A long and rambling train of thought

I think it was Oscar Wilde who first said ‘it’s not easy being green’. Then again, it may have been the Statue of Liberty. Whoever it was, they were certainly onto something. It is decidedly difficult being green, and a great deal harder to pretend to be green. And, of course, quite possibly racist.

That’s why, in fine Capitalist style, I’m going to subtly dodge the issue at hand. But, in order to avoid being dismissed as some ivory tower columnist (or should that be some ivory column tourist?) so far out of the loop as to receive a negligible field dB = uoi/4pi dlxr/r2 from the current running through it, I will deal with the burning green question in my own manner.

Trains, eh? You can just about live with them, and you’d be able to live a great deal slower without them. But they pollute. Boy do they pollute. Right? I mean, I don’t have a clue. I’ve traveled up and down the country a few times in a seat opposite the lavatory and I can tell you that the air gets pretty polluted. But as for the total carbon emissions, I honestly don’t know. And if I’m starting a new trend for honesty in my prose, I might as well tell you flat out that fur the purposes of this piece it doesn’t matter. Not really. At least, it won’t to you. And that’s the important thing.

Ever since my girlfriend left London to swing her plan for world domination into phase two, I’ve been making regular train journeys up and down the country from London ‘We’ve Got A Problem’ Euston. And there are certain things you learn about train travel once you’ve journeyed the distance from New York to Salt Lake City in three months and a half. You get the chance to learn all the little secrets of how your railway station of choice works, and you come to grips with all the techniques for making sure you get a seat on the train you want.

The most important lesson you learn, however, is that none of these techniques works. Ever.

I’m sure Murphy, when he wasn’t meting out sinister laws and generally being a depressive Irish git, was a commuter. It certainly would have given him enough time to come up with his vast literary output of one law:

‘Toast will always fall with the buttered side down’ and its corollary
‘Unless you smear the other side with chocolate spread, honey or Tiptree’s blackcurrant preserve’

Only a man with intimate knowledge of trains and their greasy ways could have come up with so black an outlook on life.
Take me, for instance. Where once my idealism and naivety were such that I could watch Strictly Come Dancing in the belief that I was being treated to top class entertainment, I am now an ardent and committed pessimist. I have become the sort of person who believes we’re all so damned thirsty that the glass of water itself is a mirage.

And I blame the railway system. Boo! You (quite possibly) carbon-guzzling, smoke-belching harbingers of (what might well turn out to be) ecological doom. But where was I? Ah yes, on a train. Lol. Roffle. Bare, or ‘bear’, or quite possibly even ‘bair’, jokes.

The trouble, you see, starts with getting to the right platform. At Euston station there are two ways to find out what platform your train is boarding from. You can either read it off the massive boards that hang in the main hall, or off the smaller departure board that can be found directly beneath the others. And while the amateur traveler may see no difference between the two, those of us who are familiar with the functioning of Euston’s delicate ecosystem can tell that therein lies the difference between life and death.

Don’t ask me how I found this out – or, more to the point, don’t ask me how my girlfriend found this out – but information appears on the smaller board fractionally before it appears on the larger one. Which means, gentle reader, that a glance in the right direction at the right time can get you running in the right direction ahead of the hordes of sweaty business-men, suit-clad schoolchildren and shopping bag-laded old women.

In other words, by the time the ubiquitous, androgynous voice says “the next train to Manchester will be leaving from platform 6,” you can be scampering half-way across the station.

The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it turns you into a neurotic wreck. The constant shifting of focus, the innumerable false starts and incessant nail-biting do take their toll. But, at least you get to be first on the train, right? And that’s a good thing, right? Hmm. Well, in theory.

Tune in next week – same time, same place – to hear how our hero manages on board the Irrelevantly-Named Express. Will he find a seat? Will he purchase and consume train food? Will a large hairy dog choose to collapse heavily on his toes? Find out all this and more in next week’s issue.

Some of you may remember last week. It was long, green, and to be honest with you a little dull. I can’t claim all the credit for the dullness myself, you understand, but I like to think that I added to it in some small way. My contribution took the form of a piece in last week’s issue – a piece which rather naughtily bit its own nails and hung itself over a cliff before reaching a conclusion. Though I’m sure you’d wish a similar fate to befall me, the dramatic finale to last week’s episode is here at last.

Those of you who actually gave a damn last saw me rushing across Euston station, desperately trying to be the first person to set foot on the platform…

…because being first on the platform means you have the crucial strategic advantage. Most importantly, you can be the first to race all the way across to carriage A, which is traditionally the emptiest and least popular. Ergo, you think, the best place to find a free seat.

You board carriage A a good kilometre and a half ahead of the puffing investment banker running behind you. You scan the electric signs above the seats, looking for one that says ‘available’. Aha! You find one – and it’s a window table seat facing in the right direction at that – what luck! You throw your case in the overhead rack, arrange yourself in the plaid cliff face of seating, rip the Saturday Guardian out of its plastic wrapper, and begin perusing the first of its 12 special supplements in perfect inner peace.

A short while later you hear, through your shimmering golden bubble of happiness, the bustle of several thousand people boarding a carriage which has exactly forty-seven seats. You raise the Business section a little higher and hum ‘The Battle-Hymn of the Republic’ quietly to yourself.

“Excuse me”


“Excuse me”

Dah-dum-Dah-dum-defeat. Dah-dum-Dah-dum-Dah-hearts-of-men-Dah-dum-

The paper is unceremoniously ripped from your hands, and you find yourself staring into the disgruntled face of a heavily pregnant woman with babies in either arm and a Hamleys bag draped over her shoulder. Her face is flushed with an otherworldly glow and her eyes are like tungsten filaments on the point of incandescence.

“You’re sitting in our seats.” She growls.

“But I can’t be,” you calmly point out, “Look at the…”

Your breath catches in your throat as you see that the word ‘available’, which previously hung over your head in the manner of a protective charm, has vanished. It has now been replaced by that most cruel and dispiriting of words: ‘reserved.’ The writing is quite literally on the wall. An unreasonably friendly voice on the PA chooses this moment to announce:

“The seat reservation data has only now been uploaded to our on-board software. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

You flush an unbelievably deep shade of crimson, and attempt to gather together all the sections of the Guardian. You soon dismiss this task as being humanly impossible, and concentrate on extricating yourself from the situation as quickly as the limited maneouvring space will allow. Some agonisingly slow minutes later, you find yourself standing in the doorway of Carriage G, trying to stop the door from giving you a complementary circumcision whenever it arbitrarily sees fit to close. Often, I should point out, with a large and hairy dog using various parts of your anatomy for target practice.

It is experiences such as these that lead me to wonder what is so appealing about Heaven if it involves having a train of seventy-two virgins for the taking. God knows I’ve taken seventy-two Virgin trains and I feel as though I’ve been through Hell.

Possibly the only thing that makes the English railway system halfway bearable is the knowledge that things are so much worse abroad. In Italy, for instance, where once the trains used to arrive bang on time and leave, and the leaders used to fall apart with alarming frequency, now it is the trains which regularly fall apart, and the leaders who arrive, bang on time, and never seem to leave. Not much of a joke, granted, but at least the timing was right. Which is more than can be said for the damned trains.

In the end, of course, you get to your final destination. This is assuming that the train is able to navigate its way through the minefield of obstacles which include leaves lying on the line, rogue children stealing lengths of cable, and the force field around the M25 which attempts to keep the good people of London safe from the depredations of the North.

Ah, trains. You can’t live if you miss them, you can live if they miss you.


One thought on “A long and rambling train of thought

  1. Was it not Kermit The Frog? I completely sympathize about the emotional train journeys. Absolutely exhausting.

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