Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Blustery Day

Now I don’t want to come across too flippant, because Thursday 18th December will go down as a black day in Britain’s meteorological history, the day when several people were affected by tragedy up and down the UK arising from the storms and strong winds. But in such extreme circumstances, it is often forgotten that ordinary life goes on pretty much as normal for a lot of people, and given that the subject of the blog is commuting, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention exactly what happened to me that day.

I could tell it was windy as I made my way to the station. Even though I couldn’t feel it, the route down Walsworth Road to the station being sheltered by flats and houses, I glanced up at the flagpole outside the building site as I turned into the station and it was standing to attention.

There were no real problems with the trains on the way in, as I recall, and I got to the office wondering what all the fuss was about – it was a bit blowy, to be sure, but what happened to the Doomsday storms the forecasters had predicted?

Now this is where working in a basement can be a bit surreal – our office building, you see, has 4 floors, of which we occupy the bottom two – the ground floor and the basement. The ground floor is our reception area and meeting rooms, while the engine room is downstairs – with no windows, no fresh air, no contact with the outside world at all. And as a result, we are maintained in a state of blissful ignorance as to what is going on above us, and if you don’t go upstairs much, as I didn’t that particular day, you remain so. A few of my colleagues wandered out at lunchtime and came back muttering about how windy it was, but I was trying to write a particularly troublesome presentation about whisky and I did not pay them much heed.

My first hint that I might have trouble getting home came with one of those friendly text messages that I have mentioned before in this blog – First Capital Connect's innovative way of keeping in touch with their customers. On this occasion, I got about four in half an hour, excessive by the standards of a teenager, let alone a faceless monolithic corporation, if I can call them that. The first one informed me that there might be some delays, or even short notice cancellations. Well, that I had been expecting for some days, so I did not let it bother me and returned to my work. The second one spoke again of short notice cancellations, whilst the third concerned the other branch of the line which my colleague uses, so I was able to pass the bad news on to him as well (with the inevitable mixture of sympathy and ill-disguised glee). The fourth in this gradually-escalating series of gloomy missives delivered the coup de grace – there were, now, no trains at all running on the GN route. Bugger.

Well, I had work to do, and, with my professional hat on (yes I do have one – it’s from a shop in Welwyn), there were more pressing concerns for the company, such as the large group of clients sat upstairs in reception waiting for my colleagues, who were stuck on the other side of London due to inclement weather, to give them a presentation. The only one who was still with us asked me to come and sit in the meeting with him to take minutes (something I’m not very good at, having a slight tendency to let my mind wander, although at least I’m not a doodler), so I put the railways out of my mind and went boldly into battle for the greater good.

When the rest of the team eventually returned I made my way back downstairs, checked with my family and other London-based friends that all was well, and then considered my options. Once previously when I’d had problems getting home, I’d stayed at the Battersea residence of my beloved sister (as mentioned in a previous post), but I was going away the following day, so I really needed to get home to pack. I decided to wait it out and hope that the trains would get up and running again – I had plenty to get on with anyway.

Half-past seven came and went, and then, sure enough, I got another text from FCC saying that some trains were indeed now running on the GN line. Gathering up my things, I made my exit and stepped bravely out into the unknown. I figured (correctly if the packed buses I saw on my way down TCR were anything to go by) that public transport would be heaving and unpleasant, and of course subject to delays, so I thought I may as well walk to KC – a 25 minute stroll through the ravaged capital, no doubt watching out for falling debris and dodging toppling trees. As it turned out, my walk was very tranquil - there were a few trees down in Tavistock Sqaure, but hardly a catastrophe, but when I reached KC, the departure boards delivered a unanimous verdict - cancelled, cancelled, cancelled, everything was cancelled.

There were a number of people milling about looking lost - not exactly a crowd by Kings Cross standards, but more than company - and I joined them, adopting what I hoped ws the appropriate expression of bewildered bemusement. There was a GNER information desk, but the body of people trying to get to it had long since ceased to be a queue and had become a mob, so I steered clear. There was an announcement over the tannoy which helpfully pointed out that there were hotels in London should people not wish to sleep rough, and that no trains would be running until morning. I phoned The Wife to tell her not to wait up, and then, lo and behold, a train appeared on platform number 1 (I strained to see if it was 1 and three quarters but, no, there was nothing magical going on). Expecting the kind of dog-eat-dog rush one normally expects in these situations (in Rush Hour, basically), I was surprised to note that everything stayed pretty calm. It seems that most of the poor sods stuck at Kings Cross that night were from up North, and doomed to spend the night much further from home than would have been the case for me if that train hadn't appeared. Anyway, I clambered on, took a seat, called The Wife (again) and said, anticipating a slow journey, that I'd probably be an hour or so. In the event, it took two and a half hours, much of that spent stationary at Finsbury Park waiting, apparently, for a signal crew to turn up and change a signal. Bizarre.

I did my packing on Friday morning, and went in a bit late - the trains were still up the spout until mid-morning anyway.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lost property

So many ideas, so little time . . .

Thing is, you see, I wanted to post an account of my experiences on Blustery Thursday, and I got as far as writing two thirds of it on the train ot work on Friday on my laptop, intending to finish the rest ver the weekend, only I forgot to email it to my PC at home, so that will have to wait. I know its a bit crap only doing it 2 weeks after the event - so much for current affairs blogging - but I'm having that kind of month.

It's clearly not just me though - today in town I ran into the couple I mentioned in my gloomy New Year's Day post that I travel with in the mornings and had tried unavailingly to make friends with. I was wondering around the local post office-cum-DIY shop (in the US I think it would be called a general store). Completely flummoxed me by being really friendly, so we had a bit of a chat while out respective beter halves tutted impatiently. Very odd. We were both a bit under the weather, too, which didn't help.

Anyway, yesterday I left my mobile phone on the train (I think) and on Monday I will find out if it's gone to Lost Property in Cambridge. I hope so, and I wil obviously be reporting in full on the experience. Have to go and have dinner now. Bye.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fold-up bikes

After a strange first week of January, when London was, if not exactly a ghost town, certainly quieter than normal, things were back to normal last week. The familiar faces of my fellow commuters remerged after their extended breaks - hardly a joyous reunion. There's one lady who I particularly object to, not because she's particularly pushy (she's not) or rude, but because she has committed the cardinal sin (in my eyes) of bringing a fold-up bicycle on to the train.

I have to hold my hands up here and declare that cyclists and I do not mix well. Not because of their generally holier-than-thou attitude to all other road-users ("I'm very healthy, you know, and you're not. Oh, and by the way, I'm also doing my bit for the environment)"). Though that does bug me. And it's not even the apparent unwritten set of rules that governs their conduct on the roads and is hidden from the rest of us (although I'd say that "You will completely disregard any of the rules applying ot other road-users" pretty much covers it). Which does wind me up, I can tell you. But the real reason I don't like cyclists is far more personal, and petty, than that. I am a failed cyclist.

At the age of 13, all the kids in my class at school got cycling proficiency training. Now I was never especially graceful (as evidenced by my very occasional forays on to the dancefloor) and I was probably the wobbliest candidate in the group. The day before the actually proficiency test, we were out practising in the quiet road outside the school when some idiot in a Porche shot past us, before pulling up our instructor and having a go about training kids in a derestricted zone (it was actually a 30 limit). Long story short, the guy got jittery, and ended up deciding that no one who wasn't completly secure and stable could take part in the test. It turned out that only one kid came into that category, and of course it was me. So I had to sit in the classroom on my own, whilst all my peers went and earned their certificates. I was gutted. I've hardly got on a bike since - the only time I did, the chain fell off, and so did I. So that's why I don't like cyclists. The green-eyed monster strikes again.

Of course, on top of all that, there is the fact that urban cyclists (and London cyclists in particular) are the most sanctimonious group of people you could ever wish to meet. Part of this, I'm sure, arises from the fact that cycling on busy roads in a city centre is genuinely dangerous. One of my colleagues, who has now gradutated to a scooter, was telling me the other day about being bullied by a bus driver who actually tried to knock him off his bike and then pulled a face at him - scary stuff. But the green factor has added another dimension to the whole look-at-me-aren't-I-smug-and healthy act. As a pedestrian, who walks a lot in London, these people have become doubly insufferable - I'm not creating any emmissions either, but that still doesn't make me morally equivalent to these two-wheeled eco-warriors with their tinkly bells. I have heard rumours of pedestrians actually knocking people off their bikes at crossings and explaining to them that actually the red lights do apply to them as well, but I reckon that's more bravado than fact. Let's face it, in most cases, the bike-rider has a definite advantage in any physical confrontation.

Anyway, the point of this somewhat vitriolic post is that I thought the one place I was safe from my bi-pedal (see what I've done there?) nemeses was on the train. But then somebody somewhere decided to invent the prtable, fold-up bicycle. So now, what happens when my fllow commuters and I get on the train every morning to take up our positions standing by the doors? There's a metal monstrosity nestled smugly on each side of the carriage, forcing us all to file into the seating area, treading on toes and whacking people with bags in the search for something to hold on to. One of these days, I might just pick one of them up and shove it defiantly into the overhead storage racks, just to see if anyone challenges me. Mind you, the last time I tried something like that, I nearly got into a fight. So probably best not.

Friday, January 05, 2007

It's getting hot in here

We have reached that time of the year when the on-train heating gets cranked up. From now until the end of May (thereabouts), every train will include at least one carriage that boasts a tropical climate. No one knows why this is so, but it is one of the immutable laws of commuting that January Shall Usher In The Uncomfortaably Hot Carriages, Particularly In Rush Hour. The heating system on the train is fascinating, because those clever people that make trains have clearly cottoned on the fact that heat rises, so rather than putting the heating units near the ceiling, as is customary in, say, restaurants, they put them at floor level so that it blows up at you. And my goodness it works well - too well. I am one of those annoyingly smug people who takes a packed lunch into London everyday (so that I can afford other things - a mortgage for example), and the other day I made the mistake of leaving the bag containing my lunchbox on the floor, rather than in the overhead racks, with the result that by the time I got off my sandwich was toasted!

One of the great joys of commuting in January is the sight of gangs of hardy businessmen and businesswomen, warmly wrapped up against the unforgiving British Winter, gradually realising that that warm feeling inside is not generated by the end of the working day, but by the steady increase in body temperature caused by having shafts of hot air fired up their trouser legs. After a few minutes, the first layer - generally a thick scarf - comes off, and by the time we have reached Finsbury Park, the chain reaction is well underway, as passengers divest themselves of layer after layer of insulation. Once they have removed as many items as is decent, the next step is to open the windows. Of course, "open the windows" is something of a misnomer, because all you can really do is pull that thin strip inwards, thereby creating a tiny crack through which fresh air can pass in an upwardly direction, keeping the ceiling cool but not really helping the poor, sweltering passengers.

You know things have reached boiling point (so to speak) when people start folding up their newspapers and fanning themselves in a desperate attempt to shift some of the hot air around and at least provide the illusion of a breeze. In the days of broadsheets, of course, this was a rather more complicated operation, generating enough rustling to be heard in the next carriage, but the rise of the compacts has thankfully made this less of a problem.

Another idiosyncracy of the system is that the driver seems not to be in control of it. The heating really does seem to have a mind of its own. For one thing, despite the fact that we had that really cold spell in November/December, the heat never comes on until after Christmas. Now, I don't know all the train drivers personally, but I'm absolutely convinced that they are both intelligent and decent enough to recognise that when we were really cold back then we could have done with some heating, and that they would have provided it had they been able to. Similarly, the heating will not go off until well into the Summer, and again I'm reluctant to believe that the drivers don't realise that, when the flowers are in bloom and the birds singing in late-May, the carriages are quite warm enough without mechanical intervention. Maybe it's all controlled centrally, and there's some shadowy fat controller figure who flicks at switch on New Year's Day, and again on the first day of June. Who knows?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Ghosts of commuting past

Ah, New Year's Day. The dawn of another exciting 12 months - who knows what the coming year will bring, eh? Well, for one thing, it will bring my 30th birthday. Yikes. Still, enough about that. The point of today's post is to reflect fondly on some of the characters I've shared my daily commute with, but failed utterly to get to know, over the past six years. Partly this is brought on by my natural tendency to get all reflective and sentimental at times like this, but mainly by something someone said to me before Christmas (no idea who it was) about a guy she knew who had been out for a festive drink with the people he shares a carriage with on his way to work.

I actually feel quite jealous of this chap, because whenever I have tried to make friends with fellow commuters since I've been working in London, the response has been overwhelmingly negative. Actually, that's not quite true - there's one guy I've chatted to a few times, called Pete, who lives down the bottom of my road, but he's started getting a different train now (don't think it's anything to do with me). Once I actually get on the platform, however, my natural competitive streak takes over, and I put my head down, spread my elbows and focus on getting that seat. In such circumstances, it's difficult to make friends with people.

When I first started working in London, travelling in from Leicester every morning, there was a lady who I stood next to on the platform everyday for more than a year. We both worked out exactly where the doors of the front carraige were going to stop (right in front of a vending machine) and had regular positions to ensure we were right by the doors when they stopped. Each day we stood there. resolutely refusing to acknowledge one another's presence. Then when the train came along, whichever one of us ended up inthe best position to be first would sweep through the door and grab the only double seat available. This was, of course, pointless, because someone else always comes and sits in the other seat - but, once again, it was all about tiny victories. More than any other fellow passenger, I wish I had got that lady's name, or at least exchanged a smile with her. I often find myself wondering what has become of her now, whether she still turns up at half six every morning to stand on that platform by that vending machine. Only fleeting thoughts, of course - I don't lose any sleep over it - but it's a bit like those laments you hear whenever someone from a big office leaves or passes away or whatever: "I saw him everyday on the stairs but never knw his name" etc. I was going to say hello on my last day in Leicester, actually, as I took that long journey for the final time, but I had a messy altercation with the woman behind the till at WH Smith who wouldn't change a fiver for me after I had bought a newspaper, and by the time I got the platform I was feeling thoroughly pissed off, so I didn't.

There was a group of guys who used to travel on that train with me and every morning they would somehow get themselves a four seater to sit in (must have had reserved seats). They never seemed to sit in the evenings, but would always hang out in the buffet car drinking lager. What a life, I used to think - up at six, home at nine, every single day. Don't they have families? All the same, I did envy them a bit - to them, commuting was a scosial occasion, a night out with the lads, something I very rarely had time for during that year.

When I moved to Hertfordshire, I encountered an odd couple who read the Daily Mail, and each day I would jostle with them, without actual physical contact, or indeed eye contact, for the prime spot on the platform. I used to refer to the guy as "that little weasel-faced man" (not being gratuitously offensive - he really did put me in mind of a rodent), and his wife looked a bit like a Tory politician. One weekend I ran into them at the shops, and it was awful - we were like rabbits caught in headlights. Daft, really - in what other walk of life would you stand alongside someone for the best part of two years and then not even make eye contact when you ran into them in a social setting?

After I moved house last year, I attempted to strike up a friendship with a guy who I saw on the train a few times, after I realised he lives down the end of the road from me. He also travels in with his partner each morning, but she used to get off at Finsbury Park, and one day after she had left I went and introduced myself to him. We chatted for a bit, mainly about commuting, then went our seperate ways at Kings Cross. I thought we might get to know each other socially and then myself and The Wife could do coupley things with them. Unfortunately, I discovered that he and his girlfriend are quite exclusive when it comes to their morning commute - probably the only quality time they get together or something - and my overtures have not been returned, beyond the odd nod of acknowledgement.

Maybe I just haven't met the right kind of people yet. They're out there somewhere, though, and one day, I too will have commuting buddies. I'm sure they make it all more fun.