Brian Viner: 'Travelling by train offers a vivid insight into the British condition'

Home And Away

Share
Related Topics

This week's Home And Away is brought to you from carriage G, the Quiet Carriage, of the 09.09 First Great Western service from Newport to Paddington. The first leg of my journey was from Leominster to Newport on the 07.58 Arriva Train Wales service, in the Noisy Carriage, where three youths loudly compared notes on how drunk they were last night.

Happily, they disembarked at Hereford, but a middle-aged man with a moustache then picked up the baton, talking 50 per cent too loudly into his mobile phone about the merits of three people called Daniella, Simon and Ben, all on a shortlist for a vacancy in his company, which may or may not be called Plonkers Consolidated. Daniella comes from Edinburgh, I can tell you, while Simon plays golf, and Ben is prematurely grey. And if any of them would like to contact me regarding their prospects, I can enlighten them further. As can about 20 other people whose journey through the Welsh borders unfolded with the same soundtrack. At Newport I got off with a woman with a nose stud and as we landed on the platform she smiled at me and said: "I think Ben's got it in the bag, what do you think?" I laughed and said that Daniella was my choice. "Yes, but she's got to relocate," my nose-studded friend pointed out, with mock solemnity.

I have often reflected that travelling by train offers a vivid insight into the British condition, but my fellow Herefordshire-dweller Matthew Engel has, in a manner of speaking, gone several stations further, writing a brilliant new book called Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey To The Soul of Britain. Coincidentally, he was on his way to Paddington via Newport when he hit upon the idea, shortly after legging it between platforms at Newport because the Arriva Trains Wales service had unaccountably stopped dead outside the station, almost making him miss his connection with the First Great Western from Swansea to London.

This unaccountable stopping just outside Newport is the bane of my life no less than Matthew's. The train chugs along, lulling you into heady anticipation of time to spare, perhaps even time for a cup of tea and a croissant from Upper Crust, when suddenly it grinds to the kind of unequivocal halt that suggests Butch Cassidy and his gang might be up ahead, pointing guns. And of course there's no chance of anyone holding the train you and dozens of others are hoping to catch, because Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western have, I'm practically certain, a "bugger the passengers" pact. Not, of course, that catching the desired train guarantees arrival at the desired time. As Scylla and Charybdis were to Odysseus, who could get past one but not the other, so, to the intrepid First Great Western voyager, are signal failure at Didcot Parkway and faulty overhead power cables just outside Slough.

The beauty of Eleven Minutes Late, I should add, is that it combines a sustained and very funny rant about the chaotic state of Britain's privatised rail system with huge affection for the romance of the train, and indeed with a beguiling history of rail travel. It starts with the epically hapless William Huskisson MP, illustrious former President of the Board of Trade, whose story should be familiar to anyone with a keen sense of irony. For on September 15, 1830, the opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the day after assuring his constituents in Liverpool that railways were a marvellous invention, Huskisson fell, fatally, under the wheels of George Stephenson's celebrated Rocket. As Matthew wryly points out, Huskisson's tragic accident that day made him one of those figures, like the archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose entire life has been eclipsed by the manner of his death. And I don't suppose it is of any consolation to his ghost, forlornly wandering the tracks at Newton-le-Willows, to know that train travel would later provide the descendants of his constituents with one of their most colourful euphemisms. To this day, the act of coitus interruptus is known in Liverpool as "gerring off at Edge Hill", Edge Hill being the penultimate stop before Lime Street station. I love train metaphors, and that's one of my favourites. Indeed, I love trains in general. If only I didn't have to depend on them to get around.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
 

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss