Monday, November 19, 2007

The other side of the road

Last Friday night afforded me the opportunity to consider two very different slices of history, seperated by twenty years and a few metres. I was ten years old when the Kings Cross Underground fire was started by a lit cigarette on an escalator, and developed into a blaze that not only claimed the lives of thirty-one unlucky commuters, but fundamentally changed the maintenance and running of the London transport system. Now, at thirty, I was able to wander across the road from Kings Cross and climb the steps to the grand entrance to the new St Pancras Eurostar terminal, joining the crowd of curious spectators making getting a first look at London's answer to New York's famous Grand Central Station. It was a genuinely poignant contrast.

In 1987 my whole world extended not much beyond the Surrey/Berkshire border, but my mother worked at Elephant & Castle, and commuted to London daily, passing through Waterloo and taking the Bakerloo Line to get to her office. I can remember few occasions when I was genuinely worried about her and even tried to persuade her not to go to work. There were a couple of IRA bombings, and there was the Kings Cross fire.

Looking back, it was only about three years since the Valley Parade disaster at Bradford, also caused by a discarded cigarette, which killed an even greater number of people. It's hard to believe now that smoking was ever regarded so casually. With smoking now banned from all such venues as a matter of course, such an anniversary as this weekend's gives cause to reflect on the dramatic shift in attitudes wrought by the last two decades, and the reasons for them. Passing through the Kings Cross underpass today, I caught a glimpse as I hurried past of a fresh wreath of flowers laid at the foot of the staircase, and immediately recalled the last time people had cause to lay flowers at Kings Cross, in July 2005. It seems crass to have hurried past so swiftly in my haste to get to work. I must linger a while longer tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the new St Pancras is a genuinely impressive sight. I used to commute from Leicester every day, and as the Midland Mainline trains rumbled into the old St Pancras, I used to wonder at how so grand a facade could be attached to such a dull terminus. There was a pub, a plastic-laden coffee bar, and a compact WH Smith. During my two years passing through it daily, the station was clearly in the early stages of some fundamental reconstruction, and I counted myself lucky to have escaped the worst of the inconveniences by moving when I did. Wandering through the arch on Friday evening and gazing up at the vast expanse of the glass roof far above me, the gothic grandeur of the sculptures around the forecourt and the gleaming escalators transporting starstuck commuters down to the shopping arcade, I found myself silently thanking the vision of those behind it. I have heard rumours of the enforced removal of the homeless dwelling in the the area and generally draconian measures imposed upon local residents whose faces don't "fit", but the whole area is undoubtedly in need of a bit of a lift, and hopefully this can be the start of something genuinely transformative that can benefit everyone.

Now I just need to find a reason to go to Paris.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Waiting for the coffee to brew

The Wife and I strolled into the centre of the Beautiful Market Town where we live yesterday for a bit of shopping. With two weeks to go until the baby is due to make his (hopefully undramatic) entrance, we are working our way steadily through the last few items on the "Must Have" list, as well as trying to give a modicum of thought to Christmas presents for the nearest and dearest. We were a bit later than we had originally planned to be, so that by the time we staggered wearily through the door of our favourite coffee shop for a well-earned cup of java, the lunchtime rush was well underway.

Now I have a pet theory about coffee shops, and the national chains in particular, and what sets them apart from pubs, bars, fast food outlets, chippies and other such establishments where the customer orders his provisions before taking his seat. My theory is this: the number of people serving behind the bar is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes to get served. I first formed this theory a couple of years back when I was still dwelling in the paradox that is Welwyn Garden City (honestly - if Groundhog Day was a place, it would be WGC). The Wife and I used to go to the local branch of a well-known coffee chain once a week, and it soon became clear that if there was just one Barista behind the counter, he or she would fly through the orders with barely a thought, simply because the alternative was to have a queue snaking out of the door and all the way round the town. If there were two, it was much the same, except that one of them would work the coffee machine and one would be responsible for cakes and pastries. Add in a third, however, and it got complicated - it seems that in this case, three really is a crowd. Because as soon as the third person turned up, for some unfathomable reason, they would run out of clean cups. Perhaps it is something to do with the immutable laws of coffee shop space - there is only so much of it, after all, and perhaps the amount of space taken up by something as relatively huge as a human being has to be offset by removing the equivalent weight of crockery. Whatever the reason, the end results always saw one person alternately working the coffee machine and dashing in and out of the kitchen area to get more cups, one hysterically repeating every order, and one standing over the cakes and pastries brandishing a pair of tongs and shouitng encouragement to the other two.

Yesterday was a classic example. We did arrive slap bang in the middle of the lunchtime rush, but when we walked in there was only a short queue and plenty of seating. What with The Wife being 37 weeks pregnant she went to sit down whilst I ordered. I think I was third in line, but it turned out that everyone else in the queue was ordering paninis, so it was taking a while to serve them. There were three people behind the counter, which should have set alarm bells ringing, and one dashing around the place with a tray, and a cloth which she was busily applying to every table, regardless of whether it was occupied or not, and even some of the customers. Still, I'm an optimistic soul, so I just took out my loyalty card and began counting my change. Now for some unaccountable reason, the Barista who appeared to be in charge had decided to try to serve three customers at once, while handling food, coffee and order-taking, despite the fact that delegating to her two colleagues would have been far more efficient. So I placed my rather puny order for two regular decaff cappucinos sandwihced (for want of a better word) between two chaps each ordering enough food for an army. Now here's the funny thing. She put my cups under the esporesso machine, and promptly forgot about them as she went to prepare the food.

The guy in front of me got his meal first, along with his freshly made coffee, which was only fair, but then she presented the guy behind me with his paninis as well, and then realised he didn't have any drinks so decided to go ahead and whip up his lattes while my cups still sat forlornly on the side. Eventually, when her colleagues had attended to every other person in the queue and I was alone at the counter, she handed over two slightly murky-looking cappucinos and stamped my loyalty card inaccurately, before staggering off to the kitchen, presumably to take some valium or slit her wrists.

When I eventually sat down, pondering the future of the beard I had grown while I was waiting to be served, it turned out that one coffee was really nice, creamy and flavoursome, but the other was watery and bland. Needless to say, I gave the good one to my better half, and downed the dodgy one myself. I did consider complaining but mistakes do happen, even Baristas are only human and, to be honest, I was too tired to stand up.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

We apologise for the disruption to your service

It's been just over two months since my last post. It feels like it's been a lot longer, but maybe that's because it's a commuting blog, and as we all know, commuting time moves more slowly than realtime. That's why a five minute delay always feels like at least an hour. I've frequently been held up on the Tube or Bus on the way to the office, not bothered to consult my watch and arrived at work panting and sweating and profusely apologising for being late, only to be met with a collection of bemused glances because its still twenty minutes before 9.

It hasn't been a particularly exciting two months, commuting-wise. There have been no major developments on the railways, although I did pick up a leaflet about how FCC is improving the service and will lay on something like 1500 more seats at peak times next year, which sounds very impressive. Although someone did point out to me that they don't appear to be legthening the platforms, which could render the extra seats somewhat redundant. Still, it will be nice to know that they're not just fleecing the passengers when the fares go up in Januray. The Leaf Fall timetable came in unheralded and barely-noticed (and isn't that a lovely phrase - so much gentler than "the Leaves on the Line" timetable or the "Just Call The Office And Tell Them You're Going To Be Late" timetable. People are still playing music too loud, yapping away on mobile phones and doing all the usual things they do to make their fellow passengers' lives just that little bit less enjoyable. And amazingly, given this cold weather we've been having, the bright sparks in contorl of the trains have put the heating on in the carriages. What's going on? Somebody at HQ clearly hasn't read the rules properly.

But, brilliantly, I realised the other day as I was coming back from work, the heaters pump hot air out of the ducts at floor level, and this rises up the trouser legs of the person sitting directly above them and has absolutely no effect on anyone else. And then there are vents just below the windows which let cold air in from outside and blow it down the collar of the person sitting directly below them. An inspired waste of energy, and clearly a design feature that was meticulously planned in the ensure that the whole ventilation system is as inefficient as possible.

Gosh I love commuting!