Thursday, August 23, 2007

What's eating me?

Food on trains, that’s what’s eating me. Well, not food on trains per se, but rather some of the people who eat it. Casting my mind back a few months, I remember a post in which I got uncharacteristically hot under the collar about a discarded plastic pot which had presumably once contained some form of dip to accompany some of those curiously tasteless carrot sticks one can get from concourse retailers, but was now stuck to the inside of the seat-back tray, rendering it inoperable. This kind of thoughtlessness does grate on me. This evening, I took a seat next to a gentleman eating sushi, immediately regretting my decision, only to find that the guy was indeed a proper gentleman, who finished his fishy snack, wrapped it in a plastic bag to conceal the smell, and tucked it inside the tray in front of him, rather than hiding it under the seat for its next occupant to discover. But all around me were less considerate commuters rustling, crackling and crunching their way through bags of sweeties, crisps and various other types of pick-me-up.

Now I’m not one to moan without due cause, as I hope you all know, but if there is anything more annoying than listening to someone else fiddling with food packaging when you’re trying to concentrate on crafting some kind of literary masterpiece, I have yet to encounter it in a commuting context. It’s worse than mobile phones or music players because it’s so intermittent. One moment there can be rustling assailing you from all sides, accompanied by the inevitable strong whiff of artificial ingredients, and then suddenly it’s all peace and quiet. Just when you start to relax and your senses lower their defences to enjoy the serenity of a packed yet silent carriage, it starts again, setting off a nerve-shredding chain reaction of tremors inside your head which resonate to the very core of your brain. I’m not exaggerating.

So, in many ways, the people who eat food on trains are the bane of any right-thinking commuter’s life on the rails. On the other hand, and this just adds to the frustration because it’s such blatant hypocrisy, there can be few things more amusing than the sight of somebody actually trying to eat the food once they’ve retrieved it from the packaging. There’s a stall at Kings Cross that sells pasties, one item which always smells better than it tastes but even to those in the know is well-nigh irresistible. On those evenings when I’m home late, there is invariably at least one person tucking into, or attempting to tuck into, one of these messy, stodgy, utterly intractable pastry monstrosities. And what a complex operation it is. First of all, you watch the remarkable solemnity with which the poor sod opens the packaging, treating the oversized paper bag with tender, almost loving care lest the ludicrously delicate product inside get squashed or in any way disfigured. Then, having extracted the thing, in the process getting flakes of pastry absolutely everywhere in spite of such assiduous delicacy, the first bite, so mouthwatering in prospect, sends a shower of crumbs to the far end of the carriage, and invariably much of the filling down the person's front. If he (it is always a he - females are just too intelligent to fall for this one) does manage to get a proper mouthful, the sense of achievement is palpable, almost radiating from him, Which is strangely apt, because the next thing that happens is that he belatedly realises how scaldingly, impossibly hot the filling is, and his face turns purple.

The single most remarkable thing about people eating on trains, however, is how energetic they are. The simple process of easting a sandwich, baguette or pasty seems to take so much phyical effort that one feels any calories must be burned off in the process of consumption. It's as if they feel that, having paid for the food, they really have to enjoy it, and be seen to enjoy it. They don't just eat it, they devour it. It's faintly grotesque, really. And it only seems to apply to food that is bought at the station. People that bring sandwiches with them are far more delicate about it. But you can't help feeling they are missing out on something.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Weekend services

I often say to people who invite me into London for social purposes on a Saturday that I try to avoid commuting at the weekend, lest it should lose its lustre through the tiresome combination of engineering works, reduced services and deserted station that tends to constitute the railway experience at weekends. Whether that makes me a a miserable git is open to question, as I will make the effort in exceptional circumstances - someone's birthday or some other special occasion, or if there is any chance at all I might get a game of football out of it. Yesterday was even more special than that - The Wife had been invited to a Hen Party in Covent Garden, and I assumed the role of chaperone. Lest I should seem overprotective here, let me clarify the reasons for my solicitousness - she is, to corrupt a well-known phrase, commuting for two at the moment.

Consulting the weekend timetable, I was a little surprised to discover that in fact it was all but unchanged, with practically a full service running (provoking a twinge of sympathy for the gallant men and women that staff the railways - don't they deserve a weekend too?). But it made our quest simpler, so we selected a train to aim for and set off in plenty of time. Now, as I have noted before on this blog, I am accustomed to walking to the station every morning, but it was a hot day and The Wife didn't want to tire herself out, so we drove. On reaching the station, I dropped The Wife at the ticket office, after checking very carefully that I had a pound for parking, and took the car into the unfamiliar surroundings of the station car park (which is so long that if you park at the far end you are pretty much within walking distance of London anyway).

I crawled past the first few bays, looking in vain for a space, because I really didn't want to have to leave it down the far end and have to sprint for my train. For some reason, the powers that be reserve certain space in priveliged positions (ie less than a ten minute hike away from the platform) for certain customers who can afford to pay extra, which means that even on weekends these space have barriers erected preventing Joe Public, or in this case me, from using them. At one point I thought I saw one of them free, and moved to pull in, only to be confronted by a cleverly camoflaged barrier clearly erected with the intention of luring unwitting drivers, Siren-style, into an embarressing and potentially expensive situation. Executing a perfect (though I say so myself) three point turn, I headed back out in the wider expanse of the car park slightly frustrated but intact.

Only a few minutes later, I managed to find a space, locked the car and sprinted off toward my rendez-vous with The Wife before heading over to the platform, where our train was approaching. On we climbed, and proceeded in extreme comfort through the Hertfordshire countryside and past Stevenage. It was all going so well, but then The Wife turned to me and said "You did get a car park ticket didn't you?" Whoops!

Whst to do? I was already past Stevenage, and the train was non-stop to London. I had a leisurely evening of drinking, talking and possibly even treating myself to a special fried rice lined up. And it was coming up to 5pm on a Saturday. Was anyone really going to be checking the car park? The Wife didn't think so. But I had traumatic memories of getting stuck outside Hyde Park back in days of yore when my Grandpa's car got clamped and we had to wait around for hours (and pay fifty quid) to get it released. Driven on by these visions, I decided that I would not be able to relax until I knew that the car was safe. I couldn't abandon The Wife, however, so I took her all the way to Covent Garden, before heading back the way I had come, waiting twenty minutes at Kings Cross and getting a train back to Hertfordshire. By a happy twist of fate, there was a fast service back to London within five minuites of my arrival, so I dashed through the barriers, grabbed a car park ticket, stuck it on the windscreen, checked that the car hadn't been clamped already (it hadn't), and ran back over to the other platform past the bemused station staff. The whole thing took about two hours, and frankly was all a bit of a waste of effort (I doubt anyone would have checked it anyway) but I felt, morally speaking, that I had done the right thing.

So, we've established that I'm a bit of an idiot. But was it a noble gesture that proves my moral rectitude, or just a waste of time? Eh?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Apologies for the disruption to your service

Sorry for the extended delay in posting. I'm just not a very happy commuter this week, what with delays in both directions on the train, rubbish service on the Tube and intermittent cock-ups on the buses.

Don't want to post a lot of moaning grumpiness - there'e enough of that about already.