Thursday, 2 February 2012

1 February 2012. Letter 81

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 21.20 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford 1/2/12. Amount of my day wasted: 45 minutes

Mark! Sue! Hey! Hey! You’re the Markee! People say you (and Sue) monkey around! But you’re too busy managing a failing train franchise to put anybody down!

Here you come, Mark: walking down the street. Waiting on the platform. Waiting, and waiting, and waiting on the platform. Waiting on that platform for what seems like forever sometimes, in the biting and bitter cold, shivering and shrivelling, frosting up and freezing over, chilled to the core, stamping your feet and blowing on your hands and staring uselessly, pointlessly, impotently at the electronic boards as they all say the same thing. Delayed. Delayed. Delayed.

Was that you last night, Mark? Was that you in Paddington station, in the icy cold and dark, at half-past nine on the first February evening of the year? No? Well it was me, Mark. It was me and a whole bunch of other people. And none of us were very happy about it either. Somebody had been monkeying around, Mark, and at half-past nine last night, as we stood and turned blue in the draughty concourse, nothing was moving in or out of Paddington station.

I was supposed to be home by 10.30 last night, Mark. (I’ll tell you why later, I’ve got plenty of time). I got home at 11.15. And that was your fault, Mark. As Managing Director of First Great Western, that was your fault.

I paid you a whole lot of money this month, Mark – nearly five hundred quid this month, Sue! – specifically and for the single purpose of getting me to work on time and getting me home on time. We had a deal! Here’s my five-ton, I said (under my breath, admittedly) as I punched in my numbers and shielded the screen from the rather iffy looking woman behind me (she was giving me funny looks, Sue! I think she might have been one of those identity thieves I’ve been reading so much about!), here’s my 500 nicker… now do your bit. I’ve kept my side of the bargain, I’ve even paid up front… now it’s your turn. Deliver on the promise.

And have you, Mark? Do you feel you’ve kept your side of the bargain? Do you feel you’re doing what I’m paying you to do? Do you really?

You do realise that I haven’t experienced a day without a delay this week? But last night, Mark: last night was the worst in a while. Last night was a classic, of its kind.

So here’s what happened. It’s going to take some time in the telling, it’s going to mean me wasting a whole chunk of your day today, so you may want to prepare yourself before you begin. You may want to take precautions. Mark: send one of those management trainee kids out for a bucket of coffee and a barrel of Hobnobs. Sue: get on the First Great Western Communications Intranet and put out an APB: “The Director of Communications will not be available to communicate for the next 45 minutes. Do not be alarmed. Normal communications will resume afterwards.”

Mark and Sue: pull up the comfortable armchairs. Stoke up the fire. Settle down, pull blankets over your legs and plump up cushions behind your heads. Fill your pipe, Mark. Replenish your snuff, Sue. Now does anybody need the toilet before we start? No? Are you sure? Because I don’t want to get going and then have to stop just because one of us needs to pay a visit to Mr or Madame Tinkle after all. Mark? Sue? Sure sure? Okay. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Wednesday nights are almost always late nights for me, Mark. Not for especially good reasons, not because Wednesday night is date night, or drinking night, or book club, or cinema club, or weather club (“Weather club?” I hear you ask, Sue. Sorry. No can tell. The first rule of weather club is you don’t talk about weather club. The second rule of weather club is no eating at your desk. The crumbs get everywhere!).

No! Wednesday nights are almost always late nights for me, Sue, because Wednesday nights are press nights. On Wednesday nights at the magazine I currently work for (but only till April, Mark! After that, who knows! After that my contract is up and I’m once again available to the highest bidder! Got any work going, Sue? Got a vacancy for a freelance communicator? If you’ve got the readies, I’ve got the goodies! And goodness knows you need someone to start communicating!) – on Wednesday nights we put the edition to bed. We sign off the proofs and send off the pages and rewrite the headlines and renose the features and reread the credits. We design the cover, Sue, we think up the coverlines. It’s exciting! Roll the presses!

But it also takes a while. For some reason, every week, it means staying after hours in the office to get it all done. And so Wednesday nights are almost always late nights for me.

Last night, as it turned out, wasn’t so bad (work-wise I mean). Last night I made it away from my desk and out of the door and into the petrified Wapping air by 8.40. I legged it to the tube, I sat on the tube, I streaked under London and across London, East to West, I made it to Paddington station by quarter past nine. Off the tube! Up the escalator! Through the barriers! Down the tunnel! Up the stairs! Across the concourse! Glance up at the boards to check which platform the 21.20 to Oxford will be departing from tonight, and…

Well, we know this bit already, don’t we? This is where we came in. Delayed, it said. And so did the one next to it. And the one next to that. Delayed, delayed, delayed. Nothing was moving, Mark. Everything was stopped, Sue.

And so I waited. We all waited. I pulled my new red woolly hat over my frostbitten ears, I stuck my hands deeper into my pockets, I stamped my feet and I counted the seconds.

Do you remember counting seconds, Mark? As a boy, I mean, measuring thunderstorms? Counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder in order to work out how far away the storm is, in order to work out if it’s headed your way or not? Were you taught to count it in elephants? I was. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants. It’s got a lovely rhythm to it, don’t you think? I still count in elephants, when I count seconds.

And you know what I thought last night, as I counted elephants in the cold and no trains moved in or out of Paddington station? I thought: what I should do is send Mark and Sue a letter comprised exclusively and wholly of counting in elephants. That would make my point wonderfully, I thought. After all: a five minute delay (for example) might not sound that impressive in itself – but a letter which contained nothing but the words “ONE ELEPHANT, TWO ELEPHANTS, THREE ELEPHANTS” written down 300 times would make the point pretty effectively.

A 10 minute delay? Six hundred elephants, Sue! That’s a whole bunch of elephants! Twenty minutes? One thousand two hundred elephants!

And a 45 minute delay? Mark, Sue: a 45 minute delay would be 2,700 elephants.

Can you imagine receiving a letter in which someone had just written “ONE ELEPHANT, TWO ELEPHANTS, THREE ELEPHANTS” two thousand seven hundred times? Because that’s what a 45 minute delay feels like, Mark, when you’re experiencing it. It feels like someone shouting “ONE ELEPHANT, TWO ELEPHANTS, THREE ELEPHANTS” in your ear, incessantly, for that whole thre quarters of an hour – all the way up until he reaches 2,700 elephants.

Are there even that many elephants left in the world? I can think of a couple in Twycross Zoo, another in Knowsley Safari Park, those three from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, seven or eight in the Jungle Book, there’s Babar the Elephant… but after that I’m struggling.

Forty-five minutes, Mark: a delay that is proportionally greater than the entire elephant population of the world (probably).

So, anyway. That’s what I was thinking, as I stood with numbing fingers and dropping-off toes, staring forlornly at the litany of failure that constituted the First Great Western service from London Paddington at 9.30 last night.

I thought about elephants, Mark, and then I thought of lots of words that my mother wouldn’t approve of. The kinds of words that I’m sure, as a lady Sue, you rarely, if ever, are exposed to. Salty language, as they say. Language to make a docker blush. The talk of rough taverns and mess halls. Words with four letters, and sometimes five letters and even, in one particularly salty, messy instance, 12 letters. (Think about it, Mark. Listening to a Public Enemy album may help if you get really stuck.)

I thought about these fruity words and I thought about why I never use any of them in my letters to you. God knows I’d like to, Mark. Heaven knows they’d express the forcefulness of the points I’m trying to make. So why not? Why, as Joe Pesci might say, the [expletive redacted] not?

Well, I’ll tell you (since you asked). Quite apart from the fact that I learned my trade on a tabloid newspaper, where we were taught that a good writer need never recourse to bad language to make his point, I was also taught (by my mother in this instance) that the moment you start swearing in an argument, you lose your moral high ground.

And this is all about moral high ground, Mark! Isn’t it? Our little literary spat, our wee correspondence contretemps… it’s all about me being in the right and you being in the wrong. Isn’t it? Do correct me if I’m, well, incorrect, but I’m pretty sure that, where the moral high ground is concerned, I’m holding it all.

So no matter what I’m thinking, when I stand waiting for your delayed trains and feeling the minutes of my life dripping away, pooling and freezing at my feet like a dirty puddle for people to drop their fag butts into*… no matter how impolitic and impolite the language in my head is, as my fingers and toes turn blue and my language turns bluer, no matter what words I use in my head to curse your wretched train company, I nonetheless keep things civil here. Because I don’t want to lose the moral high ground.

(Interesting aside: do you know where the phrase “to lose the moral high ground” comes from, Mark? I bet Sue does. Sue? No? Well in that case let me tell you. The phrase “to lose the moral high ground” comes from the famous Battle of Mafeking in the Wars of the Roses (1972-1981), when the Emperor Nero was besieged by the invading armies of William the Conqueror. Nero arranged his outnumbered forces on Moral Hill (the next hill along from Edge Hill, in the wild and mountainous Cotswolds region of Northern England). The plan worked well – William’s forces surged and broke upon the lower slopes like waves against a cliff as Nero rained death and destruction upon them from above… until, buoyed by his unlikely success, Nero led a counter-charge down the hill.

Alas! He lost the moral high ground, Mark! And next thing you know, he copped an arrow in the eye, Hannibal crossed the Alps, Cromwell’s forces arrived too late, William won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.)

To lose the moral high ground: to metaphorically throw away a winning position and end up getting whipped by a Frenchman (of all things). A lesson from the past, Mark. And history, if it doesn’t exactly repeat itself (history never repeats itself, Sue: give me one example of history repeating itself ever. Go on, just one. You can’t, can you? Because it’s never happened! History repeating itself: what a ridiculous thing to say!) then history does at least move in parallels. And I, for one, don’t want to let the use of a robust word or two put me in danger of getting a spanking from the French. Or a parallel version of the French.

No, sir! No ma’am! The moral high ground remains all mine!

Anyway. Where were we? How are you doing? Do you need a comfort break, Mark? Do you need an energy drink, Sue? Banana anyone? No? Good! Let’s keep going! Let’s press on!

So there I was, cold and blue and wondering just how delayed the 21.20 to Oxford was going to wind up being… when I saw, like a star above a stable in the East, a single ray of hope shining amid the dark and drear and despair and delays of the announcements board.

The 21.48, Mark! To Worcester Shrub Hill! That sucker stops at Oxford! And it appeared to be leaving on time! So it was leaving half an hour later than the train I was supposed to be on, the train I had planned being on, the train that would have got me home in time to have some dinner before bed… but it was a train leaving Paddington! It was a train headed in the right direction!

Go West, young man, thought I! Together we will go our way! Together we will leave some day! Together, your hand in my hands! Together we will make our plans!

I made my plans, Mark! I abandoned all hope of the 21.20 – and I bagged myself a place on the 21.48. I was getting out of London town… and, at this stage at least, only half an hour later than expected.

It was a reason for optimism, of sorts. Right? I mean, I take what optimism I can, these days, from your trains. I clutch at what straws as I can find. Even the ones that occasionally turn out to break the camel’s back.

But then, I’m an optimistic kinda guy, Sue! I see the sunny side! Have I told you that about myself? Has it come across in my 81 letters over the last seven months? My natural predisposition to see the best in any given situation?

Actually: how much have I told you about myself? Shall we talk about me, for a while? Okay then, why not! We have plenty of time left!

So. I was born, Mark, in a crossfire hurricane (and I howled at my Ma in the driving rain. Well you would, wouldn’t you?) I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag; I was schooled with a strap right across my back. I won’t lie to you, Sue: it was a tough childhood. But it’s alright now – in fact it’s a gas…

Oh, okay, sorry, I’m just being silly. I wasn’t really born in a crossfire hurricane. I was actually born under a wandering star. (And like I’ve always said: wheels are made for rolling, mules are made to pack – and I’ve never seen a sight that didn’t look better looking back.)

I was born in the USA, Mark! Born down in a deadman’s town – the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. I ended up like a dog that’s been beat too much, Sue. I’ve spent half my life just covering up.

Actually, you know what? Let’s not talk about me after all. Let’s talk about you, Sue! Tell me: what do you think of me?**

No? Suit yourself. And you usually have so much to share! You’re usually so… communicative!

Back to the story, then. You’ll remember that, after working late and rushing across all London to make the 21.20 from Paddington Town to Oxford International, our hero came unstuck in the face of train-related incompetence. You’ll remember how he froze his heroic extremities off waiting in the concourse for his delayed train to stop being delayed. You’ll remember how our hero (well, me, I won’t be falsely modest) came up with the daring and brilliant damage-reduction policy of jumping on the 21.48 to Worcester Shrub Hill instead.

And so the story continues. And so, as both Sonny and Cher expressed it so beautifully exactly 45 years ago, the beat goes on.

I was feeling oddly pleased with myself, Mark, for being only half an hour behind schedule. How is that? Is it a recurrence of my Stockholm Syndrome again? Am I to be pathetically grateful to you for only wasting half an hour of my time? Well, no, as it turns out.

Just as we were about to leave, Mark, just as we were building up a good head of steam and preparing to chuff on out of Paddington, the old 21.20 only gets his chops on and chuffs out ahead of us! So I could have caught it after all!

I watched it go, Mark! And then I watched through the window as we slowed down behind it, and huffed and puffed slower and slower behind it, all the way to Reading and beyond. And I thought to myself – if I had caught that 21.20 train, I’d be approximately two minutes ahead of myself, sitting on this here 21.48… that’s already running slower than it should be.

(Sorry, am I confusing you, Mark? Are you scratching your head, Sue? Basically, both trains left pretty much together, at about 10 minutes to 10 o’clock. One of them on time, the other half an hour late. And then both trains, the one on time and the one that was already half an hour late, slowed down around Reading, and lost still more time. Until one train was 15 minutes delayed, and the other was 45 minutes delayed. Got it? Great! Well done!)

Mark, Sue: to be clear. The train I was actually on was running 15 minutes slow. But the train I should have been on, the train I had turned up to catch in the first place, was running 45 minutes slow. And so that’s the delay I’m writing about. That’s the amount of my time you wasted last night. That’s the reason this letter is so long.

And so the story ends. We trundled, tiredly and tiresomely, into Oxford station at five minutes past 11 last night, Mark. The train I was on and the train I was supposed to be on, pretty much arrived together.

I was supposed to have been at Oxford by 20 minutes past 10 last night. I actually arrived at five minutes past 11. As I believe I said before, and at the risk of repeating myself, that’s entirely your fault. Those 45 minutes of my life that were lost last night – that’s your fault.

Is that good enough, Mark? Of course it’s not good enough! But what can be done, Mark! What can we do to make this thing better? We can’t go on like this! I’m running out of things to say – I’m having to resort to lyrics from Lee Marvin songs!

Is it to be the elephants after all, Mark? Do I have to show you my elephants, Sue?

Au revoir!


*that metaphor didn’t work at all, did it? Never mind. Allow me one per letter, at least!

**And that joke was brought to you by the year 1981. Coincidentally, the same year the Emperor Nero lost his eye at the Battle of Mafeking. History repeats itself!

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