Thursday, May 31, 2007

Walking the walk

My journey to work starts at around twenty past seven in the morning. Not when I get on the train, but when I leave the house, marching purposefully out of the front door and across the road, then back into the house to collect whatever it is I’ve forgotten. This is invariably one of two things: my mobile phone or my train pass – oddly, I never seem to forget my keys anymore, although The Wife would no doubt point out to me that this is because I followed her advice and started keeping them in the same place every night. I’ve always taken the actual train journey as the focus for what I write on this blog, but in fact, the trip from my house to the station is an adventure in itself, and just as deserving of attention. The people I encounter (and in most cases pass) every morning are like characters in a soap opera – consistent, predictable and above all ever-present – and all contribute to rich tapestry of commuting experience with which my current occupation provides me.

When I first moved here, I used to regularly encounter a couple of about my age, who lived at the end of the street I walk down to get from my house to the main road. He works for a law firm. I don’t know what she does but then we shouldn’t all be defined by our work should we. Being new to the area and keen to make friends, I made several overtures in their direction but was not welcomed with any great enthusiasm so I gave it up. These days they’ve started getting a later train – can’t stand the pace – so I guess they just aren’t ready to hang out with a guy like me.

It takes me about twelve minutes to get to the station. When I reach the bottom of the hill |I turn smartly right on to the main street bypassing the centre of the charming little market town where I live, and stride past a bus stop, where a number of ladies of mature years are waiting for a bus to take them into Luton. It is an enduring mystery to me why ladies of mature years would want to go to Luton at any time, let alone half past seven in the morning, but maybe they know something I don’t. If I had a cap, I would at this point doff it respectfully in their direction, but I don’t, and even on cold days when I wear my woolly hat, the effect would not quite be the same, so I just march on past.

When I reach the local theatre, there is always, without fail, a car waiting to pull out of the driveway, and so we engage in a brief game of After You Claude, each waving frantically at the other to indicate that he should go first. As always happens with these things, we both reach the decision that the other is definitely not going to accept the invitation at precisely the same moment, and move forward into one another’s path. Cue much waving of arms in a distinctly Gallic manner, followed by brief exchange of sheepish grins, and I’m off on my way again.

Much the same thing happens at the zebra crossing I reach a short while later, where things are further complicated by the dog-walking brigade. There are three doting dog-owners who regularly take the half past seven slot to exercise their canine companions. The first of these is a burly bloke with a big black beast (probably a Labrador, but I’m no expert). I have to say I was a bit nervous when I first encountered this fearsome-looking pair, but without justification – I’ve never been subjected to anything more aggressive than a tentative sniff. And nothing from the dog either. The second of my barking brigades is a proper pack – a younger lady with a brood of those big white fluffy creatures that look as though they have come straight from the hair salon. Nothing to fear from this group, although passing them is complicated by the fact that they occupy the whole of the pavement – so to get round them I have to walk right out into the middle of the road, into the path of oncoming traffic, which can be inconvenient. Finally, and inevitably, there is the poodle-walker. Now as is always the case, the smaller the dog, the more vicious the little maniac is, so to for the sake of trousers and ankles, not to mention the dogs, it’s best to get clear of these creatures as soon as possible.

It is at this point that my nemesis, Goliath-lite, appears. Goliath-lite is a really really skinny bloke with implausibly, ridiculously, long legs. Now, there’s something you should know about me – as I’ve alluded to before, I am a bit of a shortarse, and as such carry around on my shoulder a chip identical to that carried by many vertically-challenged people, which manifests itself in a burning desire to walk faster than everybody else. It’s not so much a competitive streak – if it was I would probably be a lot sportier, and would have shown at least a passing interest in physical pursuits at school. It’s more of a petty conviction that if I can walk faster than everyone else, I am on some level displaying my physical superiority, and proving that being short is no barrier to being The Best. Sadly, by dint of sheer physics, there are some people I just can’t outwalk, no matter how hard I may try. Goliath-lite is one such person. I may well get past the dog-walkers, the schoolkids, the businessmen in their power suits, but Goliath-lite can give me a hundred yard start and still overtake me before I reach the station. He also walks with his hands in his pockets, the model of nonchalance, in complete contrast to my own arm-swinging, gut-busting pose, which lets everyone know how hard I am working. It’s really quite dispiriting.

Of course, I carry a bag, a heavy one that slows me down. Otherwise I’d leave him choking on my dust.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Comment is free

One of my correspondents has pointed out to me that there is no comments box on my previous post. Am mystified as to the reason for this, but if you do have anything you want to add please feel free to do so here.

Hope someone does otherwise I'm going to look a bit silly.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lightening strikes twice

Amazing. Twice in just over a week. I'm a few days late posting this, but my pulse is still racing. Unbelievably, following my exhilarating dash across North London, via Warren Street, last week, I was forced to tempt fate again this week by attempting to beat the system once more. I have to say it didn't give me the same buzz as last time, simply because this time around it was too close for comfort. This time around I didn't just push my luck - I gave it a real shove. And amazingly, it stretched.

It was Tuesday afternoon. The Wife works a half-day on a Tuesday, and so where possible I like to get away from work promptly so that I can be home in time to share a few quality moments with her before Holby City starts. So at 6pm I rose from my desk, grabbed by things, bid a cheery farewell to my colleagues and hastened out the door into the early evening Soho bustle. Making my way to the bus stop, I joined the back of a longish queue of people and waited for the number 73 to arrive. And then I waited a bit more. For some reason which did ont become clear, the bus was runinng a bit late, and it didn't actually turn up until gone five past - not much of a delay by public transport standards, but on such slim marigns, as I have observed before, are trains caught and missed.

Already running a few minutes late, I was concerned when the first two sets of traffic lights on the way down Tottenham Court Road proved to be against us. Then we stopped outside Goodge Street and for some reason people took ages getting on - fumbling for Oyster cards and passes, asking the driver where the bus was going to, all that sort of thing. All the time the second hand on my watch continued it's methodical march, the minute hand trailing slowly, reluctantly, but inexorably behind it.

It got to ten past - less than fifteen minutes before my train and still we hadn't got to the end of Tottenham Court Road. I knew, with gloomy certainty, that we'd get held up by the lights at Euston, and the memory of that occasion a few weeks back when I'd had to dash across Kings Cross, unwittingly causing a lady to spill her coffee as I sped past, only to see the train pull away from the platform in front of me, flashed before my mind's eye. I made another of those split-second decisions. I got off the bus, and made for Warren Street tube station.

Now here's a wierd thing. I know it's not a long way from that bus stop to the station, but somehow on this occasion it seemed much further than usual. Bobbing and weaving between people, I reached the top of the escalators and plunged downwards into the bowels of city. A glance at the watch confirmed that I probably still had time to make it up and out of the Underground station at Kings Cross and get the train, so I made my way to the end of the platform where I thought the rear of the train would be, and waited. A minute later than the electronic board said it would be (but I'm experienced enough to expect that), the train arrived but somehow I'd got my bearings mixed up, and it turned out I was at the front! It was also packed - I might have been able to get on, but my bag would have had to remain at Warren Street. Not an option. With a growing sense of foreboding, I hurried down to the other end of ther platform to await the next train. It turned up fairly rapidly, and mercifully thre was just enough space for both bag and body. Checking the watch again, I realised that the hike across Kings Cross was now out of the question, and then it struck me that if I was going all the way to Finsbury Park I was in completely the wrong part of the train. With the exit at Finsbury halfway along the platform I was bound to get stuck at the back of the queue. Nothnig I could do about it now. I would just have to be ready to sprint up the stairs, three at a time.

When we got to Kings Cross, I briefly considered getting off and making a run for it, with the exit right in front of me when the doors opened, but the watch told me that there were only four minutes before my train left, and weighing up my featherlight chances, I realised that the scales were still just about tipped in favour of the Finsbury Park option. I put my bag down, closed my eyes, and started a few rudimentary stretching exercises to prepare my limbs for the dash.

Eventually, we reached Finsbury. I leapt from the train, slung my bag over one shoulder and sped along the inside of the platform, perilously close to the edge (the yellow line may as well have been a distant horizon). Reaching the spiral staircase, I bounded up the stairs, squeezing between a couple of ladies with a shouted apology, and on to the platform where the train from Kings Cross was just pulling in. My brow glistening with perspiration and my heart racing, I hurled myself through the doors just as the alarm signalled that they ready to close and slumped against the partition, thinking to myself "I've got to stop doing this. I'm getting too old for it."

Then I remembered that life bigins at thirty.

Friday, May 11, 2007

When a plan comes together

Every now and again, in the life of a commuter, there comes a moment when a split-second decision is called for, the kind of judgement call that will mean the difference between getting home on time and being stupidly, pointlessly late, marooned at a bus stop or station in the cold, in that strange mental no man's land between work and home. Now, as many of the posts on this blog will testify, I invariably get these decisions wrong, but very occasionally, one of them comes off, and I am able to bask in the warm glow of a job well done. The jorney home on Friday was one such occasion. I feel like General Hannibal after his elephants had trampled all over the Roman legions, or Agamenmon, after that trick with the wooden horse.

It puts me in mind of the could-have-been-great film Sliding Doors, in which alternate realities are shown in parallel, having diverged at the crucial moment when Gwnynneth's character does/does not get on the train. Incidentally, what was that ending all about, eh? Slightly disappointing films notwithstanding, I feel, as I have already pointed out, a tremendous sense of ahievement. In the words of another Hannibal, "I love it when a plan comes together."

What happened was this. I left work shortly before 6pm yesterday, and for some reason decided that as I had 5 minutes to spare I would walk down to Oxford Circus and get on the Tube, rather than taking my chances on the recently-unreliable buses. I knew I was taking a chance, but it didn't seem overly busy in London and I progressed down to Argyll Street pretty quickly and without having to dance my way past too many dawdlers. I skipped past the freesheet-hawkers, crossed the road to avoid the crowds forming outside The Palladium (all of them perhaps wondering "How do you solve a problem like coming to see the winner of a reality TV show and finding that the understudy is on in her place?") and rounded the corner on to Oxford Street where I hit The Bottleneck at its very worst. There were people coming from all directions, as I have described before. It wasn't so much a series of queues in different directions as, well, a gathering.

It is at times like these that I do wish I was just a little bit taller. I had no idea what was going on because I couldn't see over the shoulders of the people around me. Some girls from the London Beautician's College, or whatever it's called, were my only guide to what was happening above the canopy, conducting a noisy debate over whether the station was closed or not (inconclusive), whether they should get on the bus (too slow), and whether they should split up to try to move faster (they didn't). Like them, I decided to stay put.

After a few long minutes, we did start moving again. Unfortunely, the people coming the other way started moving at the same time, so there was a bit of a stand-off, resolved when we somehow managed to form ourselves into two orderly lines running side by side. I eventually reached the top of the stairs and headed down into the station, headed down the escalators and on to a crowded platform.

Now this was the key moment.

A glance at my watch confirmed my worst fears - it was nudging ten past six, and I knew that by the time I had made it up and out of the underground station at Kings Cross and then hotfooted over to The Sticks to get my train, I would be just in time to see it pulling away out of Platform 9. If I went all the way to the rather more compact Finsbury Park, however, I suspected that I might make it up to the platform in time to catch the same train as it arrived from Kings Cross. But only if I could avoid getting caught up in a queue on the stairs.

This is where it gets really clever. I knew that, if I went down to the rear of the platform, I would be prefectly positioned to get out quickly at Kings Cross, where I would have easy access to the escalators. However, at Finsbury, the exit is halfway along the platform, not at one end, so if I wanted to make a quick getway there I would need to be somewhere in the middle section of the train. With the rumble of an approaching train and people piling on to the platform behind me, I had no time to think. My instincts told me that Finsbury was the better option, so I opted for the middle carriage.

We reached Kings Cross with surprising speed, and momentarily I doubted my decision, but anothre glance at the watch reassured me - I would have had just three minutes to get from one train to the other, a forlorn hope during rush hour. Then when we got ot Finsbury Park I was right by the staircase, bounded up and had enough time to pick my spot on the platform. Howzat!

I even got a seat. What a feeling.

Monday, May 07, 2007

In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning (the sequel)

Off up to Leeds again on Thursday morning. This time the course kicked off at 9, so my colleague CE and I were on what I believe is known as the Red Eye Express from London. I was up at quarter past four, rocked up (literally) at Hitchin Station for ten to six, bidding a cheery good morning to the bleary-eyed station master and strolled over the Platform 1 to await the arrival of the 06:04, which I confidently expected to be deserted. Imagine my surprise, then, when I boarded to find that there was barely a seat to be had (okay, I’m exaggerating slightly for effect, but it was still quite busy). And it got me thinking – it’s so nice and peaceful at that time in the mornings. More people should try getting up then. Though I suppose that wouldn’t help with the peace and quiet.

The other thing that struck me about the early morning trains is that they all seemed to be running early. Not on time, mark you, early. I had ambled down to the station more slowly than planned – my head was a little fuzzy - and so missed the 05:54. This was slightly annoying, because my connection at Stevenage was due at quarter past six, and I hadn’t wanted to cut it too fine in case of any delays on the way there. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, because the train turned up a couple of minutes before the clock struck six. I got on it, stood by the door in a “I’m not going to be on here long enough for it to be worth sitting down” sort of a way, and waited for the gentle jolt of locomotion.

Nothing happened.

Nonchalantly reaching down to rummage through my (ludicrously full) bag – I really should clean it out from time to time: there was dirty underwear in there from the last time I went to Leeds 2 weeks ago – I could not help but notice that several people, who had already been on the train when it pulled in, got up and left. The doors closed automatically behind them, which never normally happens – normally the driver shuts them just before the train pulls out, and even spookier there’s no button to shut them on the outside of the train, so it was almost as if they were acting of their own accord. It started to feel a little bit like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when the shield doors of the Hoth base are closed with Luke and Han still lost in the snow, in which the combination of dramatic music and Chewbacca’s anguished howl serve to make the closing of the gates portentous.

After what seemed like hours, the train rumbled into life, and we pulled out of the platform on our way to Stevenage. Bizarrely enough, those people who had got off the train whilst we had been sat there didn’t return, so I was left to imagine them emerging from the toilets or the coffee shop or whatever, being bemused to find an empty platform, and standing there, lost and confused, for the rest of the day, or at least until the nice lady at the ticket office (who always helps me when I’ve lost my ticket) came to take them away and stick them in a taxi.

The rest of the journey was all a bit dull, really. No delays, no fearsome old women buying tea at the coffee shop, and even Leeds was suspiciously free of eccentrics. The only slightly unusual thing was that two of the three cashpoints on the station concourse at Leeds were out of service, so I had to queue for ages, in which time CE had time to get herself some breakfast, use the loo, and have several cups of tea. The course was fun and interesting, but by far the most significant aspect of the day, for me, was that I managed to get home before the chippy shut, and because I was the last customer, I got a free piece of fish. Now that’s worth getting up early for.