THE DIARY: Emily, I can't hear you, you're breaking up

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST week I travelled first class by train to Leeds. No, this isn't a moan about leaves on the line and irritating delays. In fact, I arrived seven minutes early, although it's true that the price of my return ticket, pounds 167, would have flown me to New York and back. Come to that, out of season it would have got to me to Corfu and included five days' half-board at a reasonable taverna. What I am griping about is the unfairness of the first-class system, as exemplified by the following experience.

I sat down in my clean, excellently upholstered, smoking compartment a quarter-hour before departure, soon to be joined by two chaps with luggage and mobile phones. One sat directly behind me, the other two seats ahead. I was feverishly reading my own introduction to a Penguin edition of Wuthering Heights, in preparation for the ordeal to come; it always amazes me how in the past - and present - one had/has the temerity to tackle subjects about which one knows absolutely nothing.

The train started, free newspapers and coffee arrived, and an hour later a ticket collector appeared. I heard him tell the chap sitting at my back - he addressed him as Sir, rather in the manner of Dr Johnson - that his ticket only allowed him to travel in the carriages behind. The same exchange took place with the man ahead of me, who promptly got up and left.

For three-quarters-of-an-hour I could not concentrate on Emily Bronte because I was listening to the remaining traveller phoning a Mrs L, who had done something out of character. "I'd have never believed it of you," her accuser kept repeating. "You of all people." Ten minutes and two free coffees later, the ticket collector approached. "Sir," he said, "you should be in G coach." Sir didn't leave for another 15 minutes.

By now, my dander was up, as they say. Spying the collector going to the loo I beckoned him. "I'm not a snob," I said - it's obligatory to spout that feeble excuse - "but why should I pay over the odds just to have a ciggie, while others do it for less than half price?"

I got nowhere, and was too shy to ask for a rebate.

TWO DAYS ago a member of my family finished her three years' training to be a midwife. She now weighs seven stone, has been going out three days a week at 6am and returning at 9.30 at night, as well as attending college for two days. Her starting pay will be derisory, her house horrendous, and no allowances are made for the fact that she has two children. There's no overtime pay - babies don't always come on time - and though in theory she can take off the extra hours spent on duty, the hospitals are so short- staffed as to make this impossible. There's a hubbub at the moment about nurses' pay, quite rightly; very little about midwives. The ignorant lump the two together. Rubbish. Nurses tend to the sick; mid-wives look after the healthy. It's obvious we don't care about babies or motherhood. One has only to watch the BBC series Casualty to see that Baz is a surgeon; she's got to earn more than a midwife. Her husband, Charlie, that head nurse, surely earns less than she does ... and yet ... they both go out to work, leaving their poor unfortunate infant to minders. The message is ... babies don't really count.

MY ex-husband is just over from New Zealand for an exhibition of his paintings at Coombs Contemporary in London's Butlers Wharf. The father of your children is someone special, always supposing he wasn't a one- night stand after a disco. If I'd have written that 40 years ago the police might have arrived to wash my mouth out. It's odd, and unsatisfactory, how pain and misery are diluted by the passage of time.

I was thinking of this when I arrived in Leeds to deliver an after-dinner speech to the Bronte Society. There was a queue for taxis halfway round the city. Fortunately, lovely Alan Bennett hove into view, and, acting the Good Samaritan, drove me to my Trust House Forte venue. Maybe it was called something else ... parts of it seemed old and dignified, but in the main it was definitely modern. I can't think why we couldn't have been housed in some old warehouse on the blasted moors. Don't these societies realise that atmosphere is everything, that just for once it wouldn't matter if there were no bathroom facilities or central heating? How do you understand the way it was through mere words? How do you understand the writers if you come to them via television and in surroundings distorted by the values of motorway refreshment-houses?

The audience was lovely. My crime- writer introducer said I was someone who created chaos. I tried. I'd only been in bed two minutes when the fire alarm went off, and we gathered outside in pouring rain. I peered into the darkness and thought of Emily, whose masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, was described as the dogged outpourings of a morose and brutal mind. Understandable really.

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