Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Noughtie side of Commuting - Part 2

Communication, communication, communication. That's the biggest change to the commuting experience in the last ten years. Yes there have been other, cosmetic, enhancements - cappuccino makers, toilets with electric doors that generally shut while you're in there, free newspapers of course. But were you to consider a carriage full of commuters during rush hour at the beginning of the Noughties with an equivalent group ten years on, the most striking difference would surely be the plethora of wireless devices into which they were yapping, tapping or cra- No, sorry, that one hasn't been invented yet. Good rhyme though (sorry, it's late and I'm tired).

In the 1980s, of course, there was the Walkman. In the 1980s, the mobile phone began to proliferate. But it was in the Noughties that being communicative on a locomotive became mainstream. In the late '90s, in the fabulous Notes From a Small Island, the sight of a man talking on a mobile phone retained enough novelty value to prompt Bill Bryson into the proclamation that "these people really are becoming tiresome." These days, it wouldn't even be worthy of comment. But, as Bryson observed, in those salad years of mobile telephony, the level of conversation rarely got much beyond "I'm going to be late but really I'm just calling you to emphasise to everyone else no this train that I have a mobile phone, and am therefore intimidatingly cool and with it." It was still the newspaper that remained the distraction of choice for most commuters.

In the mid-Noughties, the Ipod arrived, and suddenly the trains were colonised by the Apple tribe with their little white headphones. Nobody spoke in the carriages, passengers seemed barely aware of their whereabouts, as their personal soundtracks took them far away from the physical realm.

Then the newspapers launched the fightback, led, improbably, by The Independent, which seems to have been dying a slow death for longer than it took The Soviet Union to collapse, but enjoyed a brief reversal of fortunes (the Gorbechev years) after it relaunched it tabloid format. It was the first of the "quality" titles to do so. Groundbreaking it certainly was, and a cause for celebration as loads of people who had previously purchased The Daily Mail because it was the only white top that didn't require a contortionist's powers of elasticity to read on a crowded train, switched their allegiances. Then The Times and The Guardian followed suit (yes, I know The Guardian opted for the JFK approach ("Ich Bein ein Berliner") rather than than the tabloid, but the principle is the same. And The Independent entered its Yeltsin period, proving that style really does matter as much as substance.

Next were the freesheets. Metro, the early morning one, was first, and managed to carve out quite a little niche among consumers who preferred their news bite-sized in the morning. Sometime around 2008, everyone got pant-wettingly excited about everything being free, and two of the newspaper trades biggest and oldest bullies waded in to try to take advantage, and kill off the London Evening Standard, with the truly appalling London Lite and TheLondonPaper. It seems like a bad dream now, but for a couple of years freesheet hawkers stalked the streets of the Capital. Eventually they both ran out of steam - the Standard survived and, in one of those ironic little twists, has now gone free itself.

As 2010 dawns we now have smartphones, Blackberries, tiny little laptops that fit in the palm of your hand. The little white earphones have largely gone, to be replaced by old-fashioned headphones so big that Pat Butcher could wear them as earrings, which somehow fail to do half as good a job as their tiny predecessors at actually keeping in the noise. So now most carriages have a soundtrack, possibly two, always too quiet to be properly heard, but too loud to ignore.

And free Wi-fi. That's another thing, notable chiefly because it is so pushy. No sooner have I turned my laptop on in the morning then it is asking me if I want to join the local network. I never do, because rather like the frustrated mobile phone customer who just wants to talk, I only really want to write on the train. That's where I actually wrote the bulk of this post.

Ah, there's nothing like progress.

Friday, January 08, 2010


More on my Noughties commuting retrospective next time, but today I just have to record my experience aboard an over-crowded, sluggish rush-hour train this morning. It's day three of the big freeze, of course (no, seriously - day three - it only started on Wednesday: we are not living in some kind of Narnian state of perpetual Winter as the media would have you believe). I have been lucky. My train route has been relatively robust. We haven't been that badly hit by the snow (yet) - only three or four inches I would say. It may be a factor that the route to the Beautiful Market Town where I live happens to share a track with the main line up to Scotland, via Peterborough and Leeds, so perchance we get more TLC than some of the other suburban commuter routes. Whatever the reason, the service has not been severely disrupted so far, beyond a few delays and a bit of congestion. Today there was an emergency timetable in operation, and when I reached the platform it was already fairly full. When our service pulled in, we duly piled forth, and I was lucky enough to cadge a spot by the partition in the vestibule, on which I could lean to my heart's content. Not so fortunate was a chap who jumped on just as the doors were closing, a familiar face whom I have observed before as one of those commuters that always jumps the queue in order to find a seat. On this occasion he had no chance, and to be fair to him he took it very well. His only reaction was to put his cycling helmet back on - I wondered whether he knew something we didn't.

It got exciting when we got to Stevenage. A couple more people got on - a lady and a gentleman of mature years. Apparently they were unacquainted, but the gentleman took it upon himself to be the knight in shining armour, announcing to the first class section "I'm sure one of these kind gentlemen will be good enough to give the lady a seat." Fair comment, even if it was delivered in a rather pompous manner. Sure enough, one of the kind gentlemen did give up his seat, protesting loudly, and quite aggressively (one might even say defensively) that he hadn't seen her. This may have been because he had suddenly, on pulling into the station, developed an intense interest in his naval, such that he was unable to wrest his attention from it to peruse the new arrivals lest any of them should be a damsel in need of a seat. Still, I wasn't going to pursue the point, lest verbal aggression spill over into physical violence. The gentleman of mature years contented himself with a knowing, weary shake of the head - a gesture I find irritating in the extreme - and proceeded to thrust his backpack directly into the face of the hitherto uninvolved commuter standing behind him.

The guy was now talking up the space of two people, in a carriage with no spare elbow room. "Ho hum," thought I to myself, "that's just a little bit hypocritical. If I was that guy standing behind him, I'd jolly well tell him to put that bag down and stop throwing rocks from his glass house. Or something like that." Of course, I didn't say anything, being something a hypocrite myself. But then the gentleman of mature years decided to shift position, so that the ruck sack was shoved in my face instead, leaving me with no option but to speak up. "Excuse me," quoth I , very polite like, "would you mind putting your bag down. I'll hold your coffee." Nice touch that, I thought - taking the heat out of the situation by being conciliatory, rather than saying what I really meant, which was "Put the bag down and show some consideration for other people, you pompous old prick."

Now it was his turn to get defensive. "No thanks" was his terse response to my offer, although he did, with great ceremony, shrug the rucks sack from his shoulders and on to the floor, before giving me the cold shoulder. We were all of us making lots of friends today - fortunately the train didn't get stuck anywhere, or a fight might have broken out.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Noughtie side of Commuting

With all of these "that was the decade that was" lists that have flooded the the news-stands, the airwaves and just about every other medium (and I'm not expecting it to finish just because the decade has), it occurred to me that there is one glaring omission. No one has yet turned the lense on one of the most basic British activities, and its "progress" (or lack thereof) in the last ten years. And so it falls to the Happiest man on the rails to fulfill this important role which the mainstream media, with its unfathomable fixation with celebrities, hairstyles and fashion, has passe over.

The decade began with fatal train crashes at Hatfield and Potters Bar. Not the most auspicious of starts for a purportedly light-hearted blog, but not something that can be ignored. Then we had the Railtrack fiasco, widespread (and inevitable) media coverage of the state of the nation's railways and the supposed fact that we were placing our lives at risk every time we stepped on a train. There was also the Tube derailment at Chancery Lane, the subsequent closure of the Central Line, and a Virgin Trains rail crash in Scotland. And of course, we had the events of 7th July 2005. Hum hum, I'm definitely not in joke territory here. Seems a bit crass to start cracking gags about the food/toilets/fares/etc. Still, a comedy blog's gotta do what a comedy blog's gotta do.

On the plus side, we had the launch of Virgin Trains (I think that was 2000), which provided plenty of laughs (laugh a minute, actually, which was faster than most of the trains). There was the launch of the Oyster Card, the grand opening of St Pancras, the collapse of GNER (privatisation's Emperor's new clothes moment), and of course numerous sterling contributions to the annals of tragicomedy from Eurostar.

Gosh what a busy decade. This is going to need more than one post. Anyone else got anything?