If you can understand this, we're saying it wrong

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The Independent Online
Whatever else happens to our railway system under the Tories, the standard of apologies will be higher than ever before.

That, at least, is the view of Sir Toby Barnacle, and he should know. Sir Toby is the newly-designated head of Rail Tales, the new body that will take over and market all excuses, apologies and humiliating climb-downs in the exciting new railway era.

'As you know,' he told me from his palatial boardroom at the top of Apologies House, with its fine view over a part of Kent through which the Chunnel rail link may or may not run one day, 'as you know, British Rail has always prided itself on its high standard of making clear to the public just how sorry it is for everything that has gone wrong, and we aim to continue this tradition. Rail Tales will be solely responsible for the manufacture of excuses and the training of Regret Operatives.'

Regret Operatives? 'This is the state-of-the-art name we give to those who are entrusted with the job of interfacing with the public in the area of explain-and- amend.' Meaning? 'Meaning, those operatives whose motivation is strictly for reasons of information therapy.'

Does it not strike Sir Toby as ironic that a man who has been entrusted with explaining to the nation why its trains are running late should be so difficult to understand?

'Not at all,' smiles Sir Toby. 'We in Rail Tales pride ourselves on carrying on the grand old British rail tradition of sounding plausible and yet saying nothing at all. This is harder than it sounds. For example, we all learn to speak indistinctly when necessary. You may think that the acoustics in mainline stations sometimes make an announcement inaudible. Far from it. The announcer is already speaking inaudibly, and with good reason.'

What sort of good reason? 'Well maybe because a train has just been cancelled and we are feeling a little shamefaced about it. Though there is in fact a wonderful technique for making people happy that a train has been cancelled. But it is a technique that needs learning.' And what is this amazing technique? 'Promise not to tell a soul?' twinkles Sir Toby. I promise.

'Well, when we cancel a train, we make an announcement which makes it clear that a train is being cancelled, but not very clear which train is being cancelled. So you will hear our Regret Operative saying something like: 'Here is an announcement. British Rail regret to announce the cancellation of the . . .'.'

Sir Toby paused and twinkled. 'Then we pause for a moment, so that everyone on the station is listening, and hoping and praying that it isn't their train being cancelled. And after they've waited for what seems like ages, the announcer says: '. . . of the blinkety-blink to Oxentot'.'

The what? 'Exactly] That's what everyone in the station is saying] 'What train was that? Did you hear what he said? I couldn't make it out . . .'.

And just when everyone is convinced that it must be their train for the chop, the announcer comes back and says: 'Just to repeat that announcement - we regret to announce the cancellation of the 4.36 to Widmerpool, which is due to technical difficulties.'

'Well, of course, everyone who is going on the 4.36 to Widmerpool is a bit cheesed off, but the vast majority of people in the station are deeply happy that someone else's train has been cancelled, not theirs. You see? It is possible to make people happy by cancelling a train. It is an art.'

What are technical difficulties? 'Pardon?' You said that the 4.36 to Widmerpool had been cancelled because of technical difficulties. What are they? 'Could be anything, dear boy. It is what we say when the real explanation is too hard for the public to understand.' Try me.

'Well, if instead of saying 'technical difficulties' or 'operational difficulties', we came right out and said: 'The 4.36 to Widmerpool has been cancelled because the engine and coaches that should have formed the 4.36 to Widmerpool are at this very moment through a chain of events too complicated to narrate here standing in a siding in Newcastle upon Tyne, 200 miles away . . .'. Well, people would not understand it.'

How on earth can a train that is meant to be in London actually be standing idle in Newcastle upon Tyne? 'You see? I said you couldn't understand it.

Best to leave these things to us, old boy.'

Well, thank you for talking to us, Sir Toby. 'Not at all,' says Sir Toby.

'It's been a bink sofa.'

At first I think Sir Toby has said that it's been a bink sofa. Then I see him winking, and I realise he is doing his indistinct station announcer act for me. What a man. What a performer.

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