16 December 2010

Song from the bottom of a Well

I felt this evening that (in the words of the song) I hadn't moved here, I just fell - into a comprehensive meltdown of the railway network - but the title was intended to refer to the announcements at Paddington station, which were utterly incomprehensible. They always are. The messages echo around Brunel's great shed, and it seems that the announcers merely shout more loudly into the microphones to try to overcome the deficiencies of the equipment. Years ago, there was a female announcer with a delightful soft Irish accent, who pronounced everything with perfect clarity: now it is not merely useless as a means of disseminating information, it is worse, because it drowns out attempts to engage railway staff in conversation.

Not that there were many railway staff in evidence at Paddington today anyway. Two on one of the customer information desks, besieged by passengers ("customers") trying to find out where they might be able to get a train, and when. The reason was a power failure in the Didcot area which had put out the signalling, from about 2.30 this afternoon. I eventually asked a gentleman in railway uniform whom I found on a platform, and he was remarkably forthcoming: his colleague was even able to translate the words of the man down the well, and guide me to platform 13 where a train was about to leave for Reading. There I changed to an Oxford train and eventually arrived at Didcot - not quite four hours after leaving the office. At least once ensconced in a railway carriage (even a cool one) I could doze, and (again in the words of the song) indulge in pleasurable fantasies. Thank goodness I got a good day's work in first.

A trip like that would have been bad enough on a summer's evening. Today the east wind came blowing back in, not with Siberian temperatures but bringing the thermometer crashing down and swirling snowflakes around - which haven't settled anywhere. Nowadays railway stations are not spaces in which people are encouraged to sit and wait, of course - the train operators believe their own information about late running trains, which no-one in the real world does. No, passengers are expected to spend their waiting time engaged in that most important of modern occupations, shopping. At least at Paddington there were the options of eating and drinking: at Reading most of those places were closed, and the waiting room bursting while a coffee bar stood empty and locked next door and refugees huddled on the platform wrapped in whatever they happened to have with them.

And it seemed such a promising day. I'd even thought I'd have to run to the station this morning to deal with an excess of energy that had me bouncing off the walls and ceiling. In the end, I put on a suit (needed for the party I was due to attend this evening but which eventually had to be sacrificed in the interest of getting home), then found that my one pair of black shoes at home were still in need of a clean after an evening in the slush of Westminster a couple of weeks ago, and that they shared a single lace between them. On top of that, I didn't merely cut myself shaving, I slashed my chin, and left for the station wearing suit, tie, trainers and sticking plaster. So maybe by that stage the day had started its descent.

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