Friday, April 27, 2007

A Couple of Commuters

The Wife was on a course in London this week, which meant that I had the rare pleasure of her company on the train. It was, as it always is, a strange experience. A delightful one to be sure, but as somebody accustomed to the essentially selfish ways of the lone commuter, which sometimes verge on solipsism, it is profoundly unsettling to find that number one is not the only number that counts, and in fact, number two, in terms of priority, counts double.

Things began to get weird on Monday morning, when we had to leave the house early to ensure that we could get there in time to buy a ticket and catch the train without resorting to my usual power walking. We even took a different route - the "scenic" way - which might actually be quicker but its never been proven and I am a creature of habit (just ask any of my colleagues who try for a mid-afternoon cup of tea before 4pm). It was pleasnt enough - no denying that it does make for a nicer walk, and not having to dodge traffic made a nice change. Then when we reached the station, we marched down to my normal position near the end of the platform and discovered to my consternation that our relative tardiness (I like to get there with five minutes to spare) meant that all of my daily rivals had got there first, and we couldn't get near the yellow line, let alone in front of it. Fortunately I know a few tricks of the trade and we managed to secure a position just outside the gent's toilets which I knew would be precisly in front of the doors when the train stopped, giving us a chance to effectively queue-jump (not a habit I approve of, but needs must).

When the train pulled in and the doors opened, I had to fight my ingrained instinct to forge ahead, elbows at the ready and wearing an impassive yet steely visage, and devote my energies to ensuring that She got on in time to get a seat. This I achieved, but only at the cost of not being able to sit down myself. I had to stand for the entire jourrney, whilst many of my everyday acquaintances preened themselves in the very seats that I might have occupied had I been more ruthless.

Travelling home together was far less stressful - twice She came to meet me in Soho and we went for something to eat (once to my old haunt at Pierre Victoire), and on the other night she went home earlier than me, and come Thursday when the course was over I felt quite lonely. By Thursday night, however, I was back in the groove, tapping furiously away at my laptop, glaring meaningfully at the overly-loud MP3 brigade, and doing a passable Road Runner impression between the station and home. So what does this teach us? Well, Man (at least this one) is an adaptable species, able to adjust comfortably to a changed environment and tailor his behaviour accordingly. And I would like to see more of The Wife.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Monday morning took me to Leeds, a change from the usual routine necessitated by a training course I was booked on at Corporate HQ. In accordance with Corporate Directive #293 (approximately), I selflessly decided to wait until the first off-peak train from Stevenage at five to ten, enabling me to pay a visit to Tesco and have a thrilling time conducting an audit of the rums and spirits category (oh, if only I could communicate the sheer wonder of it in mere words).

Anyway, grocery retail excitement aside (that’s a subject for another blog, I think) what really caught my attention on this trip was something that actually took place before I got on the train, when I paid a visit to the coffee shop. Now, travelling off-peak on inter-city routes you tend to get very different passengers from the peak-rate business types with the laptops and Blackberries. In their place, you get the obligatory smattering of students, of course, but also a peculiar breed of formidable retired ladies with walking sticks and spectacular handbags. And they tend not to be cappuccino-drinkers, much less macchiato or chai fans.

So when they walk into the platform’s branch of the latest funky coffee chain, they have no truck whatsoever with the menu of improbably-named beverages, and order a straightforward cup of coffee, much to the consternation of the people who run the place. You can see them struggling not to respond, in tones of righteous indignation, “A cup of coffee? White with two sugars? What do you think this is, a Greasy Spoon? Begone from my brightly-coloured plastic retail space with its tasteful, if fake, oak floor and pine furniture, and never darken my door again. Sebastian, get me a Tall skinny mochaccino with a coconut biscotti and a scented flannel! I’m going to have to lie down!”

Of course, they never do say that. They just extend a friendly hand and rest it on the scary woman’s arm (only if you look into their eyes can you see the contempt smouldering) and gently direct their attention to the charmingly retro blackboard with its painted-but-looks-like-it-could-be-chalk menu of made-up Italian-sounding names, before slowly talking them through it, pointing out which one is the nearest equivalent to “white and two sugars” – “except for the rich intensity of the espresso beans” or something like that.

And then comes the best bit.

After looking solemnly up and down the menu for a few minutes, our scary lady fixes the barista with a serious look, and asks for a cup of tea instead.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Integration nation

Something truly remarkable happened yesterday morning. I was on my way to work, standing on a dusty, crowded platform in the hazy morning light, waiting for the 0751 to Kings Cross via Finsbury Park. My shoulders protested at the indignity of being made to bear such a burden as my lunchbox after a long weekend of sloth, and my newly cut hair lay matted across my scalp, seemingly the only part of my body still to wake up. My plan, such as it was, was to get off at Finsbury Park and pick up a Victoria Line train to Oxford Circus – as I have previously explained, it actually works out quicker than going all the way into Kings Cross and getting a bus which deposits me right outside the office, such is the early morning traffic in London. All around me, my fellow commuters were well into their daily routine, plugged into music players, struggling with newspapers, unobtrusively yet insistently trying to get further forward towards the edge of the platform – it was my first day back after an extra day off, and I found myself slow to get going, not even bothering to buy a ‘paper. And then, as if summoned by the commuting god to jolt me into life, it happened.

“London Underground have informed us that there are severe delays occurring on the Central and Victoria Lines this morning due to signal problems. Passengers are advised (and don’t you just love that word by the way? Advised? More like warned, but that would sound too negative) to seek alternative routes for their journey.”

I had to pinch myself. What this, an integrated transport system? The Tube and the trains actually talking to each other? Whatever next? I suppose in my industry the equivalent would be the admin staff and the creatives actually engaging in some sort of a dialogue about how they can work together to provide a better service to customers (it sounds really dull when you put it like that doesn’t it?). Seriously though, how many times in the past few years have I had cause to lament the apparent reluctance of the different arms of the multi-limbed transport network to talk to each other and communicate news about delays and problems to customers before they embark? Too many to mention, that’s how many. Remarkable. Was it just a one-off or the harbinger of things to come, of a happier, more efficient capital where passengers are able to actually plan their journeys?

It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The best laid plans

Well, I said I needed a holiday. I'm just back from a week in Dublin. And what a fine city it is. We spent most of our time wandering the streets on foot, so I didn't really get the chance to study the city's transport provisions in detail (they have trams!). We did take a day trip to Howth on the coast though, and this enabled us to travel on the marvelously-monikered Dart, the mainline rail system. The other line's called Commuter, which doesn't seem quite to do justice to the Irish literary tradition, but I can forgive them that lapse on the basis on the sheer wonder of having a train called a Dart - it doesn't even go particularly fast!

So, first day back and, coincidentally, the first day of the month (not technically true - it was the 2nd - but weekends don’t count because no one commutes). After the traditional end of holiday feast on Sunday night, I had gone to bed early with the intention of getting up with the early-morning songbirds, and for once this actually came to pass. I left the house slap bang on quarter past seven and headed for the station, taking time as I went to note the first flush of Spring bringing new life to the flora and fauna of the beautiful market town where I live. I had in the back of my mind a faint but persistent hope that I might make the half past seven train, but knowing that I had to renew my season ticket and that there is always a huge queue at the ticket office at the start of the month, my head told my heart that it was a forlorn hope. Imagine my surprise, then, to arrive at the station and find that there were only a few people waiting to be served by the ticket staff, of whom, remarkably, there were three - a full compliment - on duty (unprecedented for rush hour). The clock said twenty-five past and I thought to myself “By golly,” – I was in a particularly Billy Bunter frame of mind, possibly brought on by the Spring – “I miught just make this.”

Now, you’ve probably guessed that I wouldn’t be telling you a story like this if something hadn’t gone awry, and sure enough, when I got to the front of the queue at half past (2 minutes to spare) the gentleman serving me informed me glumly that his ticket machine was afflicted by “mechanical difficulties”, and therefore the ticketing process would be slow. Resigning myself to my fate - after all I had never truly believed I could make the train - I relaxed into the normal rhythm of the Monday morning journey, barely flinching when the train pulled in just as I was collecting my receipt. Now I don’t like to run for trains, so I just went and bought myself a newspaper, fully expecting the train to be gone by the time I looked again, To my consternation, when I looked again it had not moved, and in fact I could see that the doors were still open. Just as I was about to launch myself into a humiliating run, the whistle blew, the doors slid shut, and the train moved off. If only, I thought to myself, I hadn't stopped to buy the newspaper. It was a lament I would have cause to repeat sevreal times before I reached the office.

In keeping with the theme of making the wrong decisions, I plumped for the earlier, but slower, train, partly because I knew I would get a seat, and having bought the paper I thought it would be nice to read it in comfort. Now on these stopping trains I can either get off at Finsbury Park and catch the Tube, or go all the way to Kings Cross and catch a bus. This day, I opted for the Underground. I hopped off at Finsbury to board the Victoria Line, only to find when I reached the bottom of the stairwell there was a lady just pulling a barrier across the entrance to the Victoria Line platform. Turning around and swimming determinedly against a tide of humanity flowing down the srairs, I reached the top and bumped into my colleague NM, who had been not one but two trains behind me and yet still arrived only a few minutes later. Appraised of the situation, we had a split-second decision to make - wait for the Piccadilly Line (now facing serious overcrowding) or take a train into Kings Cross and get a bus on the same route I could have been on earlier if I'd only stayed on the original train. Out of nowhere, NM pulled out a third, ingenious, option - get a different train to Old Street and get the Northern Line to Bank, where we could pick up a connection to Tottenham Court Road, right next to the office. It sounded too good to be true. But I opted to cast caution to the wind and follow him on this crazy scheme. To my surprise, it worked perfectly.

Until we got to Bank.

At Bank, we reached the Central Line platform - just four stops away from our destination. There was a train on the platform with its doors invitingly open. We moved towards it eagerly, but suddenly an evil-sounding voice boomed over the tannoy, like the wrath of a particularly malevolent deity, and told us that there was a power failure further down the line (at White City, for goodness' sake!), no trains were moving and, that, basically, we could all give up on getting to work. Ha!

We wearily ascended to street level to get a cab the rest of the way, eventually reaching the office at twenty past nine - more than two hours door to door. And I'd even got up early.

The moral of the story? Don't try to outsmart the transport system. Short cuts invariably end up being very long cuts.