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Day 8: A Bennett sketch without the gags

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

So far, on my circumnavigation of the kingdom, I am not doing too badly with the trains; I wish I could say the same about the passengers. Not too badly, of course, is relative. Most of the trains turn up, eventually. And, given the perambulatory nature of my journey, punctuality is not of the essence.

The same could not be said of the boat train service to Belfast Harbour. It was already 25 minutes late when I joined it at Preston, having been delayed in Manchester by a broken-down engine. This was not a piece of information I obtained from “Keith, your Virgin West Coast senior conductor”, despite his frequent pointless public address announcements, but rather from a resigned South African passenger who had sat through the hold-up. But Keith – I assume it was him, though he did not keep inserting his name into his conversation in the flesh as he had on the public address system – said, when I interrupted his conductorial progress through the carriages, that he would phone ahead to the boat-train connection.

He did. But they let it go just before we got to Carlisle. “It went two minutes ago,” said a helpful chap on the platform. Why? “Dunno.” Mr Fawkes, the station manager, knew. “The train to Stranraer is a Scot- Rail service. You came on a Virgin one. ScotRail won’t pay Railtrack the pounds 25 a minute it costs if they stay longer in the station than they are allowed. You’ll have to get the local train to Dumfries where they’ll lay on a bus.” “We do it all the time,” the driver of the coach told me. It would cost at least pounds 200 to hire the coach for the 70-mile journey, he said. But then ScotRail wouldn’t have to pay that. It would be Virgin.

It is but one of the joys of the de-nationalised railways. Earlier the new unco-ordinated ticketing system had tried to force me to travel from Cornwall to the Midlands via London, only allowing me to follow a much quicker and more direct cross-country route when I coughed up an extra pounds 18. “It’s two different companies, you see,” said the ticketing man at Penzance, as if that constituted a justification.

All of which makes rather galling the constant announcements – on which the various rail companies do seem to manage to find a common policy – that “Your next Station Stop is Dumfries”, or wherever. It’s not just the tautology that gets to me. It’s the phoney personal pronoun with its bogus attempt to re-create the sense of ownership which privatisation has in reality removed. We are not passengers, remember, but customers.

But then perhaps the awful British public deserves no better. Travelling in an open-plan railway carriage reinforces what an inconsiderate bunch of individuals we have become under the influence of our fractured consumerist culture. I don’t just mean the obviously anti-social oafs who persist in smoking despite signs to the contrary. (Virgin has added to the confusion by removing all the No Smoking stickers on some trains and displaying Smoking Permitted signs in a few restricted areas instead.)

I mean the women who insist on applying pungent nail varnish at the adjoining table. Or the dull-faced parents who, having brought nothing to entertain their offspring, sit oblivious as their shrieking, ill-disciplined children treat the train as if it were an adventure playground.

There is something peculiarly British about this ability to insist on individualism in the face of a common experience. It is as if we feel we can shrink into some carapace and render ourselves private in public. Nose-pickers do it in cars. Eaters do it on trains. Of course there are those who are insolent about inflicting the smell of their noisome cheeseburger on the rest of the carriage. And there are those who seem to regard eating as a performance art – like the North country pensioners who sat opposite me and produced items from their M&S food bag with the exaggerated gasps and flourishes of some pantomime conjurer and his ageing assistant. “A chocolate mouse loose about the hoose,” the dotard boomed idiotically. And on he went. It was like an Alan Bennett sketch without the gags.

But most passengers perform an intensely privatised eating ritual, as if their Tupperware and Thermoses and sandwiches in tinfoil were sacred objects, and their eating a private Mass visible only to them and their Creator.

Not that train travellers are anything like bus passengers. Anyone who suspects that class distinctions are fading in Britain today should take a cross-country bus. They leave still from dismal depots surrounded by shabby caffs, discount shops and amusement arcades. They are places of cheap clothes, cigarette smoke and pinched faces which look up from the Daily Sport – Spice Girls naked: exclusive pix – to glance suspiciously from the plate-glass windows as the departing vehicles lurch forwards with a noise like the protest a bull makes when it is pulled by its nose.

Or wait with the workmen before 7am, as I did one morning, at a bus- stop in a small Northern town. It came 25 minutes late. But they said nothing, apart from grunting that it was often so. There was no information. No one to complain to. Nothing to be done. It was like a symbol of the disempowerment of the unskilled classes which the modern world hides from us most of the time.

It is a construct, for there is nothing intrinsically inferior about travelling by bus. Indeed there is a romance about taking a double-decker that lurches through the rural landscape, offering a peek behind high hedges on grassy banks topped with bursts of yellow gorse and dog roses.

From the vantage point of the upper deck, with its antiquated cigarette stubber on the seat in front, you could see into places hidden from the car or train – houses, farmyards, a man asleep in a field with his roll- up tin by his head. And buses leave the main road, making detours to add as many villages as possible to their route, offering the traveller a tour of the places of no consequence which make up the fascinating fabric of ordinary life.

The coach to Stranraer made no such concessions. It drove straight and fast across the peninsula, past undulating Galloway fields plagued with rabbits, and along by the salt flats and glinting silvery waters of the shallow estuary where a lonely heron stood sentinel. The train, it transpired, takes a much more circuitous route, looping north almost to Glasgow. With grim satisfaction I noted we had beaten it by half an hour.


Tomorrow Day 9: Forget the politics, feel the quality of life

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