Go South West, life is very, very peaceful there

About six weeks ago I was delayed at Winnersh Triangle railway station. I call it a station, it’s basically a long wooden walkway with no amenities whatsoever, other than a couple of benches. I was there for 78 minutes, on the hottest day of the year, waiting for a train to Reading.

When I got to work the next day, just for something to do really, I went to the South West Trains website to see if I could get a refund. It would be pennies, I realised that – the full return fare had only been £11.30 – but it was the principle of it. I found an online form and filled out all the relevant information. I realised a couple of days later that I hadn’t received an email acknowledgment of the request, and presumed I’d completed the form incorrectly. I shrugged and forgot about it.

22 days after my initial complaint I got a reply from a Customer Service woman named Victoria, who for all I know might be a real person, asking me to provide a photo of my ticket. Needless to say, I had chucked it out. I sent the following, rather churlish reply:

That ticket, as you no doubt would expect after 22 days, has long gone. I gave up on ever hearing anything back ages ago. Excellent tactics by South West Trains – delay even acknowledging the email for weeks and weeks, by which time people will have assumed they were never going to get a reply and conceded defeat. End result – no refund! Job done! Well played South West Trains.

A mere 18 days after that email, I have today received another reply from Victoria. To be fair to her, she’s been very reasonable. I mean, I wouldn’t even have replied to the above.

On this occasion, I will be happy to accept some other proof of travel, for example a receipt or a copy of a bank statement, so long as the transaction is clear. Any compensation due will then be paid as a gesture of goodwill, in National Rail Vouchers.

So I went and had a look at my online bank statement. For reasons that will become apparent below, I realised it’s unlikely I’m going to get my refund:

Hi Victoria

The best I can do is a screen grab from my online banking, showing the two payments I made that week. I definitely worked on the Tuesday at Winnersh, which is how I got to spend 78 minutes on the Winnersh Triangle platform on the hottest day of the year, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that, since the two card payments I made came out on the Wednesday and Thursday. Maybe they were processed a day late; maybe I paid by cash on the Tuesday. Who knows? It was 40 days ago, and I can barely remember what I was doing 40 minutes ago.

The payments are also showing up as GWR, even though I was sure it was a South West service I was on. Does that make sense? Goodness knows. As a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the shambles of national rail services ever since Margaret Thatcher and her band of corrupt cronies decided to rip us all off by privatising the network, thereby making sure that shareholders get to profit from taxpayer subsidies, this takes some beating. Massively delayed trains, slow customer service (nothing personal, I’m sure you’re going as fast as you can and management should employ some more Customer Service people, but three weeks per email isn’t great), and utter confusion about which company is doing what.

Of all the malevolent, socially unjust policies with which the appalling Thatcher blighted the nation, the farce of rail privatisation might just take the biscuit. I realise that you, Victoria, were probably not even born when she was ripping the social fabric of the country to pieces, so I’m not blaming you, but take my word for it. There was a golden age when the state just provided services which everyone needed, without any dodgy, tax-haven using billionaire oligarchs getting rich off the back of it. Ah the 1970s, you weren’t all bad.

Given that you presumably will not now have to spend any time processing my refund, I’d ask that you spend the saved minutes taking a look at The Four Big Myths of UK Rail Privatisation – Action For Rail. If it hasn’t been blocked by your employer, that is.

OK, so I won’t get my refund, but at least it made me feel better.

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Carry on carrying on

I don’t often write in the aftermath of seismic events in current affairs, such as the London attacks. It’s generally just because, if I’m completely honest, I don’t know where to start. Expressions of rage feel pointless and futile, not least because these days hyperbole of that type has been co-opted by attention-seeking shock jocks and Twitterati, often over relatively trivial matters. And unless you’re a truly brilliant writer or orator, you’ll have nothing to say that doesn’t trivialise the event (such as when Donald Trump called the perpetrators of the Manchester bombing ‘evil losers’ – thanks Mr President, your erudition is inspiring.)

Likewise, despair and empathy have been hijacked by the Facebook-profile-picture-altering, my-thoughts-are-with-their-loved-ones brigade, always ready with a token gesture. It’s an understandable impulse, but as brutal as it is to say it, it’s specious and superficial. I’ve written before, in the context of Whitney Houston’s death, about the modern vogue for wallowing in ersatz grief, and social media could have been designed to facilitate it.

Partly it’s because – and here’s something nobody will admit, understandably – unless we’re personally affected, most of us have become inured to incidents like this. Especially those of us old enough to remember things like Omagh. Been there, been horrified, cauterised that part of me which can be overwhelmed by man’s inhumanity to man.

So why now? Because my eldest son was there. He was working in Borough Market as the van went across London Bridge, he saw people running for cover and heard gunshots, he evacuated the bar where he works. Friends of his who worked in The Wheatsheaf were stabbed. He was very, very close to being a victim himself. Even typing those words three days later makes me somewhat tearful, makes me anxious that I’m tempting fate admitting it. Logic becomes elusive at times like this.

In the past I’ve often wondered how differently I would feel if someone I cared about were directly involved in an incident of this type. Would all my burnished, liberal credentials vanish overnight? Would I suddenly start thinking that maybe racial profiling and internment aren’t so bad? Or would I redouble my insistence that we need to be open and welcoming to all to counter the acts of a few individuals?

Neither, it turns out. What I did was just carry on. By coincidence I had to travel to London on Sunday, so that’s what I did. I met the boy at Waterloo, where he was also just carrying on. Of course he was nervous, and concerned for his injured friends, and of course as a parent I felt every bit as overprotective as I did when he was a baby in my arms, but there he was, living his life. I’d love to say that us being there was an act of defiance or bravery or something else it wasn’t, but I can’t. You carry on because, what else are you going to do? It’s the only viable option. It doesn’t really have anything to do with not letting terrorists win, much as the media love to play it that way. It’s much more mundane than that. It’s just how life works. You trundle about, stuff happens, you rationalise it and make it part of the fabric of what made you who you are, then you carry on.

So, er, take that Islamic State! Nothing you can do will stop me maintaining my humdrum existence!

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A high new low

Each of my three elder children has, at one time or another, come to me with a piece of Big News. It doesn’t really matter what, the relevant part is that they were all things which might have made a weaker man falter. I took them all in my stride. However, I have for some time wondered what my youngest child had in store for his Dramatic Moment. And now I know.

We’d cycled home from playing table tennis this morning, I’d just locked up the garage, and he nonchalantly announced – as if it was the most normal thing in the world – “I went to the school basketball club yesterday”.

Basketball. Basketball. The most worthless, idiotic and plain boring of all sports. I’d have been less upset if he’d told me he was joining the young Conservatives, or that he was a fan of heavy metal, or even that he’d gone to the school rugby club (yes, really, that’s how bad basketball truly is – it’s worse than rugby).

I was literally speechless, which doesn’t happen to me very often. After fully ten seconds of me looking at him aghast, he said – seemingly unaware or uncaring as to how he was making matters worse – “There’s nothing wrong with playing basketball”. I covered my ears. I couldn’t bear to hear any more.

Basketball. I keep saying to myself that it’s probably just a phase, it’s probably just a phase… Who knew fatherhood could be this challenging?

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Like an illiterate, writing for the very first time

I am giving away some Madonna postcards, which recently came to light in a clear-out, via the recycling site Freegle. They were included with a CD single I must have bought to sell at some point, and somehow the cards got separated from the single. Like all rational people of discernment I loathe Madonna, but as much as I would have enjoyed symbolically burning them or getting a cat to wee on them, I figured someone might want them – it’s just give give give with me, even to Madonna fans, for whom I have understandable contempt.

Here is the exchange I have had with the person who replied saying she wanted them:

plez can I have

You can. Let me know when you want to come and get them.

thanxs can i collect later today plez bout 3

That’s fine. See you then.


It is lovely, is it not, to have irrational and unwarranted disdain for a particular group of people, and then to have one of them give you justification for your bigoted position? Thanxs!

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The Long Goodbye

It’s been a week now since the man with whom I worked for 16 years left his job. A two man team, me and him, 16 years. Think about where you were 16 years ago, in 2001. Think of all the changes you’ve been through in that time, the people you’ve worked with, alongside and for. One man, all that time.

I wasn’t sure how I’d react to it. I knew there were things I wouldn’t miss, aspects of working with him which sporadically demoralised and infuriated me. The most obvious example would be the lack of appreciation for what I do. He gave me three pieces of praise in the whole time he was my boss – and one of those was when someone sat with him, showed him something I’d done and said “It’s good, isn’t it?”, to which he could hardly say no. For a long time I just shrugged it off, laughed and said it’s just the way he is. Towards the end though, I realised quite how corrosive it had been. I had an interview for a job a couple of months back, and the feedback I got afterwards said that I was very negative about my own achievements and played down everything I had done. Wonder where I got that from?

The other fascinating quirk I’ll manage without was his inability to observe the fundamental principles of interaction – the basic give and take of conversation. You tell me about your weekend, I’ll tell you about mine. You tell me about your life, I’ll tell you about mine. Not with him. You tell me about your weekend, and that will conclude that exchange. I would have done the same, of course, but he was my boss and I felt like it was prudent to maintain a certain level of bonhomie. It all ran in one direction though. I’d be amazed if even at the end he could name my children, for example. After 16 years we were no closer than we were after 16 days. He told me early on that he hated football, so I learned quickly not to mention it unless I wanted to hear a rant about how everyone who likes football is a sheep and a moron. (Never mind that I was right there, quite evidently neither of those.) He learned equally quickly that I hate dogs, and yet for years would tell me stories about his, either oblivious to that fact or just not caring. You know, those stories people tell about their dogs where they’re dying for you to say how funny or adorable they are. And I would listen and nod and chuckle in appropriate places, all the time wondering what he was getting out of it. Sometimes I start talking to people about stuff I love – phrasal verbs would be a good example – and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to realise they don’t really care, and my enthusiasm for communicating it swiftly vanishes. Doesn’t everybody have that experience? Apparently not.

You work with someone for that long, and just like a marriage, little idiosyncrasies become infuriating (only, crucially, without the bedrock of warmth to make them tolerable). I don’t ever again need to hear that the children’s TV show Captain Pugwash included characters called Seaman Staines and Master Bates (it didn’t); nor that George Bush once said that the problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur (he didn’t). Nor do I need to hear the hilarious name suggestion Norfolk & Chance (at various times proposed for a quiz team, a boat, a meeting room, and doubtless others I can’t recall). It sounds like something rude, you see? Ha ha ha ha HA HA HA.

I made a conscious decision not to say any of this to him in the last few weeks before he left. What would be the point? I don’t imagine he knew how I felt, and as such letting it all spill out would be an act of pure selfish catharsis. Plus, even if he did know, I don’t imagine for a moment he would care. He didn’t demonstrate any sense of giving the slightest damn how I felt about anything else, so why would he care what I thought about him? Plus, we did have some good times, some laughs, and he left me to my own devices which, while maybe not being the best thing for me, is what I would have chosen most of the time. It would be churlish to ignore all that just to let years of repressed aggravation come roaring out.

So how did I react, after all those years, to his departure, to the empty desk where he sat? I’d presumed there would be some relief, not to mention some elation, but it turned out that I’d processed all that in the months I’ve had since I learned he was leaving. The terrible reality is that most of the time, I just didn’t think about him. And that word terrible is aimed at myself as much as anything. I’ve spent 35 hours a week for the last decade and a half with someone who has now disappeared from my life, and my reaction has been to give a mental shrug. What a waste.


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And finally…

Well, it’s the end of the 28 blogs in 28 days challenge, and what have we learned?

Not much. Let’s be honest, it’s a sporadically wordy blog trying to stay afloat in a blipvert world (and if you get that reference, you’re giving away your age, not to mention your geekiness). When I started writing a blog, they were quite fashionable and cutting edge; now, who wants to waste their time reading whole paragraphs? Most people lose interest halfway through a tweet.

Which is not to say that everything I’ve written in the past 28 days has been interesting, of course. I was aware of this pitfall when I started out. You can’t always think of something to say, and the challenge is how you get round that. To use a football analogy, as I try to do at every possible opportunity in life, can you still win when playing badly? Sometimes (as in the blog about Now TV which was looked at by a total of three people), you can’t. Sometimes, as here, you can. 21 people read that, which suggests that the pacing of the build-up kept people going for the pay-off.

Then again, there were occasions when I didn’t get the pacing right, which is a shame. The final paragraph of this one was probably the funniest I got in the whole 28 days, but not many people had the energy to plough through everything that came before it.

The most read one was this, which is fair enough, because it was probably the most worthwhile. The surprisingly romantic ones did well – this one, and this. Who knew I had it in me? Well, I did, which I guess was the point.

Most of them had no more views than the number of people who promised me at the start that they would read them, which is fine. It tells me what I already suspected, which is that my writing only really works if you know me, or certainly my style. Nobody is reading my blogs and thinking they’re worth sharing with the wider world; almost nobody commented on any of them. I think I’m OK with that.

As to whether it was a worthwhile exercise… maybe. The Chris Botti entry makes me laugh every time I re-read it, so I don’t really care that only eight other people did. And in an early one about the phrase “my other half”, I suggested that people gained nothing by “subsuming yourself into your own personal Brundlefly”. I love that line. It only means anything if you’ve seen the David Cronenberg version of The Fly, but if you have it sums up what I was trying to express perfectly. 28 days’ work for seven good words, then. I’m not sure a career change beckons.

Thanks for reading.

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They call me apostasy, that’s not my name

And so I reach the penultimate entry of my 28 day challenge, without having once had to resort to writing about football. Impressed? Surprised? There was a time when it would have been my default fall-back, but these days I feel like something of a footballing apostate.

A long time ago, I used to subscribe to a mailing list called the Level 42 Digest. I think I joined it in about 1998, by which point Level 42 had in effect been defunct for four years. Even so, there were somehow enough contributions to support daily mailings for years to come. One of the people on that mailing list was a complete Level 42 obsessive. Not only did he own everything they’d ever recorded (naturally), he owned it in umpteen different formats, and in versions that might differ by as little as the country of manufacture on the cover. What was especially weird about him was that he owned no other records. None. Every piece of recorded music he had was by Level 42. Occasionally he would offer his thoughts on other musicians (I recall he had a particular hatred for Robbie Williams), and I used to say, without meaning any real malice, that his opinions carried no weight because he was not a music enthusiast, he was a Level 42 enthusiast.

That’s almost how I feel about football now. I love supporting my team, and I love going to see my team, but the rest of it, I find it more and more of a struggle to care. Maybe it was always this way, but it feels like the incredible influx of money and attention has slowly defiled the game, stripped away the simple pleasure of the appreciation of its artistry. The personalities involved are so often vile, the managerial mind games so churlish and petty, the lack of respect so flagrant, and the cheating so endemic, it’s hard to see past it all to the beauty of a 40 yard pass landing inch perfectly, the elegance of a chip floated over a goalkeeper, the precision of a perfectly timed tackle.

Maybe it’s just a sign of maturing, or of getting old, which of course are different things. Even the Level 42 obsessive, in the end, broadened his horizons and started buying records by one other band – Deacon Blue. Like I said, not a music enthusiast.

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