In the dining car, the only seats were at a table for four, and one was already occupied by a man of about 65, staring angrily out of a window encrusted with dead flies. He was wearing a pullover in navy and mud. Like Paul Theroux, one of my small talents is telling a person's name by looking at him. I guessed the man in the pullover was called Harold Hardwick.
The train did not start. 'British Rail]' I muttered. Hardwick looked up. Time passed. Eventually, the disembodied voice of an Indian railroad person playing Peter Sellers announced: 'We are late starting out because we are waiting for an engine.' On one of the busiest trains in the country, there was no engine. In the carriages, the passengers grimaced and ground their teeth. The muffled sound of Britain complaining padded on little cats' feet along the corridors.
'British Rail]' I hissed. Hardwick nodded contentedly. His world view was intact.
In a week when there is much talk of franchising some of the railroads - call it the great railway bazaar - I've realised that BR has actually already fulfilled its purpose: it has bound the nation together. The fractious new multicultural Britain has discovered unity in a subject more enduring than the weather, more arousing than Radio 4, a subject upon which all Britain can whine in concert: it is BR, and it is universally hated.
Alas, BR had also uncovered Hardwick. When Paul Theroux takes a train he meets someone who knew Graham Greene, or keeps a sausage under his pillow. I take a train and I meet Harold Hardwick. Hardwick represented the extremes to which BR has pushed people. Hardwick was a bore by birth; BR had given him rich material. For Hardwick, BR was a metaphor for life, and life was an endless journey on BR. About the trains, Hardwick was right, but the price of empathy was tedium. Hardwick was The Great British Railway Bore.
Eventually the train emitted a lame choo. Half an hour late, we were on our way. In the dining car, the tablecloth was paper. The steward in his red monkey jacket was willing but dim. I guessed his name was Roger. An elderly waitress, whose grey hair had apparently been hacked off violently in some Eastern European country, said she was Sviss. I guessed her name was Lotte or Heidi. 'Long time since she's seen Svitzerland,' sneered Hardwick.
Oral and I ordered lunch. Oral's salmon arrived. So did my chicken, which was white, like a corpse. Long after Watford, however, Hardwick's food had still not arrived. His body quivered, but he did not speak. Furtively, he glanced at Oral, who is Jamaican, then looked at me. Hardwick considered the odds of miscegenation, then returned to his dirty window. To bring him out of himself, once more I snarled: 'British Rail]'
'Don't get me started]' he said. But he had started. Hardwick was the kind of man who often diverged from his main topic, as if part of his track was missing. He now divulged that his greatest triumph in life was to have persuaded National Geographic, to which he had subscribed for some years, that England was a very wet country and that it was a gross error on the part of National Geographic to replace its once extremely thick wrappers with thinner wrappers which, as anyone who knew England would understand, meant that the National Geographic always arrived wet.
Was Hardwick triumphant? He was not. This was a man who expected the worst, and was disappointed if he did not get it. BR was thus his perfect habitat. 'I'll just have another roll, since you still haven't brought my lunch,' Hardwick said to Roger petulantly.
As the train jolted north and Hardwick's lamb chops finally arrived, as he greedily licked the oily meat from his lips, he bored on: no one on BR cared - not the workers, not the brass. No one understood the value of hard work any more, said Hardwick during the roast potatoes, and no one cared. And if the trains north were horrible, they were not as horrible as the Oxford trains, which carried those Slobs from Hell, the students. Not that you wanted to go south much, of course. Hardwick hated London, where he'd once lived, because it was not what it used to be.
In his demeanour, Hardwick was timid and sarcastic. Don't worry, I'll just sit here in this corner and do without, his posture said, as he rejected the coffee savarin in its plastic box, a dead pudding in a coffin. All this time my friend Oral was making sympathetic conversation with Hardwick, who looked marginally discomfited. Hardwick was not a man who wanted you to agree with him; he certainly did not want a black man agreeing with him. What's more, I was obviously foreign, although at least not a European. But what could Hardwick do? Pouring venom over the railways, we were united as one.
Naturally the subject of the privatisation of the railways arose. Into the remains of his burnt leeks, Hardwick snuffled angrily: 'Who would want these trains?'
As our one suffered a breakdown outside Wilmslow, Hardwick again began to vibrate. He asked for another chocolate mint with his coffee, as if partly to compensate for the delay, adding only, as the elderly waitress with the hacksaw haircut brought it, that familiar curse of our time: 'Bloody British Rail]'Reuse content