vulnerable to delays.

Anyway, I was a bit late leaving, the result of an unplanned interlude spent trying in vain to get my projector to work (I ended up presenting straight off the laptop). By the time I hit Luton, whose treacherous road system you have to negotiate to get to the M1 from my place, it was nearing half eight, and the traffic jams were predictable. I spent ten mintues queueing to get through a roundabout to get on to the slip road - took me back to my Bushey days, and reminded why I went back to London. The main bit of the journey was trouble-free, and I got to my destination, after the obligatory bewildered circumnavigation of the town three times via ring road, with twenty mintues to spare. All very easy, and enough to make me consider throwing in the towel in London and taking a job in Milton Keynes for ease and convenience (it was only a fleeting consideration, lest you think I had mislaid my sanity). But it was the journey back that was to prove testing.

I set off at just past noon, planning an industrious afternoon's activities from the comfort of my study, got back on the M1 with ease, and tuned in to the Simon Mayo show on Five Live (something I have not been able to do in years). The sun was shining, the birds were, no doubt, singing somewhere, and all seemed well-set. Then, about half a mile from the Luton junction, everything stopped. I don't mean slowed down, you understand - I mean stopped. I was stuck behind a lorry in the middle lane, and so of course I couldn't see a thing ahead of me to give me some clue as to what was going on. As always happens when I get stuck in traffic, the radio people, as if alerted by some magical sixth sense to my plight, took an extended break from traffic reports, leaving me to sit, engine running, in the midst of a long line of cars, gloomily recalling tales I'd heard of people being stuck overnight in jams with no food or water. After ten minutes or so, I turned off the engine. After eleven minutes, I turned it back on as the van in front inched forward, and stalled, much to the amusement of the flash git behind me in the Audi TT.

But this time, the Sports Panel had finished debating the relative sporting merits of Schumacher, Federer, Woods and Phil "The Power" Taylor, so a good half hour had passed since I had became embroiled in the queue. David Walliams and Matt Lucas (who once lived in the same Hall of Residence as my sister) were next up, talking about their new book, and I like to think that they would have appreciated what happened next. As I edged ever closer to the Luton exit at Junction 11, I inched over into the inside lane, and after a couple more frustrating stationary interludes, breathed a sigh of relief as I finally got off the motorway and on to the slip road. At the roundabout, I was about to take the first left into Luton, until I noticed a sign for the A505 and my home town beckoning seductively from the second exit. Seized by a sudden conviction that I was bound to get stuck in rush hour traffic in the centre of Luton (it was approaching 3pm, but rush hour starts early on Fridays), I succumbed to the siren-like charms of that dastardly sign, shot up the slip road from the second exit, looking forward to zooming along a little trunk road and waving cheerily to all those still stuck on the motorway, only to find that, in fact, there was no such trunk road, and that the sign, frankly, had lied to me. I was back on the M1, and within ten seconds of rejoining the jam, stationary once more. Oh, how I might well have laughed.

After a further fifteen minutes of queueing, I gratefully escaped at Juntion 10, found the real A505, and proceeded homewards at a reasonable pace, arriving eventually at just gone twenty to four, sometime after Little Britain's inhabitants had left the airwaves. What remained of my afternoon was productive enough, but could have been much more so had I not been so detained by the two broken down cars which, I eventually discovered, were the cause of the tailbacks. One other thing worthy of note: as I waited at a pedestrian crossing to take the road back up to my house, I was sufficiently vexed by a lady crossing the road with a bag of shopping, as the lights changed, that I was momentarily gripped by a desire to wind down my window and utter some form of expletive in her direction. Quite out of character for a commuter as Happy as I, and it brought home to me why I will remain committed to rail travel for as long as I can: a lot of rail commuters can be selfish, miserable cads, to be sure, but rarely are they as aggressive as motorists.

Monday, September 11, 2006

First week of term

Good grief! I had forgotten how evil the first week of the autumn term could be. I remember getting a similarly rude awakening a few years back when I fled London for a job in Bushey, Hertfordshire, a 16 mile drive from my home. I started in the first week of October - half term. The roads were brilliant - I was at the office in 30 minutes flat. I was ecstatic - this was the start of a new, hassle-free commuting life. Then the kids, and their parents, returned from whatever sun-kissed break they'd been having, and suddenly everything, everywhere, was traffic jams. I ended up spending longer queueing to get on the M1 than I had previously sat on a reasonably comfy train getting into London. I lasted 6 weeks, before heading back into the city.

I was reminded very much of the sense of shock, not to mention indignation, that gripped me the first time I got stuck in that queue, last Monday when I rounded the bend from Argyll Street and found myself in the midst of bedlam. The entrance to Oxford Circus was obscured by one long, stationary line of people. From where I was stood, it was hard to tell whether the station was actually closed, or whether "sheer volume of traffic" had caused commuter gridlock. It was, of course, hard to tell anything at all from where I was stood, because of the tide of people coming the other way.

This is what happens every weeknight (and most probably on weekends too) outside Oxford Cirus. I call it the Bottleneck, although that doesn't seem to have caught on with anyone else yet. What happens is that as people come round the bend from Regent Street on to New Oxford Street, they collide (and I do mean collide) with with crowds of commuters heading for the tube. Many of them want to head up towards Tottenham Court Road, so it becomes a matter of navigating your way through a mass of bodies moving in the opposite direction. Most people are actually very polite and there is little of the grim-faced scrimmage one gets on the trains, but like all commuters they carry bags, which can do untold damage in their wake. Complicating things stil further, quite a number of people will try to cross the pavement to reach the main road and get over to the other side and the imposing monolith that is Niketown. And this confuses people from the first category, who follow this group in pushing their way past the tube station queue (are you still with me?) in the mistaken belief that it is an easier route to get on past Argyll Street and up towards Tottenham Court Road.

So what you have is four groups of people all trying to move in different directions, none of them with a clue as to what is going on outside of about a four metre radius of themselves. It does add a certain potency to all the talk of Judgement Day from the preachers who station themselves by the entrance to the Tube.

To get back to my original point, all this, though familar enough, came as something of a shock to the system after the relative calm of the late-Summer. I reckon I was not the only one, because everywhere I looked I saw my own bewildered expression reflected on dozens of faces. Now, of course, we are all getting adjusted to the rules of termtime commuting again - travel a bit later, or even a bit earlier, or if you're feeling fit and have a few minutes to spare, just walk. It's amazing how small London becomes if you put the Tue map away.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Making a stand

Friday night commuting has its own special qualities. There's something about the end of the week that makes everyone that much keener to get home, to cast off the shackles of working life and relax into the weekend. So yesterday, furiously scribbling in my notebook as we cantered through the Hertfordshire countryside, I found that I was not the only passenger glancing impatiently at my watch every five seconds and wondering why I was not yet home. The journey actually seemed to pass remarkably quickly, as it does when one has one's mind firmly on something else, and as the train pulled out of Stevenage I rose from my seat to retrieve my bag from the overhead shelf, having reached a natural break in my writing. Suddenly I noticed that I was not the only one standing, and looking around me I realised that I had inadverently inserted myself into an orderly queue that had already formed along the carriage ready to get off at the next stop - even though it was at least 5 minutes away.

Sitting myself back down, my bag hugged to my chest, I pondered what it is that makes people get up and stand by the door, or as close to it as they can, when the train is nowhere near stopping. Looking at the composition of the queue, it was a thoroughly representative bunch - businessmen in suits, scruffy-looking media types in jeans, twenty-something women in short skirts, all standing with that expression of grim determination obligatory for entering or exiting a train - "I've got elbows", it seems to say, "and I'm not afraid to use them."

Now I understand the logic behind it - the nearer you are to the doors when they open, the faster you can get out and the likelier you are to avoid getting caught up in a bad tempered jostling mass of humanity trying to force itself through a doorway barely big enough for a single person. The impulse only becomes more insistent if, like me, you have taken pains to identify exactly which set of doors on which carriage stops nearest the exit to the station. But the fact of the matter is, unless you're first or second off - which means being the very first to get to your feet and take up your position - it's going to take ages to even get off the train, and by the time your feet do touch the platform, it will be too late because the first disembarkees from the other carriages will have got there before you anyway.
So you may as well just sit down and enjoy/endure the rest of the journey in comfort, adopting the alternative commuter-getting-off-at-the-next-stop expression, a kind of smug "I'm still sat down and you're not" lop-sided smile.

You'd think that there would be a race to be first in line, that as soon as the train pulled out of the previous stop, passengers would leap from their seats and charge down the aisle towards the door. This does not happen. Instead, it's a kind of collective reflex reaction to the first person (inevitably a middle-aged businessman in a suit) standing up. I know from experience that it's very difficult, once somebody has set the thing off, to resist the impulse to move, just because you don't like anyone to get the better of you. So what happens is that everyone gets up, retrieves their coats and luggage (preferably dragging one or both over the head of the person sitting next to them in the process), and steps determinedly out into the aisle, whereupon they put their bags down so as to cause an obstruction and make absolutely certain no one can get past them. All this, of course, happens without anyone making any kind of eye contact. Then, with impeccable timing, the train grinds to a halt in the middle of the countryside.

After a minute or so, people begin glancing at their watches. Again, this is a kind of domino effect - borne of innate commuter suspicion that everyone else is in on a secret. Some people might start folding papers, emptying pockets, even unpacking and repacking bags - all quite unneccessary, but just to create the impression that they meant to do this all along, which is why they got up. By now, all the empty seats in the carriage have developed hallucenogenic properties - they all seem a lot bigger and more comfortable than in reality, teasing the leg weary commuters with the prospect of exquisite comfort, and maybe even a nap, if they will just sit themselves back down. I always succumb - in fact I don't often get up at all anymore - but the majority just take on an even more resolute expression, fix their eyes on some point in the middle distance, in classic theatrical style, and wait.

Eventually, the train rumbles back to life, and we slide into the station, whereupon the doors open and everyone troops out, hunting though their pockets for tickets and train passes (despite the fact that they have been stood waitng for ages and could very sensibly have found them then). This routine never changes, and in fact I think I would be fairly sad if it did.