Friday, 26 August 2011

Mark is back!

I've missed him soooooo much!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails. I know Sue has been responding to your correspondence in my absence.

Taking the Plymouth train on Monday was indeed a clever plan, had we not caused you to miss the connection, of course. I hope you will accept my apologies and I am glad ‘Big Brother’ managed to cheer you up when you got home.

Our 08:06 from Oxford on Wednesday was late because of over-running engineering works, which caused a considerable level of disruption through the morning peak period. We follow up all such incidents with Network Rail and they too accept it is not good enough. I am sorry you were affected.

On Wednesday evening another service with a mechanical problem delayed your train through Reading. Yesterday morning a service leaving the depot had a mechanical problem which briefly held your service up. The driver quickly fixed the problem, keeping the delay to a minimum.

I appreciate that our explanations of the causes of delays as congestion, knock on effects etc, and our apologies (which are indeed genuine) are starting to feel a bit meaningless. I wish I could offer you something more tangible as ‘proof’ of the hard work and dedication our staff put into tackling every issue.

The rail infrastructure we have today is complex and we do face constraints. That said, I completely understand that, as our customer, you look to us to simply provide the reliable service that you pay us for. We want this too and we will continue to make every effort to achieve this.

Kind regards


25 August 2011. Letter 23

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 25/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 5 minutes.

Wotcha Mark! What's new, Sue? How's life treating you both today? Feeling a little more optimistic? A little more up for the daily fight? Good! That's the spirit! Don't let it grind you down, Mark. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off and come back out swinging, Sue! We can win this, lads!

I'm in a better mood too, you'll be glad to hear. The end of the week does that to me: it perks me up. It puts a spring in my step, a zip in my stride. It puts lead in my pencil. Especially so knowing next week will mean two less journeys on one of your trains, two less displays of expensive incompetence to deal with.

What will I do with my day off? How will I spend that time saved? I can do anything, Mark! The sky's the limit. Literally. Metaphorically.

And today's letter is shorter too. That's a relief all round, isn't it? Only a five minute delay on yesterday's journey in. Well done! After three days of 15-minute-plus screw-ups, you've managed to get within 300 seconds of running a service on time! Go Team FGW!

One thing does concern me, however. It's your silence. The sound of your silence. Mark - are you still on holiday? Are you still cosied up on some Costa, or promenading through some piazzo, or gallivanting across some Greek island? Lucky you!

But Sue... Sue, you're supposed to be on duty here. You're holding the baton. And Sue, you're being awfully quiet. I haven't heard from you for three letters now. I'm getting worried.

Wherefore art thou, Sue? Wither goest thou, Sue, in thy shiny train in the night? Please don't tell me you've forgotten how to communicate effectively? Please let it not be that you've lost your communicating mojo? Say it ain't so that you've caught the communicating yips! Good heavens above, it barely bears thinking about!

I'm missing you, Sue! And especially after your assurances that my letters were welcome, too. Especially after you said you were happy to address my understandable concerns. Don't let me carry on shouting into the abyss, Sue! Because you know what happens when you shout into the abyss, don't you?

That's right. The abyss shouts right back at you.* And goodness knows none of us want that!

Au revoir!


*Friedrich Nietzsche said that, Sue. Best defensive midfielder Bayern Munich ever signed, for my money.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

24 August 2011. Letter 22

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 24/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 17 minutes.

Hail Mark! Ave, Sue! How are you both today? It's a wet one, isn't it? A rainy end to the summer. An inclement start to the bank holiday weekend. It's all downhill from here to Christmas, you know. No more breaks till Boxing Day. Oh dear. Sounds depressing, put like that. Let's lighten things up, shall we? Let's change the mood from sad to gladness...

What shall we talk about today? Well, we could mention the 17 minutes of my time you wasted last night, for a start. The 17 minutes extra I was forced to spend on one of your trains, watching the sun set over the rainy rooftops of Reading town. Seems a fitting subject, doesn't it?

I seem to have spent a lot of unwarranted, unplanned and frankly unwelcome time in Reading, recently. I've been spending more of my days there than either I or (I suspect) Reading itself are comfortable with. I'm running out of stuff to talk about, Reading-wise (don't worry, Sue! I've got plenty of other subjects to cover! Under your tutelage, under your firm and guiding hand, I feel I could communicate my socks off! I could communicate till the cows come home (metaphorical or otherwise)! I could communicate, as Jim Morrison so elegantly put it, till the stars fall from the sky. I got plenty more communicating in me, never fear!).

But I may be running out of stuff to communicate about Reading.

Actually! Wait! Hold the wedding, Mark! There is something still to say about Reading! There's something vital and important and historical and etymological to say about Reading! Something about history and British identity and the very things that make us what we are! I'm being serious! Pull up a chair. Pour yourself a mid-morning stiffener. Put on your attentive faces and listen...

Last night (and this morning, as it happens) the train was full of youths with rucksacks and wellies, Mark. It was jammed with youngsters sporting pack-a-macs and sleeping bags. It was crammed with kids buzzing on outdoor living and the potency of cheap music. They were all going to Reading, Sue! They were all going to gather in a field and listen to loud music and drink lager and try to get off with each and catch hypothermia and claim it was the best weekend of their lives. They were going to the Reading Festival!

An aside: I used to write the official programme for the Reading Festival, Sue. Did you know that? Back in my freelancing days, back when I was hacking and wheezing my way through Grub Street, back when I was a literary gun for hire. I wrote the official programme for the Reading Festival for three or four years.

And you know what? (I shouldn't be telling you this, really Sue... but just between us communicators, us happy conspirators) Here's the funny thing: I would write about these bands - breathless, adjective-riddled exhortations to their importance, their greatness, their fundamental must-see-ness - and I hadn't even heard of half of them. I know! Cheeky, eh! I would drop phrases like "soaring guitars", "driving rhythms" and "cascading waterfalls of sonic brilliance" as standard... without really knowing how the songs went.

Why? Because that's what the kids wanted to hear, that's why. I gave them what they asked for, regardless of the truth of the situation. How's that for communicating, Sue? How's that square with your experiences as Communications Director for First Great Western trains?

Anyway. The Reading Festival. Or more specifically, the young flibbertigibbets attending. Here's the thing, Mark - those kids, with their braided hair and their wellies and their tattoos - especially their tattoos, Sue - they represent something fundamental about the history of the British Isles. They do, dude! Like, SRSLY!*

Those tattooed teens - they are literally living representations of the very meaning of being British. (I know it's not got much to do with trains, but you owe me 17 minutes, so I'm going to tell you anyway.) And here's why...

So. Picture the scene. It's the year AD43, it's raining, and the Roman Legions, having defeated Napoleon and conquered Gaul, pitch up on the shores of Blighty. What do they see? Savages, Mark! Painted savages! Hordes of angry locals who had inked themselves blue and black in order to appear more intimidating to the invading armies. I dare say it fair gave the Emperor Claudius the willies, Sue! And who could blame him? Not me! Not you either, I'll warrant!

But that's what we did back then: we coloured ourselves, we patterned our skin, in order to appear fiercer and more frightening. We totally got tattoos, Sue.

So much so that those Romans gave us a name. They called us the Pretani. It means "painted people". Pretani. Pretani. And if you were one of the Pretani, you were... Pretanish. Prettanic. Say it quickly, Sue. Prettanic. Prettanic. Britannic. Britannic! You got it!

Britannic, British, Britain - it all comes from Pretani. Our whole nation, this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle... is named after a bunch of tattooed hoodlums trying to frighten the Roman authorities.

We are the Pretani! We are the painted people! We are named after first century hoodies!

And those tattooed kids currently drowning in the mud of the Reading Festival, looking forward to hearing their cascading waterfalls of sonic brilliance... they are the heirs, the descendants, the modern incarnation of the original, pre-Roman, British nation! Every time a sulky teen gets inked, Sue, he's tapping into major historical heritage. These kids... they are the painted people! The Pretani!

It's even more of a mind-blower than the sloth story, isn't it? It's the sort of thing that makes you reassess what's what, right?

What do you think, Mark? Sue?

Is it enough to make you jack in this whole train management lark (it's not exactly going brilliantly anyway) and take up an Open Uni course in Ancient History? Is it enough to motivate you to finally knock Communications on the head and open up a tattoo parlour of your own, Sue?

Let's do it! Let's get tattoos! Let's get Prettanic!


Or we could just carry on as we always do. We could just let stuff happen to us, as usual. We could just sit in our delayed trains and pity the poor tattooed lambs, as they struggle through the mess and the mud with only debt and delays and the rest of their lives to look forward to. We could do that instead.

What do you think?

Au revoir!


*That's how they talk, Sue. They eschew vowels. I don't know why.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

23 August 2011. Letter 21

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 23/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 15 minutes.

Yo Mark! How do you do, Sue? What's happening today? There's a bright golden haze on the meadow! The corn is as high as an elephant's eye! Oh, Sue! What a beautiful morning! It almost makes me want to sing!

Actually, before I continue, I should confess. I'm not singing. I have no idea what the morning's like. I'm writing this on the train on Tuesday evening: I'm writing this the evening before I'm sending it to you. I'm writing this about this morning's train - or yesterday morning's train, by the time you receive it.

Does that make sense? I do hope so. Time can be such a tricky concept, can't it?

But two delays in two subsequent trips mean I have to keep at it in order not to fall behind. I wouldn't want my letters to you to get congested, would I? I wouldn't want to create knock-on problems for further letters. That wouldn't do at all! Letting one letter delay all subsequent further letters would be amateurish and shoddy of me. It would display poor planning and execution.

Discipline, Mark. Duty, Sue. We must apply ourselves with all the diligence we can muster. In calm waters, every ship has a good captain - Napoleon said that. It's when things get choppy that a captain's true worth is tested.

Ah, Napoleon, eh, Mark? Not as green as he was cabbage looking. And whatever else you want to say about the garlic-loving old saucisson, he knew a thing or two about captaincy. Though not, admittedly, of ships.

So, to the business in hand. Les affaires dans le hand, as Old Boney would have it. Monday night, as we know, was a bit of a debacle (or "debacle" in French). And so there I sat, on Tuesday morning (this morning as I write, yesterday morning as you read), tap-tap-tippity-tapping into my telephone, composing yesterday's missive, telling you all about it; there I sat, agonising over every semi-colon and sub-clause, worrying myself silly over each conjugated verb and compounded predication... when I suddenly noticed something. The train, Mark! The train wasn't moving!


Oh, Mark. Ahh, Sue. What are we to do? I thought we'd been through all this. I thought we were working towards resolving these issues?

What was the reason this time? What was the excuse? Congestion? Knock-on delays? A fault with a door? A malfunctioning flux capacitor? A rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum? Has your big end gone?

And - if we're being honest - does it actually matter what it was? Or what reason you give me? The bottom line's the same, after all. The bottom line - that I was forced to spend a pointless 15 minutes eyeing up the unfriendly areas around Slough - doesn't change, no matter what today's reason was. In the end is my beginning, innit.

But let's humour you. Tell me, mes petites Gauloises, what was the reason this time? (Or last time? I still haven't heard. Sue, you might wanna get on that.) And does it matter what you tell me what it was?

After all: it's all so much rhubarb, really, without action to make sure it doesn't happen again. Apologies are rhubarb, I mean. Aren't they, Mark?

What do you think, Sue? You're the Communications Director. You're the go-to gal for all things communication-related. Is an apology without action an essentially worthless gesture? Do words without deeds actually mean anything... or is it all just hot air? Is talk cheap, as Napoleon famously asked at the battle of Agincourt? (Or rather, le talk - est c'est n'est pas cher?)

It's a poser, isn't it?

I'll make it more simple. What I guess I'm asking is: heartfelt though your apologies are, and lovely as it is to receive so many of them... is that all they are? Words? Or are you backing them up with what I believe is called "affirmative action"? To wit: is anything actually being done?

Good lord! I may have actually asked a serious question!

Au revoir!


PS - Oh, you know what else Napoleon did? He made the trains run on time. Oh yes he did! Well, not the actual trains. I know there were technically no actual trains back then, but, y'know, he made the trains run on time! Metaphorically. He made the horses and stuff run on time. The wagons. Les wagonnes. He made les wagonnes run on time! It's what he's most famous for, right?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

22 August 2011. Letter 20

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.03 FGW service from Paddington to Plymouth, 22/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 15 minutes.

Marky Mark! Siouxsie Sue! (You guys should form a supergroup! A kind of proto-goth/punk meets jock-rap/pop hybrid. You can't have names like that and not do something musical with them...)

How's life treating you? Wine and roses, I hope? Whiskers on kittens and, er, what was it, bright copper kettles? You get the idea, anyway.

Today's letter is going to need a little explanation. Some clarification. You'll observe from the line above that I caught the Plymouth train, last night. Mark, Sue: I didn't go to Plymouth last night. (Why would I want to go to Plymouth? What is there in Plymouth anyway? Apart from Plymouth Hoe, I mean. And the National Marine Aquarium. And the National Armada memorial, the Mayflower Steps, Crownhill Fort and Smeaton's Tower. And of course Home Park, stamping ground of Plymouth Argyle Football Club and a veritable am-dram venue of dreams. But apart from that, really, what is there in Plymouth for a boy like me? Nothing, Mark. Zip. Nada. Rien, nul, zero.)

So I didn't go to Plymouth.

What I did do, was go to Reading. (Again.) What I did do, was try to be clever.

Now I know what you're going to say. You're going to say exactly what Mr Moynihan, my old head of Sixth Form and as fine a chap as one might ever encounter, said.* He said: "You're clever Dominic, but you're not as clever as you think you are. And if your cleverness doesn't get you in trouble, your lack of cleverness will." Pretty deep, eh? He was a deep guy.

And guess what? He was right, too! It's only taken about 20 years, but bless me if the old feller wasn't proved on the money in the end! Here's how, Mark: listen closely, it's a properly fascinating tale. And we've got 15 minutes to waste together in the telling...

So. Last night, having just missed the 18.51 (one word, Mark: tourists. Actually, eight words: tourists standing still in front of ticket barriers. And escalators. Ten words, then. But pretty annoying all the same) I looked at the timetables, I did a few quick mental calculations, I weighed up the options, balanced the probabilities, did the maths, crossed the 'i's and dotted the 't's and made what I thought was a clever decision.

I decided (you might want to take notes, Sue) to hop on the 19.03 to Plymouth, jump out at Reading at exactly the allotted time it was due to arrive there (according to your timetable) of 19.32... and then, after a merry skip through the subway to Platform 7, leap gaily onto the 19.41 to Birmingham New Street, due in to Oxford at 20.05!

Brilliant! And, with the bonus of having to only endure a First Great Western train for half my journey home.

Oh, Mark, can you imagine the sheer scale of self-congratulation that was happening in my tiny mind last night? Can you? I all-but-swaggered on to that train, so confident was I that I'd finally cracked the system. After all, with nine minutes to spare at Reading, I was assured of making that connection, right? Right?


Mark, I blame myself. I was obviously too clever. Or not clever enough. Or not as clever as I thought I was. Or some horrid Mr Moynihan-vindicating combination of the three. Of course I should have guessed that the train would not arrive at Reading at the time it was supposed to! Of course I should have known that nine minutes grace would not suffice! I felt so stupid, Sue! I felt so intellectually weak and mentally worthless!

I stepped off that train at Reading a broken man, Mark. And then I waited 15 minutes or so for the next fast train to Oxford. And instead of arriving energised and optimistic into the city of dreaming spires at a credible 20.05, I trundled in weary and dreary at 20.20. A victim of my own half-cocked attempts at cleverness.

You know what happened? I flew too close to the sun, Sue. I got my wings all melted off. I'm like Icarus. I'm exactly like Icarus.

So how did I recover? How does one bounce back from a thing like that?

All I can say is... thank the Lord for Celebrity Big Brother! I got the missus to tune the television to Channel 5 and all was well with the world again! Do you watch, Sue? Are you addicted? Oh, you should! It's marvellously energising. It's a tonic!

Why, if it wasn't for the hilarious antics of Jedward and Sally Bercow, if it weren't for the razor-sharp satire of Kerry Katona and that bloke who was once in Corrie but might now be in Waterloo Road but nobody's really sure, then I would have gone to bed with all my previous intellectual confidence shot.

I say it again, Sue! Thank the lord for Frank Endemol (or whatever his name is)!

What do you think, Mark? Are you in love with the antics of adorable Essex girl Amy Childs? Do the ramblings of American Pie-Eyed actress Tara Reid give you hope for humanity? Will the non-nonsense wit of celebrity photographer (or photographer of celebrities) Darren Lyons renew all our flagging intellects?

If there's one thing the Celebrity Big Brother house is teaching me, Mark, it is that no matter how stupid I am, or how stupid I do, I'm never going to be as stupid as some. And that, my learned friends, is a beautiful lesson to learn, is it not?

It almost gives me hope!

Au revoir!


* Was that a split infinitive, Sue? Did I boldly split where no infinitive has been split before? I figure, you're the Communications Director, you're the one who's going to know, of the three of us, best, when you see a split infinitive...

ps - Oh, before I forget. I write this on a train in the morning that's currently going nowhere near Slough. I mean, it's going nowhere... and we're near Slough. Not that it's going nowhere near Slough. Either way: expect another letter later. Won't that be a treat?

Sue speaks. Listen up.

Dear Dom

Thanks for your emails. We have not done so well this week, I agree, and I
am sorry.

On Wednesday our 08:06 service was late due to congestion on the rail
network and on Thursday it was late due to an earlier train having a fault
with one of its doors. Please accept my apologies.

I entirely understand your frustration with recent performance,
particularly on top of the Government's announcement about an RPI+3%
increase on regulated fares.

I explained earlier in the week that the extra money generated will be
going direct to Government, not to us, although this doesn't mean we will
be focusing any less on working to provide you with a punctual and reliable
Please do not feel your emails are annoying. Both Mark and I are happy to
correspond with you, although of course we would much rather all our trains
ran to time.

Enjoy your weekend.
Best wishes

Thursday, 18 August 2011

18 August 2011. Letter 19

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 18/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: nine minutes.

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Dearie, dearie, me. Mark. Sue. Whatever are we to do? Three days, three delays. What's going on? What's occurring? What the blue blazes are you chaps playing at?

And all in the week that we find out about our fares increases, too! Oh my days! I'm no huge Alastair Campbell or anything, Mark (I'm not even a small Alastair Campbell. I'm not even Sol Campbell. I'm not even Naomi Campbell) but even I can see that this was probably not the week in which you wanted your service to deteriorate even further. You don't need a doctor to diagnose that spin, Sue. You need... actually, what do you need? Competence, maybe? Or a conscience.

These things, and so much more, have been on my mind, Mark, in the 24 hours since last I wrote to you. Yes, yes, I know you've been lording it up in the old Costas, Mark, conga-ing the days away and quaffing pina coladas through the balmy vay-cay nights... but back here in Blighty, it's all going Pete Tong.

Mark: I'm not ashamed to say that Sue and I have been in a proper pickle about it. We've been fretting, fixating. We've been frustrated and befuddled over just what we're going to do with this whole situation. What are we going to do? How can we fix this?

I'm just a kid with a crazy dream and she's just a girl with a gift for communication... but together we wanna make this work, you know what I mean? We want to make First Great Western first again! Great again! (We kind of figure the Western bit is covered already.) And if we can't do that... well then we want to at least make some of the trains run on time!

And you know what people keep telling me? They keep saying it's going to take money. My money. (Not your money - your money's fine, your money's safe.) What do you think?

Oh, Mark! I knew you'd say that! You think it's going to take my money to sort it out too! You want my folding. You need my lucre - a lot of it, and as filthy as it comes. Well... you've got it. It's yours. You've got eight per cent more from now on, to add to the nine per cent more I gave you last year. (Thank me later. No really: thank me later. But do thank me.)

So: there's your wonga. There's your wedge. Now go sort it all out. Make the trains run on time, Mark. Get communicating, Sue. Don't let my hard-earned go to waste.

Do I sound a little obsessed with this topic? I am sorry: I'll drop it now. I'll talk about something else. (After all, there's plenty of time. I've got nine minutes of your time to waste today, Mark. Nine minutes you owe me after this morning's delay.) But I'm afraid it is something of a fault of mine (one of my few visible faults, Sue! How many did you spot, that time we met, that day we caught the train? How many of my peccadilloes did you pick up on?) - it is a fault, this habit I have of banging on and on about something until it's resolved.

Perhaps that's why I became a journalist, Sue. Journalism is, after all, one of the few professions where being an obsessive pedant and self-aggrandising smartypants is seen as a thoroughly good thing. It's one of the few careers where that kind of behaviour is encouraged.

How about train company management, Mark? What kind of qualifications do you need to get into that game? How about directing communications, Sue? What's the entry-level requirements for that kind of gig?

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, my faults. My (mostly hidden, but occasionally glaring) faults. Generosity is one. Banging on about stuff another. And, er, something else. Oh yes! Forgetfulness!*

You know what someone once said to me, Mark? He said that my problem was that I exaggerated everything.

The cheek of it! Do you want to know what I said right back to him? I said that was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard in my whole life. I said that was the most absurd thing anyone had ever said about anything ever. I said that I had never in fact exaggerated once in my whole life. I told him he was the biggest fool on the face of the earth.

But I'm being rude, talking about myself like this. What do you think, Mark? What's your interpretation, Sue? Am I too generous? Do I bang on too much? Am I becoming obsessed? Am I beginning to grate on you, like an itch, like a dripping tap, like a papercut? Are these letters, to be frank, becoming a pain in the proverbial? Am I getting right on your Hamptons?

It's awful when that happens, isn't it? When there's this daily irritation, this persistent, unnecessary annoyance in your life, this one little thing that every single day seems designed to wind you up? It so is! Isn't it Mark? Sue?

Au revoir!


*That was a joke, Sue. I'm not really forgetful. I'm like an elephant in that respect. Literally.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

17 August 2011. Letter 18

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 17/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: six minutes.

Mark! Sue! Hey you! How's things today? I expect you're all a little woolly-headed, bleary-eyed and green around the gills this morning, eh? I bet you're all feeling it a bit... what with the inevitable celebrations yesterday's news must have brought. Did the party go on long into the night? Was the disco still going strong into the early hours?

Ooh, I'll bet it did - after all, somehow you've managed to pull off the trick of getting your own customers (the people to who you're supposed to be providing a service) to pay for improvements to your company! Leaving your profits undented! You win both ends up!

Mark, Sue: you have my congratulations - it's quite a move.

It's despicable, of course. It's a disgrace. A scandal. It's outrageous that you should even be thinking of raising the prices of your fares by (at least) three per cent above the rate of inflation at a time when your service is actually being held up as an example of how not to run a train company... It disgusts me, of course it does. But I can't help admiring the audacity of it. No wonder you all had a drink last night. You must be very proud of yourselves.

What's that you say, Sue? How am I feeling today? Lovely of you to ask! I feel, as John Lennon warbled, fine. Only delayed by six minutes this morning, so, y'know, mustn't grumble. And a lovely thing did happen on the train today, as we paused for breath near Didcot, as we took a moment to collect ourselves before the last limp into that station... a magical thing, happened, Sue! I saw a kite!

Not that kind of kite, silly! Not the Mary Poppins kind, the "up to the highest height" kind. I mean a Red Kite. A bird of prey! It was massive! It hovered above the corn fields, it paused... and hovered... and paused... and then... BAM! Dropped like a stone! Whoosh! Up it came with something in its claws and flapped hugely away. Mark! It was amazing! Worth six minutes of anyone's time.

Thankyou Mark. Well done, Sue. If you'd been running an efficient service I'd never have seen that kite. If you'd been doing your jobs properly, I'd have missed out on it all. Nature in the raw! I owe you one.

And you know what else? It also reminded me of a marvelous story I once heard. A story I'm going to have to incorporate into the novel I'm one day going to write (ah! The novel! Wait for another big delay, Mark, and I'll fill you right in on the novel. It's a cracker. A real page-turner. It's unputdownable!).

In fact, thinking about it, it's the kind of story one could hinge a whole novel around. It's a metaphor, Sue. It's what I believe they call a "conceit" in the old inky-fingered game.

So here it is. Here's my conceit.

You know the sloth, Mark? Big, lazy, south American beast. Lives in the jungle. Got a reputation for idleness. Got a rap for bumming around. Even has a Deadly Sin named after it. (That's harsh, isn't it?) Of course you know the sloth. But did you know how sloths die? What they die of?

They die of starvation, Mark. Sloths - they get up on their branch, they eat all the leaves around them... and then, after a bit, they get hungry, and look around for some more leaves to eat. And what do they do? They move, of course, they eat some more.

Except that after a few years of this, the average sloth gets to the point where he looks around, sees no leaves to eat within handy reaching distance and thinks... ah, screw it. Can't be bothered. Can't be bothered moving.

And that's how they die! They die of starvation. They die because they can't even be bothered eating, if eating means moving, ooh, a few feet along a branch. They would rather sit there and slowly starve to death than muster up the energy to shuffle a couple of steps to their left.

Isn't that amazing Mark? Isn't it awesome? Such dedication! Such clarity of purpose!

That's not laziness, Mark. That ain't indolence, Sue. Sloths have got a bad write-up on that front. That's something else entirely. That's extraordinary single-minded belief: that's what that is. To be so committed to your own bloody-mindedness that you're prepared to starve to death for it! It's totally Nietzschean!

One word, amigos: wow. When I think sloths, I think: "wow".

What do you think? Do you think "wow"? Do you think they'd make a good metaphor? Could I hinge a whole novel around that conceit? I'd sure welcome your feedback!

Au revoir!


ps - you may have noticed that this letter is longer than it really should be for a six minute delay. Let's call it about three percent longer than the rate of inflation, shall we?

Sue communicates! Again!

Dear Dom

Thank for your email. I am sorry we delayed you on Monday evening.

An earlier train was late leaving the depot, which caused some congestion and as a result our 19:22 was held up at Reading.

I appreciate accuracy is important to you and it is equally important to us. Our train running data is gathered electronically, direct from points on the track, which pick up the time the train passes. It is then compared to the advertised timetable and logged. It is this log that we use to find out the cause of any delay you have experienced. If it gives a recorded arrival time of 20:20, for example, its actual arrival time could have been between 20:20:00 and 20:20:59. I hope this explains any slight differences noticed but it's absolutely never been our intention to challenge or dispute the extent you've been delayed, in any way.
I am also pleased to have the chance to explain where we stand in regard to the recent government announcement regarding January's fares increase, which changes the formula the government uses to calculate average regulated fare rises from RPI+1per cent to RPI+3per cent.

While we can think of many things that we would like to spend the extra money on, the extra revenue generated is actually returned direct to the Government. This was a commitment set by them as part of our Franchise agreement and is the same for all UK train operators.

Once again, I am sorry we delayed you on Monday.

Kind regards

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

15 August 2011. Letter 17

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 15/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 11 minutes.

Buenos dias amigos! Donde esta? (That's Spanish, that is, Sue - I'm trying to keep things in a holiday mood for Mark. A little of the local lingo to make him feel abroad at home. Or at home abroad. A touch of the old "dos cerveza and a full English" if you know what I mean. It's good to make the effort. Broadens the mind, don't you find?)

Hey! No need to ask how you two are today! Today is a good day for all you funsters at First Great Western! You're getting your above-inflation price rises. Well done! You must be very excited - all that extra cash to splash out, all that wonga to burn! What are you going to blow it on, Mark? A shiny new engine shed? A sparkling state-of-the-art fleet of locomotives? Some working toilets on the trains you've already got?

The possibilities are endless. And coming so soon after your last above-inflation price rise, too! Truly: it's the gift that just keeps giving. Your passengers, I mean. Your customers. We're the gifts who just keep giving.

So anyway - you're welcome. Thank me properly another time. And in the meantime, I'd like to say thanks to you, Sue. Thankyou for your most recent letter. It was, as ever, beautifully communicated. Pithy, precise, pointed. Perfectly formed. A prose poem of communication!

I do feel compelled, however, in the interests of accuracy, to point out that it was also somewhat inaccurate. I hate to quibble over a mere 60 seconds (although as we have already discovered, according to the Barlow Standard, that is exactly the time in which it takes to fall in love) - but, well, I'm going to. That train was five minutes late, not four. I say tomato, you say, oh, I dunno, points failure, or somesuch.

I've been pondering this, Sue. I take my timings from the clocks at the station - I get off the train, I look at the clock, I know how late I am. (I've been getting quite pernickity about it too. Quite nerdy. Maybe it's a boy thing - is it a boy thing, Sue? Are all boys number-obsessed nerds? I don't think so. I think only about 87 per cent of boys are number-obsessed nerds. Maybe 88 per cent at most.)

So where do your timings come from? Do you time the train's arrival by when it stops? Like everyone else in the world? Or do you take your inspiration from athletics, and consider the (metaphorical) tape broken the moment the tip of the train's nose crosses the leading edge of the platform? I would be genuinely fascinated to find out.

Am I beginning to sound a little obsessed, Sue? Is your train company taking over my life, Mark? The truth is that I've had plenty of time to mull these things over. Last night, for example, I had eleven extra minutes in my otherwise stimulating and event-filled day, to think about the ineptitude of the service you provide. Eleven minutes during which I gazed out blank-eyed and bored over the rainy rooftops of Reading.

Have you ever been to Reading, Mark? Of course you have! It's the Rome of Middle England! All railroads lead to Reading! Reading, the city of visible history, where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar! Of course you've been to Reading!

The things is: I like Reading too. It's alright, is Reading! But, and intending no offence to the good citizens of that town, it doesn't look so stimulating on a wet Monday night in mid-August. Not when you're standing on one of your chronically-overcrowded trains. Not when you're paying through the nose for the privilege. Not when you've just read in your evening paper that you're about to be asked to pay even more in the future.

I'm afraid that in these circumstances, Sue, Reading doesn't really feel like the Rome of Middle England at all. It just feels like somewhere you want to pass through on your way home.

Still. Let's not get too down about things. You kids have got shopping trips to plan! I hope there's going to be money left over for a nice bonus or two for the boys (and girls, Sue! Mustn't forget the girls!) at the top. Lord knows you deserve it, right?

Au revoir!


Good Evans! A new reply from Ms Sue!

Dear Dom

Thanks for your email.

I too am disappointed the 08:06 service arrived into Paddington 4 minutes
late, especially after such a good run over the past few days. Please
accept my apologies.

A two minute delay loading bikes on an earlier service was the root cause
of the delay to your train. This had a knock on effect on the running of
others and the end result was congestion on the already very busy stretch
of line between Reading and Paddington at peak time.

It can only take a minute for delays to escalate, which is why it is so
important for us to get this right. We are focused on minimising delays at
stations and are working with our station teams to ensure customers with
bicycles know where to stand on the platform for loading them onto the

I hope you have a good weekend.

Kind regards

Thursday, 11 August 2011

11 August 2011. Letter 16.

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 11/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: five minutes.

Mark! Sue! Wake up! It's a beautiful morning! Not beautiful in the conventional sense, obviously, in the "bright, sunny, warm" sense. But, you know, it is morning, at least. It's the start of another day in England, and that's not a bad place to begin, is it?

Me and you and you too, Sue: we're young (ish), we're beautiful (ish), we're clever... what's not to celebrate? Let's get up and get at 'em! Let's go to work! Let's not be late for work... oh.

We were doing alright this week, too, weren't we, Mark? (Mark - I know you're on holiday, but I'm still including you here. It seems rude not to. And besides: you'll have your Blackberry, won't you? You'll still be connected. Even supine on a sunlounger, cradling a sangria or kicking back with a San Miguel, I don't doubt for a second that you'll still be getting service updates. I wouldn't expect less!)

As I was saying, we were doing okay this week. We hadn't had a delay for at least a couple of days, had we? I woke up this morning and despite the rain, despite the wind, despite the chill of Autumn in the air, I felt optimistic. I totally did! I felt like we'd turned a corner. Together. All of us, hand in hand in hand (I believe it's called a "crocodile", in pre-school parlance).

And to be fair Mark, to give you your dues, Sue, the delay was only five minutes this morning. It wasn't anything spectacular. It wasn't much to shout about.

But, as Take That so memorably and effectively pointed out, it only takes a minute, Sue, to fall in love. And according to what we shall henceforth refer to as The Barlow Standard, that means that those seemingly-unremarkable 300 seconds could conceivably have resulted in a boy like myself falling in love five times.

Five times! If love is an endless afternoon (and it is, Sue! Oh! It is!) then falling in love five times on one train journey... why that's an eternity of bliss! I cast my eyes around that train carriage, Mark: as we dawdled and dallied, I scoped out and sized up my new potential sweethearts. Five of them! A fistful of loving!

Sadly, Sue, I have to report that I didn't fall in love. Not once. In fact, from my cursory inspection at least, most of the love-interest candidates on the train this morning would have had to fall into the "personality over looks" camp.

Don't get me wrong - that's (kind of) fine. I'm no great swaggering Clooney myself, Sue, as you well know. But I kind of figure that if I'm going to subscribe to The Barlow Standard and fall in love with five girls on one train journey, I'd like at least, say, three of them to be lookers. That sounds fair, doesn't it?

Alas, another disappointment. And the day started so well!

Still - there's always tomorrow, right? And who knows how many minutes you'll be granting me to fall in love with then? I can hardly wait!

Au revoir!


Another reply from Ms Sue Evans!

She's more concise than Mark, that's for sure. More economic in her communicating style...

Dear Dom

Thanks for your email this morning.

Your delay last night was caused by the failure of Sandy Lane level crossing between Oxford and Banbury, which caused congestion in the area. The barriers were stuck in a lowered position, but cars were driving around them so, as you can imagine, our priority was to keep customers safe.

It's really not unreasonable for you to expect us to run to time and running a right time railway is exactly what we wish to achieve. Unfortunately, problems like this do crop up and I'm sorry about the effect this had on your journey.

I too hope things calm down in London tonight. It's a very sad and difficult situation, and I hope you stay safe.

Kind regards

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

8 August 2011. Letter 15

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 8/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: eight minutes.

Sue! Hello! It's been... too long. It's so lovely to hear from you again! So Mark has decided to take a (no-doubt) well-earned break. A period of rest and recuperation. A recharging of the batteries. Good! Well done! Everyone deserves a holiday - and goodness knows he seems to have timed it well. I wouldn't mind skipping out of this country for a while just now too. Would that I could.

First Great Western trains will miss him, Sue. I will miss him. I'm sure you'll miss him. But - every cloud and all that: and the railway's loss would seem to be our gain. I'm looking forward to entering a new phase in our relationship, Sue: we're going to become pen pals! I shall be on my best behaviour!

So, to business. Last night... what can we say about last night? The less the better, probably. It was not a good night for the country, was it, Sue? My delayed train journey home seems rather trivial in comparison to the looting of our capital city. My lost eight minutes... what is it compared to the flames above Croydon and Enfield, the smashed glass of Clapham and Ealing, the broken bricks and blood of Hackney and Lewisham?

My delay: it's trivial and pointless and unimportant in that context, Sue. Of course it is. That was real and awful and painful and sad and angry... and I'm just another poor sap shelling out for shoddy service, day in, day out.

Perhaps I should learn my place, eh? Perhaps I should just learn to take my medicine like a man. Perhaps I should just accept that paying over the odds for a second-rate service is how things have to be. Perhaps every time my train is delayed by eight minutes, I should be relieved it's not delayed by nine minutes. Or 10, 20, 30 minutes. Perhaps I should be congratulating you it's not worse. What do you think? Am I ungrateful, Sue?

Perhaps I am. Perhaps I'm being hideously selfish, expecting your company to provide what I pay you for.

But on the other hand... what can I do? I'm committed now, Sue! I'm in too deep! Once I began to believe in the crazy idea that you should run your trains according to your timetables, I crossed a line. And I can't cross back, Sue! I can't skip a letter every time something awful happens, can I? There's a principle to uphold!

The fact is, for better or worse, we've gone and created ourselves an ideal, Sue. A dream of a better tomorrow. A tomorrow in which you do what I pay you to do. Call me deluded, call me naive, call me a hopeless romantic... but we have to stay firm, Sue! We have to stay strong and stick to our course! There must be no Plan B!

And the fact is... as from last night, when my train home slowed and shuddered and shivered to a stop by the cooling towers of Didcot (basking in the gold and bronze of another August sunset), you owe me a further eight minutes, Sue.

There were only eight minutes, admittedly, but they were my eight minutes. They weren't yours to take.

Anyway. Much as I'd love to keep chatting, time flies and I must get on. Let's hope things calm down tonight. Sincerely. But then I'm sure it will all be fine... why, I read only this morning that Dave and Boris have flown back from their hols especially early to take control of the commotion.

We can all relax, Sue: the Eton boys are here to sort it all out! I'm convinced that now the chaps from the Bullingdon Club have returned to the country, all those disaffected oiks will see sense and start behaving themselves again.

Let's just hope Mark doesn't feel the need to do the same to sort out the mess his company is in, eh?

Au revoir!


A reply from Sue! Be still, my beating heart!

Dear Dom

Mark is away for ten days, so has asked me to respond to you in his

I am so sorry for the delay you encountered last Thursday evening on our
19:22 to Oxford. This was due to an earlier problem, where a 'hot axle box
detector' (which is a piece of equipment set on the track side) was
triggered by a fault on a freight train, near Didcot Parkway.

Services came to a stand while the situation was investigated. This didn't
take long to clear, but long enough to cause a few minutes delay to a
number of trains, and the 19:22 was one of those affected.

Frequent delays, regardless of how long, or the cause, will of course test
our customers patience. We don't want this any more than you do.

We discussed some of the challenges we face when we met last week, but are
determined to perform as well as you have every right to expect.

I hope you have better journeys this week.

Best wishes

Friday, 5 August 2011

4 August 2011. Letter 14

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 4/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: six minutes

Sshhh... listen. Can you hear that? Cock an ear, Mark. Cup your shell-like, Sue. Lean in. Closer. Listen...

Can you hear it?




Do you know what it is? That drip, drip, drip... it's the sound of the Colorado river, Mark. Way back in the day. Back when it was a stream, a trickle in the Arizona desert. Back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth! (Probably.) That, mes petites geologists, is the sound of the drip that would forge the Grand Canyon. Behold! Look upon this drip, ye mighty, and despair!

(You know what else this drip is? It's a metaphor, Sue: another metaphor! Me and my metaphors! I love 'em, Sue! I'd like to think my old English teacher Mr Berry would be proud of all these metaphors I keep tossing your way. And not metaphorically proud, either. Actually proud. Proud as (metaphorical) punch! He was ace, Mr Berry. Actually ace. He was the man who gave me a love of language: he's the one who planted the, er, acorn that would grow into the great metaphorical oak of my career in journalism. You can lay the blame (or credit) for all my metaphors at the metaphorical feet of Mr Berry!)

Anyway. That drip... the Grand Canyon, Mark, greatest, grandest, grooviest (see what I did there!) canyon of them all: it wasn't always so. That land used to be flat. Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, there was no canyon, grand or otherwise. But the drip, drip, drip... it wore away at the desert floor, it scored and furrowed and burrowed into the ground - until it created the Grand Canyon. It took a while, but it did it.

Amazing, isn't it, what a steady accumulation of little drips can produce?

Last night my train home was delayed by six minutes, Mark. I know, I know, it's not a glamorous delay, it's not one of your all-singing, all-dancing cancellations, one of your Hollywood half-hour jobs... it wasn't even one of your common-or-garden 11 minute standards. But it is another delay, Sue. It's another relentless drip in the relentless stream of drips that wears away at your customers, day-in, day-out.

It wears us away, it wears us down, it wears us out, Mark.

But on a positive note: your last letter was lovely! Thankyou! Who knew refunds were available like that! And compensation for unexpected coach travel! Alright! Ring the bell, Mark, I'm on the bus! I mean, train!

Au revoir!


A new reply from Mark! And he's got compensation on his mind!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email and I am very sorry for the disruption to our services from Oxford yesterday morning. It wasn't good enough.

Our 05:02 service from Worcester came to a stand at Oxford with a brake problem (a full investigation is underway). This effectively blocked the line and led to the three cancellations. Road transport was arranged (expected to be in place by 08:00) but I appreciate why you chose to leave to find alternative means of getting yourself to London.

I have no hesitation in offering to refund the coach fare for you along with the proportional daily rate of your ticket (£10.00). We'll need confirmation of your address so if you can send this to Dani in our Customer Relations team (, she will make the necessary arrangements.

I was also interested in your opinion of the coach however we would much prefer you could rely on our service to get you to and from London.

I appreciate the impression you have been left with of the reliability of our fleet, I accept there have been too many issues in recent weeks and I have put in place a plan to make effective modifications to the fleet to improve matters. I have also challenged my team to address any mechanical issues that do arise in a quicker and more efficient way.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Thursday, 4 August 2011

4 August 2012. Letter 13

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 07.52 / 07.56 / 08.06 FGW services from Oxford to Paddington , 4/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: err...

Word up, homeys! What's shakin'?

I'll be straight with you from the start Mark, I'll level with you from the get-go, Sue: I don't know how to handle this one.

The thing is: I'm in a state, a tizz, a quandary. I'm in a ball of confusion. (What is a ball of confusion anyway? I mean, obviously it's a Temptations song from 1970 - later covered by Tina Turner and featuring in the excellent film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit... but, I mean, what actually is a ball of confusion? A ball? Of confusion? What the dickens were they on about?)

The thing is: I didn't even catch one of your trains this morning, Mark. Don't get me wrong: I tried, alright. I tried so hard, Sue! I turned up bright and breezy and eager and early, chomping at the bit like some super-keen, stud-ready thoroughbred... you should have seen me, Sue! I was ready, willing and able to catch one of your trains. But I couldn't!

I couldn't catch the 07.52 - because it was cancelled. So I stuck around for the 07.56 - that got cancelled too. When the 08.06 joined them in the by-now oh-so-fashionable cancelled club, I walked, Mark. I turned around and walked out of there, all the way to the bus station, where I paid a further £15 and caught a coach to London.

Don't get me wrong. Obviously I didn't have to catch a coach. I didn't have to pay my extra £15 to get to London today. I could have stuck it out and stuck around. A nice man at the station did tell me things were likely to get moving by about 8.30... but he couldn't promise. (I suspect there was a communications breakdown somewhere, Sue. What do you think?) But the thing is Mark, even if he was right, the platform was already full of (at least) three trains' worth of passengers by that time anyway. The chance of getting a seat would be less than zero. To be honest, I didn't rate my chances of even getting on the thing at all. If it came at all.

So I left. I made like a banana and split. I made like a tornado and blew. I made like a Tom and cruised. I got me and up and got me out and got me on the coach instead.

And the coach is lovely and all - but it's a bit slow, Sue. Don't you find? It's a bit... prosaic. Where's the romance in a coach trip? Would Brief Encounter have been half so heartbreaking had it been set around Gloucester Green bus station and the Oxford Tube? I don't think we'll need to sit and weep through it together to know the answer to that one, will we, Sue? No. Thought not.

So anyway: I got the coach, and arrived to work about an hour and a half late. But the problem is, Mark: how does that square with my project? If the length of this email is to reflect the length of my delay, if I'm to waste a proportionate amount of your time (as you have wasted mine), then what do I do about today's sorry situation?

It's a test case is what it is, Mark! It's - as our bewigged chums in the legal profession prefer to put it - a precedent. If, for example, I decide that a cancelled train is the equivalent of, say, 30 minutes delay, then that's how it'll have to be from now on. The precedent will be set.

But does that mean that three cancelled trains requires me to bang on for an hour and a half of your time? That would be literally insane! (Sorry, I've done it again, you're quite right, Sue. It wouldn't be literally insane at all. It might be a figurative illustration of insanity... but it wouldn't be literally insane.)

What was I saying? Oh yes. That would be literally insane!

I'm not going to bang on for an hour and a half today, Mark. Sue: I don't think I could manage it, if I'm being honest. I haven't got it in me to keep you stimulated for that long. So I'm going to devise a formula. A secret formula! An equation involving the relative differences between scheduled journey times for the train I should have got and the coach I did get, factoring in an integer representing the cancellation of trains (multiplied by three) and with a little bit added on for the walk from the train station to the bus station. And a little bit taken off for the slightly shorter tube journey at the other end.

Not bad, eh? And they said I'd never make it as a mathematician, Mark! They said that numbers weren't my bag! I won't bore you with the exact answer my formula delivers, Mark, but let's just say it's pretty long. Pretty long and pretty inconvenient for all concerned.

But we must get back to business.

What did happen this morning, Mark? The buzz in the station was that a train broke down. Could that be true? Again? How often does that happen, Mark? That trains break down, I mean? What's the lifespan of your average passenger train these days? How often do you replace them? And is that too many questions for one paragraph? Or is this too many? Or this?

I await the answers with breath firmly baited. Or bated. (Sue? Baited or bated?) And in the meantime, I'll leave you with a cheering thought. One ray of sunshine in an otherwise grey and overcast day.

I sat next to a lovely old American gentleman on my coach journey to London this morning, Mark. He was over for his holidays. He "did" the Lake District at the weekend, he "did" Oxford yesterday and he was "doing" London today and tomorrow. On Saturday he was off to France to "do" Paris. He was one of life's doers, Mark! I really liked him! I liked his energy! He was about 85 and he was "doing" London in two days before going off to "do" Paris. Europe was totally his lobster!

When I grow old I'd like to be like that, Mark. The doing bit/Europe being my lobster thing, I mean, obviously. Not the holidaying alone on a coach bit. When I grow old I'd like to be one of life's doers. How about you homeboys? Would you like to be doers someday too?

Au revoir!


A new reply from Mr Mark Hopwood!

Told you he was a gentleman!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email.

It was good to meet you yesterday, and for Sue and I to be able to talk to you about some of the challenges we face. We hope you enjoyed, or will enjoy - as you mentioned it would be a late one with your Sun magazine deadline last night - a good birthday celebration.

As you know, when we travelled together on the 0806 from Oxford yesterday, the train left on time. Subsequently, our service was held up by a signal problem at Southall, arriving into Paddington 9 minutes behind schedule. There was also a problem with the signalling system that controls the route into Paddington. Network Rail informed us of these problems during the morning peak and their engineers worked very hard throughout the morning to keep delays to an absolute minimum.

This delay highlights one of the issues we discussed yesterday, the Oxford to London route is an intensively used section of the network, which we share with freight and other train operators' services. Any problem, such as the signalling, has a knock on effect resulting in some of the delays you have recently experienced. I mentioned the upcoming re-doubling of the Cotswolds line. This won't be complete for another 6 weeks, but the benefit will be improved punctuality for services on the route and fewer delays for you. We have other projects in hand to achieve the improvements we both want to see.

Getting you to your destination on time is our priority. Sue and I will continue to work hard to achieve that with the First Great Western and Network Rail teams.

Best wishes

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

2 August 2011. Letter 12

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington , 2/8/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Dudes - we're radio stars! Better: as from tonight we're TV stars! And video, as we all know, killed the radio star. Buggles said that. He wasn't wrong. ("Ooh-we-oo-ooh!" I love that song!)

BBC Oxford, eh? How did we do? Do you think the good folks of Oxfordshire were educated, informed and entertained by us? Have we delivered value for their license fee? I do hope so. Value for money's important, right? It's what keeps companies on top. It's what makes companies worthwhile. It's what ensures customers come back for more. When they've got a choice, that is.

And, yes, it was lovely to meet you both. Truly. Mark: I like you. (Sue: I loved your saucy red dress, I loved that you gave me a birthday card (!), I loved the fact that you not only exist - those nagging rumours of the First Great Western Sue-Bot can finally be laid to rest - but that at one stage you even seemed to be flirting with me. You totally did, Sue! You wore a red dress and gave me a birthday card! I've built whole relationships on less! Right up until you mentioned your husband was in the Territorial Army, anyway. That might have signaled the end of the flirting.)

What was I saying? Oh yes: Mark, I like you. You're a gentleman. But, and this is the tragedy of our sorry situation, I'm afraid I still think you run a rubbish company. You've got a tough job to do... but it is your job to do it. I hand over my money, I want my service. Seriously: it's not a massive thing to ask is it?

I know! Let's do us another metaphor.

Let's say, for example, you and Sue went out for dinner one night. Let's say you went somewhere expensive. Let's say (for the sake of this metaphor at least) that you couldn't book a table, you had to pay in advance and once you arrived you weren't guaranteed a seat. I know, I know, it doesn't sound like a great restaurant, but it's the only one in town, ok? And let's say, once you got there, and were told you'd have to stand for your meal, next to the toilet... let's say you then waited for your food. And waited. And then when it finally came it didn't actually taste very nice and the restaurant manager blamed everything on, oh, I don't know, someone not mending the oven or something. And then he told you he was putting the price up in future.

"But you're the manager!" you'd cry. "It's your job to make sure the oven is mended! And that I'm served my food on time! And, in fact, that I can sit down to eat it! And that it tastes nice! What exactly am I paying for here? And what the blazes are you talking about, putting the price up? Has the whole world gone mad?"

And you know what, Mark: you'd be right to complain. It just wouldn't be good enough, would it?

So yes, it's a tough job: I don't doubt it. But, you know, that is your job. That is your job, Mark.

And so, anyway, after all the excitement this morning, what should happen? Clue: I caught a train...

That's right! Typically, ironically, the train I caught this morning, after our little flirt with the mass media and glimpse into the Empire-straddling magnificence of the British Broadcasting Corporation, hobbled into Paddington 10 minutes late.

I know! Mark: I know, man! Ironic? That's Morisette-grade irony, that is!

After all you'd told me about the improvements you were making, Mark. After all those smiles and that red dress, Sue. And then the very next train I get on is 10 minutes late! It's like... it's like... it's like 10,000 spoons Mark! When all I need is a knife! It's like... right, bear with me on this one: imagine I have a chardonnay, right, and there's this black fly, and - actually, never mind. I think we've established: it was ironic.

It's a point I may address, kids, when I'm on Radio Berkshire tomorrow morning. Or Radio Wiltshire after that. Are you coming? It would be lovely to see you again!

Au revoir!