I’m writing this one hour into a ten hour coach journey back to Plymouth, my second adopted city and the residence of my Father. We’ve just finished our stop in Leeds, which even by the spectacularly low bar set by other large cities has the Mos Eiseley cantina of coach stations.
I’ve decided to do this column because frankly, I have nothing better to do with this time. A theme which I feel may lead to a wealth of summer entries available to you through the wondrous, newfangled medium of the internet. I’m also writing it because my journeys through the stygian warrens of the British public transport system have a tendency to provoke some truly bizarre internal monologues on my part. Failing that, you can always guarantee it to get on my wick, usually to humorous effect.
My journey today is on the coach because I have finally given up on the trains. The robber baron franchise with the private monopoly on my route home is Cross Country, the Ryan Air of the railways, who have riled me with their poorly enforced mandatory seat reservation policy and Spartan attitude to such luxuries as decent walkway space and not ramming people in like they’re fish in a modestly sized barrel for the last time.
National Express, to its credit, has a certain character which elevates the drudge of these journeys somewhat. Down the York end of the line, everybody who works for them is a kind of Geordie amateur stand up comedian. These are the sorts of men in their fifties who can legitimately be described as salt of the earth without having to use the inverted commas, the kind of blokes who can grin devilishly, crack a one liner and smoke a cigarette at the same time.
Still, I’m not entirely happy. Whilst I consider the coach allowing me to almost always have two seats to myself where I can read my book in peace a fair trade off for the longer journey time I still feel like there is something deeply insidious about British public transport.
Public transport, i’ve always thought, is an inconvenient spanner in the works of the common romantic idea that if Nazism had happened in Britain with the same economic parameters we somehow wouldn’t have stood for it. The trains and coaches and planes only operate through the limp and total submission of the masses who stumble, bleary eyed through the system day in day out. Their smooth operation depends on them being masters of subjugation, and by god aren’t they just. Everywhere you go, you are followed by omnipotent, disembodied voices barking orders and warnings in authoritative, yet breezy tones. Their instructions are riddled with pseudo-fascist dog whistles such as “For your protection”, “In the interests of your safety” and “Passengers are strongly reminded”. I mean really, would you honestly blink twice if those intercoms suddenly started broadcasting messages like “Strength through, Unity through Faith” or impassioned litanies urging you to give yourself totally to the glorious leader Patrick McLoughlin MP, Secretary of State for Transport?
In many ways, and not to put too fine a point on it, the whole business has a faintly fascistic air about it. Mass transit robs you of your individuality; turning you into a mere beast to be herded on to platforms and off to meet connections like a rat in a maze. Only when you emerge blinking the other end into the daylight do you realize that temporarily you were little more than a walking corpse, utterly enthralled by the voices and the desire to just keep moving forward.
And of course, like all systems which rely on authoritarianism to function, they seek to divide and rule. My experiences on Cross Country, who seem to take an almost malevolent glee in ensuring maximum conflict, confusion and scarcity on their trains, have taught me that as soon as you enter into the transnational transport labyrinth the normal rules and courtesies of polite society are suspended in favour of some sort of anarcho-individualist philosophy from the American frontier.
Ordinary, perfectly pleasant people who would hold a door open for an old lady at a church fete in Whitstable will happily mow through six grannies arms pin wheeling like they’re playing pensioner Tekken on a long train journey just to be first to the buffet car. The elderly themselves are of course not to be underestimated, as they inexplicably make up about 75% of passengers on anything other than a plane, which they presumably believe to be a communist plot, and will similarly slit your throat with the jagged edge of a shattered Werthers original should you cross them.
To illustrate this with a story, when I was a young buck just learning the ropes of University I elected to travel home on a particularly busy Saturday at the end of autumn term. During a crush by the doors trying to board the train, somebody stole the sandwich from out of my pocket. I know what you’re thinking as well, it just fell out onto the platform. Well I checked, and somebody definitely nicked it.
Anyway, what all of this serves to do is convince you that all of your temporary travelling companions are mortal enemies. The next person who boards might be the one with the baby or who sits next to you despite you signalling your deep dislike of humanity by putting your bag and coat down on the seat next to you. Of course this is rubbish, and merely distracts you from the real enemy, the bastards, y’know, the ones who are presumably responsible.
Of course, I don’t really mean any of this. These are just the half mad ramblings of somebody who had to get up early this morning and still has 8 hours and one change to go before he can finally relax. I’m not actually a complete misanthrope, whatever you might have heard down the pub.
Ooh what’s this, some people have got on at this stop. Is that a baby I see? Oh please dear god kill me now.