29 April 2013

The ultimate positive spin

"We expect to gain a 15 minute extension to our journey time today", the "train manager"l has just announced, a propos a signalling fault between the Slough of Despond and Paddington. He went on to say this means an arrival time of 0930, which in the language spoken by ordinary people is 15 minutes late.
I am heartily sick of being lied to by the train operating company. Some years ago, their services were usually announced as "the slightly delayed First Great Western service to ...", so a stranger might assume the qualification was part of the company name, but they have rewritten the definition of "on time" so no qualification is needed except in extreme situations. When the dot matrix departure board on the platform tells me that the train is on time (the time posted being the timetabled departure time) yet it is not even visible half a mile down the line to the west, it is clearly late and they are therefore giving false information. As a Latin American fellow commuter remarked to me years ago, civil disorder on the station would be unavoidable in her home country. I never see her on the train these days - last time I saw her she had carved out a career in viticulture that minimised her need to commute to London.
I have spent a few hours in the past 24 putting a positive spin on my election address for the management committee of the Society of Authors. Having questioned the proposed constitutional reforms last years (both the substance and the process) and joined the task force set up to seek a better model, I would consider myself a hypocrite (not, perhaps of the most egregious stripe, but a hypocrite nonetheless) if I stood by and allowed a raft of candidates picked by a Magic Circle modelled on the one that brought in Home to succeed Supermac to be "elected" unopposed. William Horwood and Charles Palliser, also members of the task force, are doing likewise: we are, if you like, a slate, standing on a platform of democracy and transparency.
Yesterday also found me marking mock exams for my Russian students. As usual, too many demands on their time meant inadequate preparation and incomplete scripts. I cannot imagine trying to write an exam in a foreign language, even having to write in a foreign alphabet: surely you cannot write very quickly that way, and certainly the results can be rather untidy. One script was actually much easier to read than I had expected, in fact, and it was interesting to see how that student had formed Latin letters the Russian way (elaborate capital Ds for example. (Update: the train manager says that "the disruption is now complete", but contradicts the clear meaning of that statement by promising an earlier arrival time than previously advised.)
Another problem for the Russian students is reading the questions. The problem questions take a few minutes for me to read: were they in French it might take me four times as long, and I guess that's comparable to what my students have to do. And they miss things in the question: an English student would easily recognise that a question featuring the trade mark WONDERFUL will involve possible invalidity, but a foreign student can easily fail to appreciate that.
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07 April 2013

Top of the Hill

It took a long time, but eventually I conceded that my foot injury precluded running the Compton Downland Challenge this year - even the 20 miler. I had to agree the other week when Kerry offered the opinion that 20 miles was not the right distance for a first run after a few months off, and 40 was an even worse idea. So I offered to marshal instead.

The first problem I knew about: I had already agreed to marshal at the White Horse Half the following day (tomorrow, now). That was when I abstained from entering the WHHM because I expected to be running 20 or 40 today ... The second problem became apparent later: the Compton race wasn't going to be the usual figure-of-eight (which would have allowed me to stroll down the road from home and look after a road crossing for three hours or so) but two laps of the first loop of the usual course, so marshaling became a six-hour-plus job.

I was posted to the car park above Streatley - far above Streatley, as I have observed before (when I actually took part in this race). In the course of my lengthy stint minding the road crossing there, and making sure runners followed the correct route (strange how often they took the left-hand path even after I had impressed on them the need to traverse the car park) I was pleased to see John, erstwile running mate, but he only came past once - whereas Colin, whom I had met when I ran this event in '06, came past twice. The first time I recognised him and said hello to him, by name: the second time round, several hours later, he spared a little time to chat, which was nice.

As for John, all became clear the following day, when he lined up at the White Horse Half - a 20 the day before is impressive, a 40 would have been verging on lunacy.

05 April 2013

Time was

The railway operator which claims me as its "customer", for which privilege I pay indecent sums of money, treats me and fellow passengers like idiots. I am particularly incensed by their habit of describing as "on time" trains which manifestly are not. The 1016 to Paddington is late if does not leave at 1016: it is therefore late (meaning "not on time" to everyone except train operators) if it pulls in at 1016, later still if it is not even in sight at that time.
Today the 1016 halted as the digital clock clicked over to 1020, and almost at the same instant the display changed from "on time" to "expected at 1020". So I don't feel in the least bit patronised.
 Unfortunately the late arrival, compounded by slow running to Reading, meant that despite a sprint through the wonderful new station from a distant new platform all the way to Platform 2 I missed my connection. I asked a couple of railway employees for guidance, as the next train to Waterloo (from which I intended to alight at Twickenham) was half-an-hour later and I was already behind schedule. The senior one suggested, eventually, a train to Paddington then transfer by underground to Waterloo ("but I can't guarantee the Tube" - as if anyone could!): I needed the 1045 departing from ... "About Platform 53, I suppose?" I suggested, referring to the large number of new platforms at Reading. He thought that was hilarious, and undertook to walk with me in that direction so we could continue talking about the new facilities.
On the huge new bridge, all high picture windows and metalwork with myriad escalators which my new friend told me seem to be causing rather a lot of falls, I observed that it would not be long until the space became filled with shops and food retailers. Indeed, he told me that many passengers wanted a cup of coffee, and he was pleased that Starbucks would be opening soon. "Oh," I said, "I thought you said coffee." He thought that was hilarious too. I was on a roll.