Wednesday, 8 September 2010


There is a train guard on Southeastern Trains who delights in showing - via the gift of the train tannoy - the depths of his knowledge of the Southeastern (and indeed beyond) train network and its associated timetable. As each station is approached, he will announce an exhaustive list of every single possible transport connection available from that station. One assumes that this is not a response to requests from individual passengers. One again assumes that there are very few - or indeed any - passengers on the 08.18 from Tunbridge Wells to London Cannon Street each morning (the so-called Gentlemen's Express) who are sitting there wondering how they could get from London Bridge to Victoria via Peckham Rye or from Tonbridge via Edenbridge to Redhill and then onto the South Coast or even Reading. Or very few people who having taken the same train every morning for the past X number of years who need to be reminded on leaving the train they should take all of their personal belongings with them, that they should look around them on the seats and racks and that they SHOULD NOT LEAVE ANYTHING BEHIND!

The guard in question is an incongrous looking skinhead in - I would guess - his mid-fifties with tattoo covered arms, piercings in both ears but a voice like Arthur Pewty. He is harmless enough, probably eccentric, but clearly loves his job. I view him with detached amusement though this is not an emotion shared by some of my fellow travellers, and one in particular.

I shall call this man Mark. I have known Mark (on nodding acquaintance terms) for many years. He is a very well known senior surveyor in a big practice in the City. He is respected in his profession. He is a mild mannered, slightly old school family man. His station car (which he parks in the exclusive Premier Permit spaces outside the entrance to Tunbridge Wells station) is a Jaguar convertible. He wears brown suede brogues, red socks and a hacking jacket on dress down days. You know the sort.

How long, I wonder, had the irritation with our friend from Southeastern Trains been simmering then on the morning when - as the guard passed through the train towards his tannoy - it finally boiled over. What prompted him, I wonder, finally to decide that enough was enough and that he could no longer tolerate the breaking of the silence of his morning commute by this overzealous railway employee? What pushed him over the precipice of silent irritation into overt fulmination?

One of my all time favourite films is Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas plays the role of William Foster, an unemployed former civil servant whose brooding intolerance with the broken society of everyday America leads him to an explosion of frustration which ultimately leads to his own demise. But not before he has taken satisfying retribution on some of his tormentors. There is one scene in which Foster is refused service of a McDonalds breakfast as his order was placed one minute after the 11am cut off time. He responds by letting off a round of machine gun fire into the ceiling of the restaurant (watch the film if you want to know how he got the machine gun....) A blubbing employee serves him his meal.

This then, was Mark's William Foster moment. He collared the guard and let him have both barrels, explaining forcefully (but politely) that 90 per cent of the passengers on the train did this journey everyday, that the remaining ten per cent would almost certainly know where they were going and how they would get there, and that those that didn't could follow sign posts or read maps. The guard - taken aback - pushed back, but Mark was not to be deterred. This was his 11.01 Breakfast McMuffin moment, his chance to vent, his opportunity to silence his tormentor. People can read underground maps. They do not need to be told how to get from London Bridge to St Pancras International and services onto Lille and the European rail network (from Tunbridge Wells they would probably drive to Ebbsfleet or take a train to Ashford via Tonbridge in any event - ed). Heads were buried further into newspapers. When the lengthy dressing down ended, the guard agreed to disagree and continued on his tour through the train. Mark, almost trembling with the adrenaline surge that his explosion had occasioned, looked around the carriage for support. Gazes were averted. Mark feigned sleep.

As the train went through New Cross, the carriage braced itself (and no one more than Mark, one suspects, though he feigned indifference), for it is at this point that the announcement of the daily list of travel options would usually begin. Silence. Mark had won. A few wry smiles appeared on the faces of fellow commuters.

I don't know whether Mark felt that he had reflected the mood of the meeting in embarking upon his rant, whether he expected the plaudits of fellow travellers for speaking out when others were too timid to do so, whether he expected to be carried shoulder high from the train to his office by a crowd of formerly repressed commuters whose collective voice he had represented. The answer, I suspect, is that most people were at best ambivalent, perhaps even mildly amused at the eccentricity of the guard but that no one other than Mark suffered intolerance to such an extreme degree that they felt compelled to act in the way that he did.

And that is really the crux of the matter. Intolerance is subjective. One man's birdsong is to another man the sound of fingernails being drawn slowly down a blackboard. What to one person may be incidental background noise is to another the sound of a dentist's drill being plunged into an open molar cavity.
A few weeks later, I was travelling by train off peak to London when I heard the familiar voice of Arthur Pewty come over the tannoy, explaining how passengers for Uzbekistan via Luton Airport, Bat and Ball, Swanley and Blackfriars should change at Sevenoaks. No one batted an eyelid....

1 comment:

  1. Please refer to a previous suggestion on the thread 'Oh! Dr. Beeching, what have you done?'. I think you would in time see a positive change if you send that post to those I mention - and this one too for that matter - and it will set minds in motion.

    I saw something the other day about the worst-performing lines and yours was not in the top three I saw. It does sound dreadful though, strange really when it goes through so much well-healed commuter belt.

    Just remember to indicate who your missive is also being sent too. That, I suspect, is the key to engineering the change you desire. I would even copy in the PM too actually, so that the Transport Secretary knows that he knows.

    Worth a try surely? Who knows, you might become a legend of the London-Hastings line and be carried shoulder-high in grateful thanks by your fellow commuters through the permanently open barriers.