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

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

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For once, Kerry Katona had the right idea

Dom Joly
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick