Howard Jacobson: What fresh hell is this? A journey by train

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The Independent Online

Have you been on a train recently?

I don't mean Clapham Junction to East Finchley, I mean a real train. London to Manchester. Milton Keynes to Edinburgh. Reading to The Mumbles. If you haven't, try not to. Everything about them, bar the speed, is horrible. And with Virgin even the speed is horrible if the driver happens to get a sadistic kick out of tilting his passengers so that they're travelling parallel to the landscape, the way it must feel if you've been kidnapped and bundled into the boot of a car. Except that you'd rather be kidnapped and bundled into the boot of a car than go Virgin.

Been travelling a lot of late, on account of having a novel to talk about. I like talking about my work. I enjoy meeting readers. But I don't enjoy getting to them by train. In the days of compartments and corridors, trains used to be slow, but fun. You could hop on hours before they left, recce the other passengers, make friends, change your mind and jump off. Now they won't even tell you what platform the train's on it until it's about to leave or has left. They want you to panic. They want you to be uncomfortable.

And, reader, the noise. Not only of a thousand panicked people yelling down their mobile phones at once, but of the guard (now called the train manager) switching on his public-address system to tell us that there's safety information in the vestibule areas – vestibule areas, for Christ's sake! – asking us to be considerate of other passengers (which he isn't), advising of the whereabouts of the quiet coaches, which aren't quiet because he won't stop telling us about them. Then there are the blocked toilets. The toilets with too much running water. The toilets without any running water. The locks that don't work. The locks of such unnecessary techno-complexity that you will never know if they work or not. The bleeps denoting passenger trapped in toilets. The bleeps preceding the latest monologue from the train manager not just reminding us to lock the toilets, not just advising us of the whereabouts of coaches designed for peace and quiet (of which there hasn't been a moment), not just warning about short platforms and steep descents, not just telling passengers alighting at every stop to look around them and make sure they have their belongings – which isn't strictly speaking his business – but describing in fine detail every kind of ticket you can buy and might have bought, what to look for on the top right-hand corner, how to read the date and seat number, how to tell if you've got a saver or a super saver or a super super saver, how to decide whether you are therefore on the right train at the right time on the right day, and what to do if you aren't, which is to hop off it quick, otherwise you will be charged the full fare never mind whether you want a saver or a super saver or a super super saver, and don't think of arguing because this is a train, not a place of reason, not a democracy, not England, but a little corner of East Bulganistan where your life isn't worth the ticket you're mistakenly travelling on.

Unable to sleep or think on a train coming back from Manchester recently I totted up the minutes the train manager gave to these and other matters on his public-address system. Thirty-five. He had a voice like Bob Hoskins imitating Bob Hoskins. Who knows – maybe it was Bob Hoskins. And the moment he knocked off for a gargle the person manning the onboard shop took over. "We are now open for the sale of tea, Fairtrade coffee, cappuccino, latte, macchiato, hot chocolate, wine, beers, lagers, cider, spirits, mineral water, juices..." What's wrong with just "drinks"?

He was worse with confectionery, a word you rarely hear these days except on trains. It should have been enough to tell us he had confectionery and then leave it to our imaginations to conjure confectionery up. But no. "Mars, Twix, Snickers, Kit Kat, Topic, Quavers, Doritos, Monster Munch..." I asked my wife to see if they had any Charbonnel et Walker Vanilla Truffles but she wasn't amused.

And after the confectionery, the "reading material". Hello, Daily Telegraph, Heat. I asked my wife to ask if they had the New York Review of Books but she wasn't amused by that either.

The food on trains is once again disgusting. In the last days of British Rail, catering underwent a revolution. I recall an exquisite poached salmon sandwich with rocket and dill sauce "designed" by Clement Freud. To accompany it you could buy wine "selected" by Fay Weldon. Those were the Culture Years. Then we went private and it was back to the breakfast bap designed by Fred West. That's when they have any food other than confectionery at all. Ten minutes out of Edinburgh, on the way back to London, I went to see what was in the shop. "Twix, Mars, Snickers, Kit Kat..."

"No sandwiches?" I politely enquired.

"Don't talk to me in that tone of voice", the onboard shop assistant said.

They all say that now. Ask a question and they consider themselves the victims of a verbal rape. I didn't doubt that the train manager, if called, had the power to lock me in his van for showing disrespect on the wrong ticket.

I won't go into the details of what followed, but I was told it was hard to plan food for so long a journey.

"But we've only just begun it," I pointed out.

"Don't talk to me in that tone of voice," she said again.

I bought up all the confectionery I could fit into my pockets and tendered a credit card. "Cash only," she told me.

That's the way of it now on trains. No credit or debit cards. So if you don't have the cash you starve. In which case you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Recently I upgraded to Weekend First to escape the hungry, yakking crowds and was served coffee at my table. Nice. "Crisps?" the woman pushing the trolley asked me. I wondered if she had any biscuits. "Answer my question," she ordered me.

My jaw dropped. That's no exaggeration. It hit the table. Assuming me not to have understood, she repeated herself. "Answer my question! Crisps?"

That I didn't throw her on to the line shows how gentle of spirit I've become. But I understood what had happened to her sanity. She had spent too long on a train.