Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How to be late

Last Wednesday night there were engineering works on the Kings Cross to Peterborough line. Nothing unusual there - it's the second time it's happened in the past couple of months. I don't know if it's a week long thing or they just do it on the Wednesday. I never check. This is because my helpful train company have started texting me whenever there are train delays, as part of their drive to deliver the best possible customer service (with which I am very familiar because they keep handing out handy little booklets telling us how they're trying to deliver the best possible customer service. They're very impressive - and very on-trend: the title of the latest one was "Your station", which came as a bit of a shock). The funny thing is, because my train company run two seperate lines into London, I often get texts about the wrong one, which don't do me much good other than to let me know that one of my colleagues is going to be late for work. But I digress. The point is, because they've started texting me whenever there are delays, I never bother looking at the web site or reading the notices on the station. Which is a shame because it turns out that the texts are only for delays, and not for any other service disruptions which might, and do, affect me, such as engineering works on a Wednesday night.

So twice now I've got to Kings Cross at half past nine on a Wednesday night (Wednesday being the night when I often go for a drink with my good friend and potential business associate SF) to find that the last train that actually stops where I want to get off has gone and, due to engineering, I'm going to be turfed out at Stevenage. Now this frustrated me, because I'd been ever so close to calling it a night and going for the train before, which would have been a proper stopper, if you'll pardon the poetry, but had been persuaded, in time honoured fashion, that there was just time for one more. There's a lesson there for all of us.

Anyway, I was sorely tempted to give the poor sod on the platform a hard time over the fact that I had had no text from the company warning me of the disruption, but of course, it wasn't his fault, and apparently it had been on the web site and notices at the station etc, etc. Of course, in the morning rush hour my only thought is to get across to my platform in time for my train, so I never stop to look at the notices, and for some reason the London platform, which is overwhelmingly the busier of the two at my local station, seems to be some sort of communication-free zone. So with a sigh, I got on the next train, sat myself down and immediately rang SF to bemoan my own bad luck. After failing to elicit a huge amount of sympathy from him, I called The Wife at her Out of Hours shift at our local hospital, who found the whole thing very amusing, and categorically forbade me to get a taxi at Stevenage when there was somewhat overcrowded, but free, bus service laid on. Feeling unloved, then, I examined the contents of my bag for a snack, and was just about to unwrap the cereal bar I found when I glanced at my watch and realised that we were well past the appointed time of departure. Glancing out the door at the same guard I had spared from my wrath, I caught sight of the departure screens and realised that I had got the wrong platform, and that the train I should have been on was in fact the one I had witnessed pulling out the next platform whilst I was whinging to The Wife. The one I had actually boarded was bound for Stevenage, but only after calling at every stop along the line, so I ws looking at the best part of an hour before I even had the chance to make my taxi/bus decision. Oh how I laughed.

Cursing in a most colourful fashion, I gathered up me things, dismounted the train, and marched to the cashpoint, feeling I deserved a treat. I went to The Upper Crust and bought the most indulgent-looking item I could find - a brie and bacon baguette - before returning to the same carraige to find my seat occupied. Finding another spot with less leg room and no space to stow my bag, I munched distractedly on my glorified sandwich for much of the journey, barely registering that it didn't taste as good as it should. Around about the time we reached Welwyn Garden City, I reached the conclusion that I had paid nearly 4 quid for a stale baguette.

I took the taxi in the end.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Paper tigers

Personally, I think that the best way to read the tabloids is looking over somebody's shoulder , or across the carriage, while commuting. For one thing, you never get to read much past the headline (which, let's face it, is the only bit worth reading - mainly because the rest of the article rarely bears any relation to it), because the owner always spots you and takes whatever measures necessary to ensure you can't read the rest. For another, if you're going to try reading somebody else's newspaper on a train, it's best to choose one you're not actually interested in reading, because reading is never the point. Let me be very clear - reading other peoples' newspapers on trains or buses is a game of oneupmanship. It's all about getting a tiny victory, totally insignificant in the bigger picture but magnified in the intensely competitive environment of the commute.

There are, remarkably, rules of engagement, even etiquette, to be observed in all this. You never try to read someone else's freesheet - Metro or London Lite(weight) or anything like that. This is because there are always copies of these spread liberally around the carriages, so there is no point, and you are just going to make yourself, and the other person, look stupid for no reason. This type of thing can lead to some quite nasty confrontations: there's nothing more annoying than getting yourself into these kind of back-breaking contortions and then finding that you've done so for no reason. If the 'paper in question is freely available thanks to an earlier commuter's largesse (or forgetfulness), then the owner of the first copy has no business, or interest, trying to stop anyone from reading it. It takes the competitive element, and therefore the excitement, out of it - like playing football with no goals: enjoyable maybe, and good for showing off your fancy moves (why exactly is it called a nutmeg?), but hardly worth the risk of a crunching tackle.

My only regret at the rise of the "compact" newspapers over the past couple of years (on the whole a very good thing - anything that cuts into the sales of The Daily Mail is okay by me) is that you don't get such good moves anymore. These days, you see a lot of folding - the reader simply folding his 'paper in half upon noticing someone else try to read it - which in my opinion is just plain lazy ndn doesn't make for a good spectacle. When it was all big chucky broadsheets (which of course don't so much fold as do some strange kind of origami thing) you used to get a proper show, with people instead folding their own bodies into shapes that would make a yoga instructor blush.

I'm not generally one to harp on about the past - you can't stop progress (no reverse gear, you see) but some things are worth harping on about.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hey ho hum drum

Well, I'm knackered. So I'm afraid nothing too thrilling this week - in fact it's been nearly a fortnight since I updated this blog. Not because I've been away (although I did pop up to Scotland overnight last Friday), or because I haven't been commuting (planes, trains and automobiles - thanks Rish) but just because I've been so busy at work that I haven't really paid much attention to what's been going on around me. I've been bringing my laptop home with me and working on the train, so I haven't really had the chance to observe what other people have been doing.

Fortunately, my spies have been doing a stalwart job of keeping me informed of whacky railway shennanigans that they have encountered themselves, and what better time to recount a few of these than when I'm a bit short on inspiration myself? There was a new version of that old classic the Very Public And Very Loud And Acrimonious Break-up, witnessed by my colleague RG, given an extra twist by being conducted by mobile (sample line: "So how is your new cock then? Is he good?"). Then there was another old standby of comedy sketchwriters - the Child In Public Place Saying Something Inappropriate, in this case a toddler standing on a table in a carriage saying "Fuck" over and over again very loudly, whilst his parents, presumably too embarressed to intervene (or just exceedingly liberal) pretended not to notice. Along similar lines, the inquisitive kid who interrogated his mother at great length and volume about why she did not want to go for a poo before they reached their stop (thanks again to RG - there must be something about that Somerset line).

Actually, now that I think of it, there was something notable I wanted to mention. It concerns the Tube again, rather than the mainline, and despite the fact that my main focus is overland, not underground, I do think it deserves recording. It occurred as I was getting on to the Tube train at Oxford Circus on Thursday, at the end of another longish and frustrating(ish) day. I always get on the rear carriage, because it's the one that stops nearest the escalators at Kings Cross, so I'm always charging head down towards the correct end of the platform while crowds of people jostle with each other for the chance to get in my way. I do like to think, however, that when I get to my spot, I'm quite courteous by Tube standards. I don't push in front of people, I always let passengers off the train first, and I'm very fair when it comes to people who were there before me but have been unlucky enough to pick the wrong place to stand, and end up behind me - often I'll go out of my way to let them on first. So on Thursday, as I took my bag off my shoulders (this tactic actually creates a lot more space on a crowded train) I was nonplussed to see a guy in an expensive suit and raincoat come out of nowhere and shove past me to get through the doors. This type of thing does, I'm afraid, tend to bring out the worst in me - it's like a red rag to a bull. So I got on and stood with my back to him, closer than I really needed to, just to cut down on his space. At Warren Street, someone got off to create a bit of extra room in front of me, and I edged forwards, having made my point. And d'you know what the guy did then? He got out a newspaper - an Express, I think it was - and noisily started to read it with lots of rustling, and not a thought for anyone else. Of course, this meant he was now taking up even more room. So I delierately backed into him, knowing that he couldn't see past me, so that he had to put the paper down by his side and crane his neck to read it. When we got to KC, he again tried to duck past me but I was having none of it - I had him sussed by now. Then he ran - actually ran - past me to get to the esclators first, but I overtook him halfway up, and exited the station just ahead of him.

Well, someone has to stand up for good manners.