IN RETROSPECT we were doomed from the start.
For some reason we’d booked ourselves into two different compartments, or couchettes as we tried earnestly to remember to call them. But rather than accept this division and dilution of camaraderie, we decided to feign collective ignorance and all sit together in the same one.
There were six places in a couchette so we anticipated sleeping, as it were, with two strangers. As for the likelihood of a bit of bother arising from our sabotaging of the booking system, naively we hoped we could do a bit of bartering with our reservations and persuade two other passengers to swap.
All of this might have worked, had we been in the correct carriage from the off.
The train left Nice at 6.35pm and to start with everything looked promising. We called at several stations and nobody tried to join us in our compartment.
Then came trouble.
Shortly after two Germans had arrived, bringing our couchette up to its full capacity of six, the attendant in charge of reservations swaggered in.
Thankfully he didn’t query the presence of all four of our group in the same compartment. But this was only because he never got that far in his inquiries. For it turned out that we were in entirely the wrong carriage to begin with: 113 instead of 713.
Now this was something of a puzzle, for there was no carriage 713.
Believe me, we’d looked for it. We’d hunted up and down the platform trying to find it. We’d stumbled up and down the train for the same reason. The conclusion was always the same. It didn’t exist. There was no carriage 713.
We’d concluded that we had misinterpreted the details on our tickets, and that we should be in 113 not 713. After all, a seven and a one aren’t that dissimilar if scrawled in a bad hand. But now we were being told there WAS a carriage 713, and moreover, we better damn well get to it.
Not having a clue precisely to where we needed to “get”, the four of us picked up our mountain of baggage and blundered along the corridors, now seemingly packed with French and German travellers all talking EXTREMELY LOUDLY, to what we thought was the aforementioned, hitherto elusive, carriage 713.
We found an empty couchette. We piled into it. It was now about 8.30pm and my faith in the virtue of making this overnight transcontinental trek had completely vanished. If only every single other passenger would do the same.
Except they didn’t. It had got dark, and we were about to start converting the compartment into beds, when two elderly people turned up, claiming VERY FORCEFULLY they had two of the seats in our couchette.
There were indeed two seats free in our couchette. But, according to this doddery yet doughty couple, they were not “the right ones”. The “right ones” were the ones we were half-sitting, half-lying in.
Bargaining was hopeless. Especially when the couple was joined suddenly by half a dozen passers-by – complete strangers who had NO REASON to involve themselves in our affairs – until the compartment was packed with people noisily and, it has to be said, joyously pointing out we were in the wrong.
A simple transaction had become a crisis nearing EU emergency summit proportions.
How they all laughed when they realised, by way of a conclusion to their collective prosecution, that we were STILL in the wrong carriage: 613, not 713.
There were more than a few smirks of satisfaction as, once again, we had to collect together our increasingly battered possessions (including several shopping bags of provisions intended to see us through the night and the following morning) and move on.
Outside, numerous French departments were slipping past smugly and silently. Inside, numerous compartments were also slipping past, equally smugly but far from silently.
Arriving in what we thought was, at last, carriage 713, we continued to gamble on the chance of all of us sleeping together and once more found a couchette with plenty of non-reserved seats available.
It was now really quite late. This was our third attempt at staying put. Surely nothing could go wrong now.
This time we’d reached the stage of actually climbing into our sleeping bags when there was a knock on the door. It was the reservations man. The same one as before. Only a hundred times more angry.
Pathetically, I pretended I was asleep. Furiously, he shouted in my face.
Quivering, I proffered the said documents in his general direction. He snatched them out of my hand, then snatched me out of my bed.
For even though I assumed I was in a non-reserved berth, my ticket stated otherwise, and for that I had to be humiliated in as public a way possible.
I was duly marched out of the compartment, away from the bed I hadn’t reserved, and into the compartment containing the one I apparently had.
A few minutes later, when I had to scurry back to pick up a few pieces of luggage left behind, I discovered the two people whose beds we’d taken were…
It only had to be two of the chorus of hooting onlookers that had hounded us out of carriage 613, and who were now beaming more broadly and more sadistically than ever.
Oh, the humanity.
Stripped of my dignity and my trust in human compassion, not to mention most of my clothes, there was nothing left but to try, at last, to get to sleep.
To be continued…
IT WAS ONLY AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF TRAVELLING on what, from 1998, was known as the TransPennine Express that I discovered the song Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk.
I still believe the former continues to miss a trick by not customising the latter for a publicity campaign.
Imagine the TV advertisement: to the sound of an infectious disco beat, immaculately polished carriages glide through dazzling city centres and exquisite pastoral scenes, accompanied by the urgent chant of “TRANS… PEN-NINE… EXPRESS!” and such lyrical exhortations as “From station to station/’Cross town, hill and dale/Our train never tiring/Our food never stale”.
Hmm. I’m not such which part of that fantasy is the most preposterous.
The journey to Sheffield was always one of my favourites when I lived in Liverpool. By way of a starter you had the route to and through Manchester, which I’ve written about already but whose extremes of shape, colour, history and sentiment I never grew tired of.
Then came the main course: the journey across the Peak District, with the line burrowing through coarse, winding tunnels to emerge suddenly in the crook of the most enormous green hills and below the largest, bluest of blue skies. Well, that’s how they always seemed at the time.
There were stations that punctuated the most rural and remote part of the route: the likes of Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford, at which troupes of ramblers and outward bound enthusiasts would materialise and dematerialise in a rustle of Rohan. A part of me envied them, but a part of me was also forever too distracted or disorganised to think about following their example.
On this occasion, Friday 14 June 1996, I was visiting a school friend who I’d known for five years and who was now a student at Sheffield University.
The journey across, which I describe in my diary as “tortuous”, I spent mostly listening to The World Won’t Listen and finishing reading High Fidelity, which rather neatly sums up the sort of person I was in the summer of 1996.
The return journey on 15 June was more eventful.
It was the first day of Euro 96, and I’d already had to fight my way back to Sheffield station through various manifestations of “street theatre” which had been laid on throughout the city to mark the tournament’s opening.
I’m afraid I was not in the mood to be entertained by interpretative dance or satirical busking. It was boiling hot; my neck got burned. Then, once on the train, I had to sit in direct sunlight; my face got burned.
Of chief concern, however, was the fact it took much longer to get back to Liverpool than usual. The train was delayed by almost an hour. No information was given for the hold up. I was especially bemused by how slowly the train crawled through the centre of Manchester.
It was only when I got back to Liverpool that I realised I had passed through the city only a few hours after this had happened, and although I saw no obvious evidence of the damage from the train, in retrospect the clues were there: police out in force at Piccadilly and Oxford Road, a subdued atmosphere among passengers getting on, a wary atmosphere among those getting off.
I spent the rest of the day catching up on this and other news that I’d missed by virtue of simply being away from a TV and radio for several hours.
Then I stole some of my housemates’ food, something I did with increasing nonchalance towards the end of every term, and went to bed.
IT WAS TOWARDS THE END OF my first year at university, and the end of The Boo Radleys’ first and last slice of stardom.
A “friend” of mine, one of those hall-of-residence “friends” who I was shortly to never speak with or see ever again, had got tickets to see The Boo Radleys at the Parr Hall in Warrington. He knew I was a fan. I owed him a favour after he agreed to come with me to see Gene play Liverpool University Students’ Union. It was during that aimless period between the end of exams and the announcement of results. He asked me to come to the gig. I said yes.
Since starting at Liverpool University, I’d passed through Warrington countless times on the train, either en route to Manchester and Sheffield to visit old school friends or on the way to and from my hometown of Loughborough. (This was before I discovered the “quicker” route of leaving Lime Street on a fast train bound for London, then changing at Nuneaton for a local service via Leicester).
I’d never, however, had cause to visit the town itself. Nor had I ever seen the Boo Radleys live.
The latter would prove to be the more fulfilling of the two formative experiences, but only just.
The gig got off to an atrocious start courtesy of the support band, Swervedriver, who, according to my diary, “sent me into a semi-coma” of “bored fatigueness [sic]”.
Two friends of my “friend” had come along purely to see Swervedriver, and once the group had gone from the stage made it very clear they couldn’t be arsed with the Boo Radleys at all, rudely disappearing off into the recesses of the Parr Hall.
Once they and other Swervedriverers had sloped away, the remaining audience comprised one third of people who knew and loved the Boos for their earlier stuff, in my case their utterly splendid 1993 album Giant Steps, but two thirds of people who knew them as That Band Who Did A Jingle For The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.
And these two groups of people did not like each other.
I described the majority in my diary as “ludicrous under-age pre-pubescent knicker-throwing teenage girls.” They had every right to be there, of course, but this didn’t stop me raging inwardly at their presence, particularly at how they seemed to make the Boos “aggressive and pissed off with things”.
It became a battle of the cliques. That troika of rousing Radley epics, Wish I Was Skinny, Barney (…And Me), and Lazarus, were received by most in the hall in bemused near-silence, apart from me and the minority, who cheered them to the skies. Meanwhile the new stuff, especially (inevitably) Wake Up Boo!, was heralded with tumult by the masses but stoical indifference by the few, leading to enormous scuffles and convulsions that left both my feet and back severely bruised.
I think it was this gig that turned my dislike of Wake Up Boo! into rampant, untethered hatred.
At the end of the gig we got lost trying to get back to the station. I can’t remember if it was Bank Quay or Central, but we made it just in time to catch the last train to Lime Street: one of those barely-furnished bone-rattlers that stopped at everywhere and resembled the inside of a bus.
Nobody said anything to anybody for the entire journey. The only sound was the creak of the carriage, the echoes of belligerent cheering, and a clutch of flawed, fading harmonies.
LAST WEEK I TOOK A TRAIN FROM Marylebone station an hour or so up the line to Wendover.
My plan was to spend an afternoon walking through the Chilterns, along the Ridgeway national trail, passing around Chequers, and ending up at the branch line serving the station of Little Kimble. Thanks to a rather convoluted choice of footpaths, I ended up literally on the branch line serving Little Kimble:
It’d been a long time since I’d stood on a railway line. I immediately thought of that scene in Stand by Me*; not the charming, carefree one of them skipping along the rails singing, but the terrifying one of them being pursued across a bridge over a gorge by what seemed, when I first saw the film, to be the most enormous train in the world.
“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side, relaxing with my thoughts.”
“Do you use your left hand or your right hand for that?”
Thoughts of railway lines had been in my mind all day, prompted by the slew of DIY banners and slogans adorning almost every house, tree and verge I encountered as I was leaving Wendover:
My default response to the possibility of the High Speed 2 railway is: yes please. I instinctively support any new railway anywhere, such is the dearth of existing lines across the country and the shameful under-investment by government after government during the last 50 years.
Yet the degree of opposition and, in some cases, venom suggested by all these homemade posters did make me question the wisdom of threading HS2 through this part of the countryside – countryside, moreover, that once I climbed up out of Wendover and into the hills soon revealed itself to look like this:
The campaign to stop HS2 is an uncompromising one. But later, when I investigated for myself just where the line will run, I discovered it really didn’t pass that near the stretch of the Chilterns through which I walked. Indeed it doesn’t create any new scythe through the Chilterns at all, merely following the broad sweep of the existing railway to Aylesbury and beyond.
In truth, opposition to HS2 is focused on the line’s construction, not its operation. This is because, as with the implementation of any important piece of national infrastructure, ugliness has to come before beauty.
So yes, lorries “thundering” down country lanes (in the language of protest they always “thunder”, they never simply “drive”) will inevitably spoil the peace of the neighbourhood – but only in the short term.
People need to see beyond their noses and beyond the next few years. When it’s finished, HS2 will be a marvel. And it will fit in marvellously to this patch of Buckinghamshire. Ultra-modern, ultra-fast trains gliding past every half hour or so will only enhance, not subtract from, a landscape that has long been a rich mix of the old and the new. I saw gliders, tractors, pylons and wind turbines while walking, and all felt just as much at home here as the swallows and red kites.
No, if you want something legitimate to grumble about, start with the likes of this:
*One of the greatest films ever made. Fact.
A MEMORY HAS BEEN EMBEDDED deep in my mind for almost two decades.
It’s a memory of sitting in a carriage of a train, going nowhere. But I’m not just sitting in a carriage. I’m sitting in a compartment of a carriage.
It’s the kind of compartment immortalised in sitcoms and sketches usually involving archetypes of comically contrasting backgrounds reading wildly contrasting newspapers. The kind of compartment where passengers sit facing each other in long lines, and which has a door one side that allows you into a connecting corridor and a door on the other side through which you enter and leave the train.
This memory, I would tell myself, must hail from at least the late 1980s. At a push, it could be the very early 1990s. But no later. Such compartments must have passed out of use by the time British Rail was being prepared for privatisation. Such an antiquated (by which I mean old, not redundant) structure could not have been trundling along busy routes or creaking along branch lines while John Major’s government was busy bowdlerising BR in the name of competition.
And yet I have always associated this memory with being a university student, which had to place it at some point after September 1994. Furthermore, I have always associated the location of memory with Runcorn station. I had never been through Runcorn station before I went to university.
To solve the mystery, I turned to my diary.
Fully expecting the incident to date from autumn 1994, I was amazed to find it took place on Monday 27 November 1995.
My diary records that I was stuck at Runcorn from around 4.30 to 6pm, in a compartment empty of people save for one businessman who grew increasingly frustrated at the delay, but whose anger manifested itself merely in “sighing, walking around and throwing his briefcase on to the opposite seat and off again.”
It also notes that no official explanation was offered for the incident. Indeed, it seems there was no communication with or from any train staff at all. There was simply word going around that the train had broken down, which was, in any case, completely self-evident.
After 90 minutes of stationary tension of the kind more common to an afternoon play on Radio 4 or an episode of the old Children’s ITV strand Dramarama, everyone was ordered off the defunct train so it could be towed away. We then had to wait for a delayed InterCity to pick us up and take us on to Liverpool.
Someone reading this might be able to tell me what sort of train it would have been that broke down so spectacularly.
Perhaps it was actually quite common for those types of carriages with compartments to still be in use well into the era of New Labour, Britpop, Chris Evans on Radio 1 and The Sunday Show on BBC2. Yet in my head I’d reassigned them to a slightly earlier, older age. Perhaps the way I compartmentalise my own life can be as misleading as the neat division of the decades. Perhaps the 1980s only really ended in 1997.