Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island'

I've been re-reading this book, which ranks with George Mikes' masterpieces 'How to be an Alien', 'How to be Decadent' and other such (collected in 'How to be a Brit') as one of the most spot-on (and genuinely hilarious) commentaries on the foibles of the British ever written. Bryson is the sort of travel writer I love: his writing is always personal, not afraid of being irreverent and of making fun of what he finds funny (which, as befits a race as doggedly odd as the English, is many things), but his writing is always shot through with understanding and a genuine affection for those he writes about.

I nearly fell off my chair this afternoon as I read this bit. I was in a restaurant, and there was a potted plant behind me, so I'm glad of that 'nearly": it would have been uncomfortable if I had actually fallen off. As things were, the waitress thought I was losing it a little as I chortled into my espresso. Reproduced below is the mirth-inducing paragraph in question. As usual, Bryson gets it exactly right.

"Most of the other passengers evidently couldn't hear the announcements because when the Barnstaple train eventually came in, half a dozen of us formed a patient queue behind a BR employee and asked him if this was the Barnstaple train.

For the benefit of foreign readers, I should explain that there is a certain ritual involved in this. Even though you have heard the conductor tell the person in front of you that this is the Barnstaple train, you still have to say 'Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?' When he acknowledges that the large linear object 3 feet to your right is indeed the Barnstaple train, you have to point to it and say, 'This one?' Then when you board the train, you must additionally ask the carriage generally, 'Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?' to which most people will say that they think it is, except one man with a lot of parcels who will get a panicked look and hurriedly gather his things and get off."

Now, substitute either 'London Kings' Cross' or 'Cambridge' for Barnstaple in the above, and I've actually done a version of this, many, many times. And it's just absolutely true: nobody in England ever says something as simple as 'Yes it is'. It's always 'Well, I certainly hope so', or 'Well, that's where I hope it's going', or 'Pretty sure it is mate, but maybe the conductor will know?' or some such. And that bit about the guy who gets off in a panic: there's always one. Thing is, you do need to ask. For example, if you're trying to go into London from Cambridge, should you take the 10.27 that is on Platform 3 and will leave in ten minutes, or should you wait for the 10.43 which isn't here yet? A no-brainer, did you say? Not if I tell you the 10.27 will stop at every little, oddly-named country villager station en route - Shepreth, Meldreth, etc. - and not get into Kings X till 12.41, whereas the 10.43 is the nonstop (which of course means it only stops twice before getting to Kings X, probably at the improbably-named Welwyn Garden City, which sounds as though it should be in Wales anyway, and of course at Stevenage, which sounds like it's a railway dumping-yard) and will get you in an hour earlier. Now combine this with the fact that what's waiting on Platform 3 may not be the 10.27 at all, but may turn out to be the earlier non-stop from 10.13, which, having been held up due to signal delays at St. Ives, whence it originated, and you're in dire need of assistance from the BR man (though in my day he was actually a Railtrack man) walking around looking harassed and bitter at the state of the world.

Which all reminds me of the single most odd, and most funny, railway announcement I have ever heard. During the unfortunate period right before the railways in Britain were re-nationalised a couple of years ago, I was waiting for a train to somewhere or the other at London Waterloo. It was rush hour, and hordes of frustrated commuters stood around the giant display board where every other train was marked as being 'Cancelled'. As if this were not bad enough, every once in a while there would be an announcement along the lines of 'The 5.43 to Milton Keynes, which has been rescheduled to 6.37, is now cancelled.' You could tell that the person having to make these announcements was getting really stressed out by his job, and finally, at one point, he made the announcement which took the cake.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, Railtrack is sorry to announce that the 6.24 train to Exmouth has been cancelled because we can't find a bloody driver' (emhpasis on the bloody).

As Mastercard would say, priceless.


Blogger heroine said...

insprired me to get back to blogging myself. the talk of british rail reminded me of the wonderful characters i've encountered on train journeys across india:

--the ticket collector who addressed a woman in a sari as "sir."
--government anti-fraud officials who squeezed me out of my berth because they needed a place to sit.
--the man who knew what every code on his ticket meant.
--the two men arguing about the welding market in india: "but the market for welding in india is very small, no?" "what are you saying? it is huge."

and can anything match the romance of allahabad station on a midwinter night?

12:24 PM  
Blogger Sue said...

And what price rushing to get out of a train which stops for only 37 seconds at this particular station and trying to get into another one wich will only be hanging around for another 4.5 sec? Breathless changeovers are probably the scariest things I've ever encountered on SER... and I do travel a fair amount.

2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Priceless indeed! you should certainly check out the prices aswell..gloomy

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Sanjay said...

His all style and performance is very stagger love me for this his.

5:58 AM  

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