27 December 2007

Magical mystery tour

Britain closes down for the best part of two weeks over Christmas and New Year, and has done for years: but only in the sense that people take the time off, either on leave or feigning sickness. Businesses still open, including my office, and here I am trying to get to London to do a day's work.
The station car park was almost deserted when I arrived, even though I was about half an hour later than usual, but the departure screens told a woeful tale of delays - and, worse still, mostly unspecified ones. It's better to know that a train will be arriving fifteen or twenty minutes late, than simply that it's delayed. There was a handful of regulars on the platform, including one chap whom I see most days and have also seen in Green Park (not running) at lunchtimes, with whom I now exchange a few choice observations about the train service. The train arrived at its revised time, loaded up and departed, but at Reading we were told that there was a failed train which had achieved the extraordinary feat of blocking all lines at the now infamous Airport Junction at Hayes - I never recall hearing of it before last week - which was causing all trains to be held at Reading. We were told that if we were in a hurry we might like to take the Waterloo train.
The Reading to Waterloo service is an alternative of last resort. It takes well over an hour to do what First Great Western can do in about 25 minutes, though the latter has to negotiate the busiest stretch of railway in the country (and possibly the world). It's busy because there aren't enough lines, I imagine, and the capacity of the lines that there are is severely limited since they introduced the radical safety measure of requiring trains to stop at red signals a few years ago. The alternative service passes, with frequent stops, through many places that I cannot conceive of lying on any rational route between the start and the terminus, describing that I imagine to be a vast arc through Berkshire and Surrey. Still, it will be a change of scenery - and as I alight from my first train of the day I see that the boards announce that it terminates here.
I could, of course, have taken the next train back to Didcot: but these too are subject to delay, probably because all the down trains are backed up the other side of Airport Junction. I wonder what train has failed so catastrophically? A Heathrow Express, perhaps, crossing the main line and breaking down in the process? But I don't think they do cross other lines, so it must be something else - perhaps one of those freight trains that are sent through the rush-hour commuter traffic with the sole intent, it seems, of creating chaos.
The Waterloo train isn't due to leave for more than 20 minutes, so I agonise about whether to go back to the Paddington train, or go home, but eventually settle for taking a seat on the slow train, which proceeds to fill up (in part because inconsiderate passengers place their bags on seats and force others, who lack the assertiveness skills to do much about it, to stand). My decision is vindicated when it leaves before any other trains move in or out. It takes me on a trip down memory lane: Wokingham, where a few years ago we attended Bill van Straubenzee's memorial service and where I am running my next half marathon in about six weeks' time (I finally paid my entry fee yesterday), then Bracknell where I frequently used to visit my client, Cognos, in an office block next to the station which now seems to belong to someone else. What happened to Mike Pym, their inhouse lawyer, I wonder? And what happened to Amanda Pugh, who introduced me to him?
This train doesn't seem to have a quiet carriage, or at any rate I am not in one, and one of the attractions is that I can listen to my new MP3 player on which I have loaded a large amount of music including three new CDs - two by Audience and a Howard Werth solo, the last of which I have never heard before. It doesn't contain any titles that are familiar from the Audience gigs I've been to in the last couple of years, though, and by the time we reach Ascot I've heard most of it and am a little disappointed (although I think it should grow on me). I have a feeling that it reflects the sort of thing he was playing before Audience, and if I am right it makes me wonder where the unique Audience sound came from. Perhaps the repertoire isn't so very different, and the first Audience album certainly has plenty of variety on it, as if perhaps they were searching for the sound which they perfected on Friend's Friend's Friend and House on the Hill (the two new CDs in my collection) before going for something rather different on Lunch. But songs like The Bells and Morning Dew, which were in their live set when last I saw them, fit well, as does In Accord, from Lunch, which they started performing live over 30 years after recording it.
Now the train has reached Virginia Water, where I once filmed an interview for a long-forgotten consumer programme on Channel 4 (which at the time was pretty new), called I think 4 What It's Worth. It was on the subject of a safety defect in early Metros, which caused the petrol to exit from the filler pipe under certain cornering conditions, pouring onto the rear wheel which was bearing the cornering load causing a loss of adhesion, and eventually necessitated the replacement of thousands of filler caps. I was picked up in a stretched Mercedes limo, with one of those then new-fangled mobile phones (called, in those days, car phones) and expected to go to Chobham to the Ministry of Defence's tank proving ground where Metros were being driven recklessly round sharp turns while the contents of their fuel tanks were filmed exiting the vehicle. (Thank goodness they didn't make a diesel version.) But I missed all that, ending up being interviewed by Penny Junor (Margaret Thatcher's biographer, her work being distributed distributed free of charge by the Party to public libraries, one of which reportedly acknowledged the gift saying that it filled a much-needed gap in their collection, and who more recently often used to be on the morning train I took to London) in the station car park. It didn't end up on the cutting-room floor, at least.
As I write, the train has crossed the Thames at Staines, where rowers were out training - probably had been for hours, by nine o'clock. I thought I knew every stretch of the Thames where people rowed, but this was an unfamiliar stretch to me - Mel never did a regatta here, or not one that I attended. Next Twickenham, where I came by train in the other direction earlier this year to see my old school defeated for the third time in the final of the Daily Mail schools tournament. But at least on the first of those occasions we saw Matthew Tait score what must have been his first try at Twickenham ...
Richmond now, and I have no idea whether the train is on time or not. It stops next at Clapham Junction (another notorious train crash site), which is almost next door to Waterloo, where it is due to terminate in 20 minutes. That doesn't sound like a very taxing schedule. We finally arrived on time, though too late for a timely arrival at the office.

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