Thursday, 13 September 2012

Traveller's Tales: Train People

From time to time I am sent on an arduous work mission away from my native London, and last Friday was just such an event. I was off to Halifax in Yorkshire, a hellish journey to manage as a round trip in one day. I live in the wrong bit of London to easily reach Kings Cross Station, but had a 06:30 train to catch from there nonetheless. Up early, the ordeal proceeds as follows:

  • Overground to South London terminus.
  • On the Tube for the Northern Line to Kings Cross.
  • Train from Kings Cross to Leeds
  • Change at Leeds for train to Halifax.
  • Short taxi ride from Halifax station to the target destination.

The whole thing takes around four and a half hours, and if you add in the equivalent return journey starting at around 16:00, it results in abject exhaustion coupled with very little time in Halifax itself. Don't let anyone ever tell you business travel is glamorous. It would be easier to fly to New York for a long weekend.

Having made it back from Halifax to Leeds for the return journey by about 17:15, I was delighted to discover there was train disruption on the East Coast Main Line to London. Seat reservations had fallen entirely by the wayside as the result of a previous Leeds - London cancellation, resulting in an undignified jockeying for position. I played this circumstance to my advantage, the dog-eat-dog methodology of my London commuter training kicked in, and I deftly located myself at a comfy looking window seat with a table.

Circumstance being what it is, I was joined at my table on this busy train by an eclectic mix of people. First up was a smart-suited businessman. Unlike my cheap and cheerful off the peg trouser-and-jacket affair, this had the look of a proper made-to-measure number, well cut and sharp. Gold cuff links glinted at me, and he had an expensive looking leather bag which concealed his laptop. He asked me politely if it was OK to sit, (it was), and immediately ensnared me in some humorous conversation about the perils of distance travel and train disruption. It took seconds for me to feel slightly ashamed that I had expected a pompous twit to be joining me. In fact, this chap was witty and likeable, revealing the utter folly of judging a book by its cover.

Next to arrive was a serious but friendly Muslim gentlemen. He also politely requested if he could sit next to me, since he was concerned he would feel unwell if he were not facing the direction of travel. Suity Man I were at that moment doing battle with the power cable to his laptop, and I didn't immediately hear this soft spoken and gentle voice making its request. It fell to my generous spirited business friend to up sticks and decamp to the other side of the table, diagonally opposite me, the whole time making sure he kept up his charismatic repartee, constantly checking that everyone was OK and comfortable while I sat there with his power cable dangling from my left hand. By now, I was feeling secondary and tertiary waves of shame that I'd personally done nothing to help our new travel sick friend and had also left my own laptop firmly in the luggage rack, ignoring a large pile of emails in favour of a snooze.

As we began to settle once again, the remaining gap at our table was filled by an attractive thirty something lady with what appeared to be a baby bump. To accommodate her, Suity Man jumped up dashingly yet again, while she fitted herself carefully into the window seat. Then the equipment emerged from a bottomless rucksack; a laptop, a mobile phone, another mobile phone, a large ring-binder, and what appeared to be a portable electric fridge which we later learnt carried two bottles of fresh mummy milk destined for her brand new infant (waiting at home with daddy). This influx of kit caused further power issues, with much untangling of cables, juggling of plugs in sockets, and required yet more of Suity Man's good-humoured and unrelenting courtesy. Soon we were all experiencing strong waves of brotherly protectiveness as we learnt her story. She'd had to return to work less than a month after the birth of her child. It didn't seem right somehow.

The train began to move, and we were dismayed to discover our packed carriage had malfunctioning air conditioning. New Mum commented cheerily that the train staff must enjoy the "just out of the shower" look as she perspired as gracefully as possible, Suity Man smiled winningly, and Forward Facing Man stroked his long beard wistfully. I offered up some cola flavoured Colin Caterpillars from Marks and Spencer (I know it's mad, but I'm obsessed by these), and while they were politely declined by Forward Facing Man on the basis of religious beliefs, New Mum tucked in like she'd never eaten before, at one point sitting with Colin's head jauntily poking from her mouth while she considered whether it would be better to call or email a troublesome client. Suity Man suggested a call, because you can't beat the personal touch. Then he assertively removed the tail from a fellow Colin with a single bite.

After a sweaty eternity, we reached London Kings Cross station. By this point, we knew that Forward Facing Man had been accompanying his oldest son to Boarding School, and had missed his outbound train earlier in the day causing him to have to pay an additional seventy pounds in fares. We knew that New Mum was inclined to get teary about being away from her new-born child for so long. And we knew that Suity Man was going to drink a really good bottle of Chianti with his wife when he got home (I secretly feared for my liver and its possible future consumption with some fava beans).

And then, everyone went on their separate ways. I was glad to have met these three interesting individuals, all friendly and with a tale to tell. Apart from livening what would have been a dull and uncomfortable journey at the end of a long and tiring day, it caused me to reflect a little that there are many people in the world with buzzing existences, starring roles in the epic stories of their own lives. Just looking at people is not enough; happily today I encountered humans with places to go and things to do. It's also a near certainty that none of us will ever cross paths again. But life goes on. I wonder who I will come across next time?

** This blog post was first published at **

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Bald chins and beardy weirdies

Summer is just about over, and the last few days of Paralympic competition in London are coming to an end. My highlight so far has been David Weir's epic victory for GB in the 5000 metres T54 wheelchair event, followed later by his similarly impressive 1500 metres victory. But soon, this second chapter in London's glorious Olympic and Paralympic adventure will be complete, and already an inevitable normality seems to be returning to this big and bustling town.

This was exemplified by conditions on my train into the office on Monday this week, which felt genuinely busy for the first time in months. There were people everywhere, presumably all gloomily returning to the office with their sunny poolside adventure disappointingly over for another year. No more sandcastles 'til 2013. But something's happened. Something is different about the returning throng. They've all grown beards.

Not just the odd bit of stubble here and there. There are so many beards. Everywhere I look I seem to be greeted by a jungle of face furniture. I am struggling to imagine what might have provoked this phenomenon. Are razors a casualty of the current economic gloom? Has there been a big foamy explosion at the shave gel factory?

I first saw a significant collection of face fuzz when I attended the Great British Beer Festival in my alter ego as mild mannered roving beer reporter, documented in my other hugely entertaining beer blog (not that I'm biased, but you are either reading it or you're a sherry drinker). At the festival, you always expect to see a few choice specimens; this year I noticed a finely waxed moustache on a big round ruddy face sat atop a cheery mountain of a man. But at the beer festival you know you will see a few of these and I thought little of it at the time, instead indulging myself in the liquid treasures on offer.

But the sproutings have spread. On the train around me, right now, let me describe what I can see. Opposite, a mainly bald chap, probably in his early fifties, has a finely trimmed neat and tidy affair. It's basically grey, and surrounds his mouth carefully. Next to him, a guy who looks like he works in a physical role for a living (my bet is electrician, as he seems to be fiddling with what look like some specialist pliers) sports a general and scruffy growth dating back to the end of last week. To my right, there's a red headed guy, looking like a hairy scary biker bloke, and he's generally unkempt and seems to have allowed his mane to grow unchecked since 1982.

Amazing manes, a jungle of them. A new guy in the office has a wiry black number over a swarthy face which makes him look like a bank robber in a balaclava. A guy I know in his early fifties from the Caribbean has decided to "try out" a new chin carpet, and he has previously been a smooth cut and well presented Lothario, dark eyed and smouldering.

Of course, it's likely that Don Quixote's seducer would have been a bearded gentlemen, although I'm unsure if Cervantes ever helps us discover this in his entertaining but rambling discourse. But everyone was facially hirsute in those days. This suggests perhaps the point I've been fearing to reach while I've been creating this blog post. It's not them -- it's me. While fashion, in its cyclic way, has decided it's high time that we sorted the men from the boys and furried their faces, I am stuck with a boyishly charming but otherwise bald chin (well, these days, chins). Can I emulate Bradley Wiggins' awesome Olympic sideburns? No. I can just about manage  a fluffly tash and a bit just underneath my bottom lip, approximately in the middle, which if left unchecked would make me look a little like a second rate B movie d'Artagnan.

This is all deeply frustrating, but we all are who we all are, and when Mo-Vember (the annual autumn fund-raiser for men's health issues) comes around, I shall once again observe wistfully, wishing I could play my part. Maybe I should start growing now.

As I finish this blog post, a tad behind schedule due to laptop problems, I can report that the PC Support chap appeared at my desk and set to work on my dead machine. Happily he breathed life into the ailing (and frankly ancient) device once again, and as he sat there, warming my chair up and basking in the glory of another job well done (I imagine he'd like to have his underpants outside his trousers and a big "S" on his chest), I managed to observe his face full of unkempt whiskers. There were clearly unidentified deposits of who-knows-what in his beard, and its strands looked so long around his mouth that it would be impossible to avoid the ends getting in as he ingested beer, pizza, or other nerd-sustenance. Really, not nice. Perhaps I should take heart from this. Not all beards are desirable or cool. This one is a disgusting mess. My chin at least remains relatively unstained after a meal. On the other hand, at least he won't be hungry later.

Urgh! Now that I've observed that, nor will I. Gag! 

** This blog post was first published at **