Thursday, December 11, 2008

Does your brain hurt?

I read in today's Guardian that Samantha von Däniken , who has huge financial problems, has been evicted from her home courtesy of Halifax Building Society. Ms Däniken (yes, a relative of the well known loony) describes herself as a "psychic surgeon". Wow. Forget your five years at medical school and then many years of hospital attachments as a junior doctor. You too can hold a recognised and senior medical qualification merely by stating that you have one.

A whole glittering world of possibilities has opened up for me. Henceforth I shall practice as a psychic brain surgeon. Does your brain hurt? Bothered by traumas? Need a quick lobotomy? Come right in and relax in my virtual surgery. No appointment needed. There, does that feel better? Of course it does. My surgery is instant and devastatingly effective. And my fees are really quite reasonable, at only £10,000 per operation (extras for my psychic anaethestist and a couple of days in post-operative psychic nursing home, naturally). However, I am afraid I can accept only real cash in return for these essential services and (assuming you are the sort of person who believes that there are such things as psychic surgeons), I know you will be only too pleased to pay.

Next week I may retrain as a psychic lawyer. Ruislip court of petty sessions for the terminally gullible, here we come.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas in Cologne-on-Thames

I penned a short piece a few days ago about a trip to Cologne to visit the traditional Christmas markets. Imagine my surprise to find a smattering of stalls along the South Bank, near my office at Waterloo, under the banner of Cologne Christmas market. Need I have bothered to take the long train journey to the real thing? Sadly for those who may be flocking e'en now to partake of yuletide delights by the London Eye, my journey was indeed worth while. To see the Bratwurst (sausage in a bun to you) offered at £5 when I was charged but €2.5 in Cologne - well, need I say more?

Monday, December 08, 2008

When indicators mislead...

Baker Street station is one of the more unusual stations on the Underground, in that it has three platforms serving the northbound Metropolitan and one of them is separated by tracks from the other two. So passengers waiting for a train must rely on either announcements or the venerable electronic displays to determine which trains are going where and when they might depart. Not a problem if the information is accurate and timely. Trouble is, it is not. The announcers tend to focus on trains coming up from the city to platform 2. Should there be a train waiting at platform 4 (across the tracks) then passengers have to decide whether to commit to it or take one from platform 2 or platform 1. You may think that there would always be plenty of time to decide. Not so.

This is the usual scenario. The display shows that the first train is coming into platform 2 but there is a train at 4 (or maybe 1) or both. Without warning the train at 4 (or 1) gets a green and with barely a peep of the train warning system the doors shut and it moves off. Nobody wishing to climb the stairs over to 4 has a chance. And I have known the train on 1 to close the doors so fast that it was impossible to get on even though I was but a few paces away.

So you have to play a commuting version of Russian Roulette, going for what seems like the best chance. Typically platform 2 will be crowded and the trains arriving are often full already. So to see that the indicator says that the first train out is on platform 2, and to cross over to 4 and take a seat in an almost empty train that then pulls out whilst the hordes on the other platform can only watch in envy - well, there are some people who enjoy this sort of thing. I have to tell you, gentle reader, that I am amongst their number.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tube English - 5 Customer Accident

There was a problem at West Ham this morning, due to what the announcer described as a "Customer Accident". Leaving aside the interesting question as to how they knew the person involved was a customer (they might have been an interloper, an imposter or merely a fare-dodger), it is the word "accident" that jars. What sort of accident was it? Like the time I was on holiday with my parents in Israel, and an elderly woman on our coach voided her bowels, and my mother said to cover her (and our confusion) that she had had an accident? Or had the customer (I still loathe the use of this word in this context) caught his tie in a ticket machine and been remorselessly sucked into the little slot, his body stretching and flattening like a reckless astronaut straying too close to the edge of a black hole? Or had she merely broken a nail and been loudly bemoaning her fate?

During the second world war they used to speak of "incidents" when anything really nasty happened. In the same way, the use of "accident" makes you wonder what they are trying to conceal. Since they do actually tell you when there is a body on the track, this option can be ruled out. But that does mean that what we must surely call the Ghastly Happenings at West Ham were worse? (Cue a crack of lightning, a howling wind and a high pitched scream, cut off in a highly sinister way). I would be tempted to despatch a private investigator, clad in trenchcoat and false moustache, if only there were one in my employ.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Christmas in Cologne

To Cologne via Eurostar and Thalys/ICE for a couple of days of high class pottering amidst the Christmas markets. The trains were on time and as always provided an almost effortless way to travel. Alas, I can make no observations on commuting because we did not need to use the Cologne underground system. The only problem on the trip was the rowdy and stupid behaviour of some Man City fans gathered outside a pub, making all the other English tourists shrink away in disgust. Why do they think anyone cares which team they support? Why do they have to chant their tuneless dirges?
Today I glanced through an Evening Standard from last week and saw a letter from someone unable to detrain at Kings Cross because of overcrowding. I was also caught by this on Tuesday night, unable to board a train at Euston Square because trains were not stopping there either. And yet plenty of trains were running. Perhaps if they stopped at Kings Cross they might have taken away some of the people causing the overcrowding, then there would cease to be a problem. Just a thought.

Friday, November 21, 2008

TGIF revisited

I wrote last week about the curious lack of people on my London-bound morning journey by tube. Today the Met was moderately busy but the Bakerloo very crowded. Not only that, but not a soul left the last carriage of the train that arrived at Baker Street and I stood until Oxford Circus, a most rare occurence. So much for the station announcer's obsessive chants urging passengers to walk to the end of the platform

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tube English 4

The station announcers are fond of telling passengers to move along to the ends of platforms where frequently fewer people are waiting. This is fair enough, at one level, yet one must ponder what would happen if everyone followed this advice. Surely the crush at the end of the platform would seriously inconvenience all, whilst leaving space in the middle carriages. So what they really should be asking is that sufficient passengers move along so as to spread the load out evenly. Rather hard to know how to put this into a short pithy and easily repeatable-through-a-loudhailer phrase though.

Friday, November 14, 2008

TGIF

Friday morning, and the trains into London are significantly less crowded than in the rest of the week. We are not exactly stretched out with feet up on the opposite seat but people who stand are doing so from choice. Is this down to people taking holidays, or just skiving off for a long weekend? Or is it the harbinger of the economic downturn? One might have thought that people would be working as hard as they could in the current climate, not taking time off. Unless they are forced to work a 4 day week.

In short, there is no obvious conclusion to the conundrum so there let it remain.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Downpours and delays

Torrential rain lashed our office building, high above Waterloo, all day yesterday. At times the sky was so dark, and the clouds so low that buildings just half a mile down the road could barely be seen through the mist. The few lonely tourists on the London Eye must have looked out from their near-empty pods and wondered why they bothered.
To match the awful weather the underground put in an awful performance. Arriving at Baker Street for the Metropolitan in the evening I found near-blank indicators and huge numbers milling about on the platforms. No staff to be seen and no announcements to be heard. Having dimly heard something about “minor delays” whilst enroute, I decided to try another route and took the Bakerloo back to Oxford Circus to take the Central home. Once more huge crowds jammed the westbound platform entrance. A suitable train appeared and another was signalled just behind. I stayed back and let the crowds surge on. No sooner had the train gone then the one behind vanished from the indicators. I took the next anyway, waited at North Acton hoping at least to get a seat and found when a Ruislip bound train eventually turned up that it was full. Finally, having reached Northolt we were unceremoniously turfed out so that the train could turn round there, and there was a final 5 minute wait for the train behind.
Signal failure at Finchley Road and a security alert at Bank were the reasons cited for 35 minutes added to the normal journey time.
Moral – better to have gone out at Baker Street and had a drink. Sadly the pub that used to be inside the station is long gone. A commercial opportunity missed, one may conclude.

On another note altogether, Mrs Commuter and I enjoyed a post-concert dinner at St Pancras station the other night. The restaurant, Carluccios, has an open section on the Eurostar platform so that one has the the glorious ironwork roof above one’s head and the statue of Betjeman (back to us) not far away. Even the constant whine of the diesel engines made for a suitable auditory backdrop, given the setting. What commuter could ask for more?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama - The voice of Ruislip speaks

As everyone else in the world is writing about Barack Obama’s election as US President, should Ramblings join the frenzy of scribbling or remain disdainfully aloof? Given that every newspaper carries massive coverage, and that samples were to be found scattered throughout the trains that bore me to work these past few days, I think it fair to say that this does fall within my brief.
There is a sense of similiarity with Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. A tired and discredited administration fell to a young and untried, but enthusiastic and charismatic, challenger free of much of his party’s historic baggage. Of course in 1997 John Major was standing for re-election whereas John McCain tried to put distance between himself and George W. Bush but it was not enough.
So will Obama live up to the massive weight of expectations? Of course not. Much as I disliked the late Enoch Powell, his quote “all political lives, unless they are cut-off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure” will surely apply. What Obama may be able to do is point the US in a different direction, away from confrontation and first use of force, and change the kneejerk hostililty of much of the world into a readiness to listen. He doesn’t look like a typical hard-faced, shoot first and ask questions later, anyone who is not for us is our enemy, white¸ American. Until he starts acting like one, this will count for much.

By the way, sorry about the pretentious title for this piece. But it got your attention, didn't it?

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Monday morning diversion

After my little rant last week, Friday's journeys to and from work were fine and this morning's started out ok too until on arrival (by reasonably punctual Met) at Baker Street we were told that the Bakerloo was suspended due to a person under a train at Oxford Circus.  Meaning to go south, but wishing to avoid the crowds, I took the escalator that leads to the northbound platforms then cut across to the Jubilee southbound by devious means feeling like a character in Colossal Cave* - "you see a maze of twisty little passages". They had gone so far as to close the gates leading to the Bakerloo and when I peeked through I saw a train with its lights out waiting forlornly on the deserted platform.
No sooner on the Jubilee than we are told of delays due to a passenger taken ill at Canning Town. I love the way they enrich the details by telling you where the problem is, as if that makes the slightest difference - I don't give a toss where it takes place, I want to know how long the delays are going to be - but I suppose just being in Canning Town must be enough to make most people sick, and was it named after the moderately famous nineteenth century politician or did they do a lot of food processing there? anyway, where was I, oh yes, the pleasure of standing in a full train wondering when it might depart. Having crawled down to Bond Street, the driver told us that the problem was sorted and we gradually reverted to normal speed.  Let us see what the rest of the week has in store.
Update: At 5:30pm there are now delays on the Central Line with someone under a train at Bethnal Green. What is going on? What's wrong with jumping off Tower Bridge - you get a much better view and there's a good chance the river police will rescue you and then you get a nice cup of tea.
* a venerable computer game, the archetype for the now-obsolete genre text adventure

Friday, October 31, 2008

Time for another moan

I must be turning into Victor Meldrew. Not only did I phone the bank to complain about how quickly their website logs one out after a period of inactivity, but I also had a go at them about the pop music played whilst you are on hold. I am, as it happens, a fan of certain popular beat combos, and have been memorably deafened in my youth by practitioners such as King Crimson, Colosseum and Caravan. But there is a time and place for everything. Mid-morning, doing accountancy work with a phone headset on, waiting for the call to be picked up is not the time for contemporary pop singles, if ever there is one.

Time for a bit of a moan

London Underground has not distinguished itself this week. Every day there has been some disruption to my normally uneventful journey from beautiful Ruislip to London's glittering South Bank. Faulty trains at Amersham, signal failures at Ruislip, Finchley Road, Neasden, fire alerts at Lambeth and Baker Street - it's been a long and dismal litany.  Earlier in the week I had to take the Piccadilly (adding 15 minutes to the journey) because the Met was suspended south of Wembley Park. Yesterday morning they tried to stop people going down the stairs from the Met platforms at Baker Street because of overcrowding caused by delays on the Jubilee. Last night our northbound Bakerloo stopped at Piccadilly Circus because of a "situation" at Paddington. I have no idea what the train driver meant by this. Then just before we left Oxford Street we were told that Baker Street was closed and I had to scramble to get out of a crowded train before the doors closed, because getting out at Regents Park, or being taken on to Marylebone would leave me stranded in no-mans-land. I chose to avoid Baker Street altogether and came home via the Central Line, a fall back that works but adds at least 20 minutes to the journey time.
All this, a dusting of snow on Tuesday morning and the leaves have yet to drop.
Meanwhile in other news the massive redevelopment of the White City site, building works that seem to have been going on for decades, is complete and London has another huge shopping mall. Oh bliss. I read that 80% of the shops there are fashion outlets. Oh double bliss. Still if it keeps the young people off the streets. I suppose it fulfils some sort of purpose. But what awesome timing, as consumer spending falls for the first time in many years.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Schadenfreude

Enjoyment taken from the misfortunes of others. What a beautiful word is Schadenfreude. Typically Germanic with its combination of two roots, schaden meaning damage and freude meaning joy, both derived from Middle High German (thanks to Wikipedia for this). And how appropriate on this morning to learn that hedge funds (legitimate criminals gambling on the misfortunes of others) have made huge losses short selling shares in VW only to be outflanked by Porsche's huge stake as the luxury car maker seeks to take over Germany's mass producer.

If I had the power I would make any dealings in shares unenforceable at law unless the seller owned the shares and had done so for at least a month, and the buyer would be required to pay cash then and there. This would end the stupid speculation that pushes prices wildly up and down because people are gambling on the outcome. Investment should mean what it ought to mean -  medium to to long term financial backing in an enterprise, providing capital for new or growing businesses and a market for existing securities so that existing investors can realise their assets when they need to. Let the speculators go down the dog tracks and lose their shirts if they want to, but not at the expense of destabilising the markets on which the prosperity of most of the world hinges.

Clammed up

My usual Metropolitan train did not arrive this morning at Ruislip Manor. Nor did the next one. When a Piccadilly came in sight, I knew I had time to go back down the steps to the ticket office and ask what was going on. No point in watching the electronic information board on the platform - it displays no useful information. No point in pressing the "information" button on the "help" console on the platform - invariably there is a recorded message saying the operator is busy.
The man in the ticket office was not too happy about being disturbed and I found it hard to hear him through the thick glass screen but eventually we established that a Met was due. He gave me no explanation.  I went back up the steps where a train was indeed incoming.  The public address system provided no enlightenment. Nor did the driver of the packed train, nor any other station announcer. At Harrow a train stood alongside on the fast platform, looking suspiciously empty and people on my train hesitated to take it until eventually a grudging announcer told us to stay put. But not why. We continued on our way, with the empty train moving in step until it was taken out of service at Wembley Park.
Arriving at my destination, Waterloo, I discovered that apparently the Met had delays on the Amersham branch.
I don't see why any problem out at Amersham can affect services from Watford or Uxbridge, but if it does, is it so hard to tell the passengers?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Doom and gloom

We are living through a financial crisis reminiscent of the crash of 1929. Then, as now, a long rally on the stock market ended with a sudden collapse of prices. There were days when it seemed that the plunge in prices was over but always the market resumed with further falls, on and on until reaching the low point during the mid 1930s. By that time a full blown slump with mass unemployment had set in.
I have been trying analyse why the huge fluctuations on the markets cause me such uneasy feelings, and put this in the context of working and travelling to work normally. The falls in the markets will probably hit me a lot in terms of reducing the value of pensions, yet it may be some years before I do retire and things could have recovered by then. The huge uncertainties in the mortgage and banking markets don't really affect me at all. But if we do move into a real slump then my complacent idea about working as usual may be destroyed. I think this is the most worrying aspect - once people start talking about "belt-tightening" and companies begin cutting investment then the level of economic activity will fall and a spiral of increasing unemployment and reducing spending may set in.
I studied all this many years ago during my economics degree. Clearly world governments have learned lessons from the 1930s and by propping up banks and maintaining credit, have taken essential steps to preventing the drift into slump. Other steps remain, notably cutting interest rates and perhaps "public works" - efforts to keep expenditure going so as to stop the deflationary spiral.
Keynes wrote about the "animal spirits" of investors, meaning the gut feelings that underlie the decisions to invest. Those spirits must be pretty low right now. They must not been permitted to fall further. In the end a slump can be avoided if people believe in the economic future. Some of this is generated by positive leadership. Most must be based on evidence that things will indeed improve. I guess that the lack of this evidence is one of the big things that is worrying me.
Future historians may care to note that there is really no sense of all this on the daily commute into London. Nobody is begging on the tubes or even in the streets by the stations. There are no fire-sales. The ragged men with trays of matches slung round their neck, so beloved of cartoonists like Bill Tidy and Larry, are biding their time. One straw in the wind is that the volume of junk mail for credit cards and loans has dried up, as has the advertising for such products.
No pithy conclusion to today's piece. The ponderings will continue.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Monetary Independence

Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan, Clem Attlee - what would you give to be living now in the era when much of the banking system in the UK is nationalised? The speed and depth of the international financial crisis has been astonishing and the response of the Government - and others round the world - equally amazing and unprecedented. In the 1930s they wrung their hands and did nothing, except for vain attempts to devalue currencies and to cut expenditure, which made matters worse. Today they seem to have absorbed some of the elementary stuff I learned in my days as an economics student, and realised that confidence is the essence of successful capitalism.
And in a way I feel strangely vindicated. During the late 1970s I wrote an article in an accountancy magazine criticising a fellow writer who argued that the Bank of England should be independent and how awful and ghastly was any hint of state control. I said that in the end the key questions of financial policy must be made by responsible governments not by faceless officials. When Gordon Brown made the Bank independent in 1997 my adversary must have been well pleased. Now I hope he is choking on his humble pie. When it really mattered, and though the Bank was keen to keep interest rates up, political pressure forced a cut. At a stroke the heart of British banking has been regulated. Furthermore the coordinated action round the world shows the meaninglessness behind the idea that central banks can act independently.
With any luck the lesson will be extended to the ghastly public-private finance arrangements forced on the Tube by, yes, that man again, Gordon Brown. Can we have another about face please?

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm back, it would appear

It is two months since I last rambled on a bit and you may be wondering where I have been.
Voice off: Where have you been?
Well, I’m glad you asked me that. Sadly two deaths in the family have blighted the summer and made these little musings on transport, life and everything feeling a little otiose, not to say supernumerary. But there comes a point when you have to get back to normal
Voice off: whatever that is 
And, if my interruptor would kindly belt up for a minute, I will attempt so to do. Though apart from some extreme silliness on the Met a couple of nights ago, when some problem at Farringdon forced them to halt all trains both north and south out of Baker Street, whilst not actually telling their own drivers, or the relief drivers at Wembley Park what was going on, there is not too much to rant about at the moment. The summer (yeah okay, the grey bit between spring and autumn) holidays are behind us but the tube remains curiously quiet at least part of the time. Yesterday there was the luxury of a southbound Bakerloo arriving almost empty at Baker Street at 9:10 am. And equally my homeward bound Uxbridge train was also satisfyingly under-peopled (though as it closely followed another, maybe everyone was crammed into that one).

Lately I have abandoned reading (mainly due to all my books being in storage whilst the house is being redecorated) and have taken up doing codewords. These are crossword like puzzles with no clues – each square has a number and all squares with the same number are for the same letter so you deduce what the words must be using a bit of logic, intuition and recognition of standard English word structure. These can quite addictive and absorbing – a few days ago I was so engrossed I went past my home station and had to take a train back from the next one, Ruislip – this brought back not particularly happy memories of the year in which the rebuilding of Ruislip Manor forced me to use Ruislip instead. And the blackberry bushes that provided a rich crop at exactly this time of the year were no more – hacked down by some unfeeling bureaucrat probably on spurious health and safety grounds.
Voice off: Don’t mock, suppose a child with a serious blackberry allergy got pushed into the bushes, swelled up, bounced off the platform and onto the track. You’d be the first to moan about the extensive delays and cancellations.
And you know, she’s right. I would.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Gimme Gimme Gimme

Did you enjoy the over the top TV sitcom starring Kathy Burke as a man-chasing slob and James Dreyfus as a man-chasing fusspot? If so, this pic of a car that parked outside my house recently may be of interest.

Spelling Bee




Circumstances have forced me to spend more time than I would like in Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. But you can always find a lighter moment somewhere. Have a look at this noticeboard, stationed in one of the main corridors and see if you can spot the (I'm sure it must be) deliberate mistake.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Relevance

Scene: a London Underground station set amidst the lush green of a park. It is chilly and it has been raining on and off for several days. Right now it is bucketing down and water is splashing off the duckboards and dripping down the windows of the little waiting room.

Loudspeaker announcer: "During this hot weather we recommend that you carry a bottle of water".

Two incredulous travellers (played by Mrs. Commuter and self roll their eyes to the uncomprehending heavens).

End of scene.  Based on a true incident earlier this month. All names have been cunningly disguised to protect the guilty.

Yes thank you, LU. What do you do for an encore? Announce the winners of the 1923 Grand National?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hubris

We've got electricians in at home, and they start fairly early so this morning I left a few minutes earlier than usual, with a cunning plan to catch the Metropolitan train at 8:26 at Ruislip Manor rather than my usual at 8:32 (all times approximate of course).

The plan succeeded right up to the point that it failed. Lots of people on the platform looking disgruntled. Rain lashing down. The next Met came in at 8:34. Train crowded, steaming wet clothes. Minor delays due to a signal failure at far-away Barbican, apparently.

Nothing succeeds as planned - Joseph Heller (Good as Gold)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Flaming June

I have always assumed that "flaming June" was some sort of folkloric reference to the climate during this month, perhaps referring to the heat during the month that has the longest days and the dramatic effect of sunsets late into the evening. So I thought I would make some wry comments about the relatively dull weather we are currently enjoying, then thought to check on the provenance of the title phrase. Turns out that the only references are to a picture painted in 1895 by Frederic Lord Leighton depicting a women swathed in orangey-red drapes, lolling about in the best pre-Raphaelite style. You can see it for yourself here on Wikipedia.
Hmmm...I don't really want to start blathering on about a bit of Victorian tat. But then again you probably don't want to read stuff about how dreary May has been (though the plentiful rain has done wonders for my garden), or compare the current temperatures in London (20) with Munich (33, I am reliably informed, last Friday). But it is interesting to recall that dreadful heatwave of 2003 and the rather ordinary summers we seem to have had since then. Back then it seemed like the precursor of worse times to come. Now it seems more like an aberration, though I have no doubt we will have increasing numbers of heatwaves in future.

So anyway, it is gently smouldering June for the time being, and let us hope that we do not get a repeat of the torrential rains of last summer. Or I shall be scrambling for even sillier epithets.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Groundhog day

On Feb 7 this year I wrote about how problems on the Jubilee Line, coinciding with a football match at Wembley, caused chaos on the Underground. Last night there was a football match at Wembley - and lo - signal problems at Willesden Green once more took out the Jubilee Line and there was serious overcrowding at Baker Street.

I dunno. Is this some vast social experiment to see how bad the tube has to be before we all revolt? Presumably somebody working for LU reads the papers and knows when the next match is on? They didn't even try to lay on extra trains on the Metropolitan - when I was standing at Baker Street in the crowds, all the trains were coming up from the City and platforms 1 and 4 were empty. Trains could have shuttled between Wembley Park and those platforms with ease. And how about the occasional train deliberately not stopping at Wembley so as to make it easier for regular commuters - you know, those of us who actually keep the service afloat - to get home?

As I observed last time, the football fans were amazingly well behaved. No raucous chanting, no drinking, no belligerence, just a friendly good-humoured and tolerant approach to the jammed trains. If this is an experiment, the results seem promising.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

That Poe moment

Arriving this morning, as is my wont, at Waterloo underground station, my eye was drawn to a poster advertising what I presume is a “popular beat combo” or somesuch. In fact it was placed to be directly opposite the tunnel leading to the escalators so I had no choice but to observe it. Emblazoned across the top was the single word “Usher”, followed by “Here I stand” and then a picture of the performer in question.

Wrong, wrong wrong. If your name is Usher, and assuming you are not one of those morning-suited gentlemen who politely ask as you enter the church “Bride or groom”, then the correct name for your latest recording can only be “Here I (and indeed my House) Fall”. With the follow up being the snappily entitled “I buried my sister alive in the family vault and now I hear strange noises from below”.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Gallic Interlude

To France, Rousillon to be more precise, for a week of medieval villages, lush rolling countryside and the gastronomic pleasures of “salad of gizzards”, walnut wine and pistachio ice-cream. An additional attraction was that we went there by Eurostar and TGV, but sadly the latter is not all it is cracked up to be. Coming home, it took 6 hours to go from Bordeaux to Lille, a distance of some 450 miles. Allowing for about an hour of station stops, this still means an average speed of 90mph, a long way short of what the TGV is all about. Worse was that there was no food or drink offered in first class (the only way to travel, my dear), neither a decent lunch (which we would have got on Eurostar) or even on a trolley service for cash (though they did bring round a trolley on our journey southbound, from Paris to Brive). And nothing to buy at Bordeaux station either, so it was just as well we had stocked up at a motorway service station en route. The only refreshment available was in a buffet car that closely resembled one of British Rail’s finest during the glorious 1970s. Sweets, crisps and cheese on toast – Croque Monsieur if you will – were the principal offerings. Couple this with the overflowing toilets and the stuffy air and it made for a disquieting trip, though the seats were extremely comfortable.

The last time we took the TGV, a few years ago, there was a strike and we had a highly unpleasant journey. Engineering works this time around forced our detour to Brive on the outward journey. And they’re about to go on strike again starting tomorrow. Passengers booked on Eurostar have been warned to cancel if possible rather than risk being stranded the other side of the Channel. Another uncanny resemblance to 1970s Britain. I suppose one day we may have a hassle free journey that combines British and French railways. But do not ask me when that day will dawn.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Nasal Impertinence

A “gentleman” sitting opposite me this morning on a crowded London-bound train (thanks to signal failure, what a co-incidence, at the end of the May bank holiday) made a singularly revolting noise by sniffing. A few moments later he repeated the offence. A lady sitting close to him then plucked up the courage and pointed out that she was upset and disgusted by it. His response was the fairly typical “if you don’t like it why don’t you change carriages?”. Here, she let herself down through lack of preparation. Instead of pointing out that she had every right to sit wherever she chose, and was causing no offence to him, she rather lamely (no pun intended) said she had a bad leg. To which he muttered something about his own lower limb impediments and the matter dropped.

I looked up during the this exchange, noted that everyone else in the carriage was intently studying their newspapers (whilst earwigging at full stretch) and contemplated the simple lesson, dunned into us weekly through the popular BBC programme “The Apprentice” – Fail to plan and you plan to fail.

You cannot launch into a potential fusillade of contumely against a fellow passenger without a plan for the main contingencies of the insultee’s response. Forethought is essential. Had he said “Nobody else is complaining” she should have shot him down with “Nobody else has had the guts, so far”. To a plaintive “I can’t help it” she could have resorted to a matronly “Use a handkerchief young man”. Should he take a line from Mel Brooks and in a cod-German accent plead “My papers are in order, why are you persecuting me?” she must be hard and to the point “You are breaching the fundamental rules of etiquette, citizen”, with a veiled hint of Judge Dredd–type retribution to follow.

Of course it is easy to be wise after the event. I certainly am.


BTW, the title of this piece is based on a chapter in the book “The Six Days War” written by Randolph and Winston Churchill (jr) in 1967. Referring to Israeli patrol boat actions in the Mediterranean, it was titled “A Naval Impertinence”.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A gross over-generalisation follows

I have the feeling that services on the Underground are better than they used to be. You can get a rough idea just by looking at the service status page. Most of the time the tubes run without delays (although what they mean by delays is not always what you and I understand by this term) and the two lines that I use daily, the Metropolitan and the Bakerloo, rarely let me down. The trains may be crowded and much of the technology is so out of date it hurts (literally, when a Met comes into a station with its brakes squealing like young ladies of a certain impressionable age at a performance given by a popular beat combo) but somehow the system grinds on. I have no faith in its ability to cope with the Olympics or with a heatwave but these aside, there is a confidence that one can go on relying on the Tube to get around London.

This page will be heavily edited if from tonight onward the service deteriorates, and will instead say that I think things are getting worse. Always right, that's me.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Happy New Year

It is April 6th and I wish you all a very happy new year. Tax year, that is. The United Kingdom is still stuck with a medieval calendar that used to finish on March 25, but was adjusted by 11 days when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752. Anyway, it seems a more appropriate time of year to celebrate a new year. The days are lightening and the cold of winter is behind us. Or is it? This was the scene that greeted us this morning.



Still, it is a Sunday so no need to go to work and endure the usual litany of extensive delays caused by snow falling down the back of the signalman's neck, or whatever they come up with these days

Monday, March 31, 2008

The sounds of spring

Commuters on the London Underground are used to the noise of the system, from the rumble and squeal of the trains to the barrage of announcements. How pleasant then to be able to record a different kind of sound, the tweeting and chirruping of the birds in the trees around Ruislip Manor station as they went about their business this morning. The sparrow has all but vanished from many gardens but I think I saw a few today, together with the regular pigeons, magpies, blackbirds and one or two others I cannot identify. The singing was at a high volume, perhaps indicating that the annual competition for nest-space and mates is well under way.

Many trees were cut down when the station was rebuilt a couple of years ago, and others were heavily pruned, forcing both birds and squirrels who had frequented the station borders to move elsewhere. At least some of the birds are back - the squirrels have not yet reappeared.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A hole in the garden


This is a picture of the Acer that used to adorn our back garden. At this time of the year the leaves would be forming as shiny buds at the tips of the branches, ready to burst open all at once on the first warm day. Alas, the tree is no more. We had to take it down to satisfy the requirements of our insurance company, following a subsidence claim.

We have yet to place something to fill the hole - it gives me something to think about during the daily commute

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A pleasant surprise

Well what do you know. I've had a rough couple of commuting days and moaned about it in public. Today all was sweetness and (quite apt, given the time of year) light. This morning I had to speed up a trifle to get straight on a London bound Metropolitan (probably several minutes late but I should care?). The Bakerloo was on its usual good form. Arrived at work early. Coming home, straight on a Bakerloo at Waterloo and at Baker Street the raw pleasure of finding that the next three departures were for Uxbridge. I let the first one go as it was crowded and settled comfortably into the second no more than two minutes later.

I also had the esoteric, one might almost say eldritch (and I don't find many opportunities to employ that particular word) experience of listening to an audiobook, Edgar Allan Poe's grisly Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I love that wholly unnecessary suffix. Did Mr. Poe fear that his readers might confuse his obsessive tale of dirty doings on a whaling ship in 1827 with the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Ruislip*, an obsessive tale of dirtier doings in the rear carriage of a stalled Piccadilly train at West Ruislip Sidings in 2007? Probably not.

*I suppose I had better make it abundantly clear that I am not the author of this tale, nor have any plans so to be. Further, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it does not exist, and has never existed, and for the sanity of the world, it never will.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A typical aftermath

Yesterday there were loads of signal failures on the Underground. Today there were none (at least not on the lines that I use). But I was still 20 minutes late in to work. Apparently engineering works at Finchley Road, scene of yesterday's unpleasantness, overran this morning so there were extended delays on the Metropolitan. Rather than hang about on the platform at Ruislip Manor, waiting for a train that the announcer* thought might be "11 minutes away" (after waiting 7 minutes for my usual train if you please) I took a Piccadilly which, as usual, creaked arthritically down the line to Acton Town with plentiful stops between the stations. Our driver informed us this was because another train was ahead. Excuse me? More than one train on the line? Heavens, what ever next? There was me thinking that the Underground was meant to be a commuter network.

* Having a live announcer made a change. But I'm not sure he really exists. We have these big white pod-like things on the platform with buttons to press for Emergency and Information. I pressed the Information one. I got back a recording saying there was nobody available and I should ask the platform staff. Yeah right. Like we have ever had staff actually on the platforms.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rain, signals and failures

It’s been fairly quiet on the commuting front in recent weeks but today London Underground roared back in style. I was expecting trouble because there had been high winds and heavy rain overnight (with more to come tonight, oh joy) but naturally none of today’s little awkwardnesses were caused by the weather. Step forward our old friend “Signal failures” and let us read this morning’s roll of honour.

I arrived at my home station Ruislip Manor to find no Piccadilly trains due to signal failure at South Harrow. OK, no problem, I don’t travel on this line anymore. With a large number of wet and uncomfortable fellow travellers I took shelter from the driving rain waiting for the 8:32 Metropolitan. This of course did not appear but the next one arrived around 8:40. We made it to West Harrow and stopped outside Harrow-on-the-Hill for about ten minutes. This, I learned later was due to a signal failure there (our driver maintaining radio silence during this period).

At Harrow we found a crowded platform and an empty train on the adjacent (“fast”) platform. They announced that there was now a major signal failure at Finchley Road and the Met was running only as far as Wembley Park. The empty train reversed back towards Uxbridge (an extremely rare event) and we trundled down the line to Wembley Park with the hope of catching a Jubilee line. En route our driver, now a lot chattier than before, told us the problem was “partially fixed” (what on earth does that mean? - either the trains can run safely or they can’t) and he thought we might run on to Baker Street. Then he told us the problem had “recurred” and we were to terminate at Wembley Park after all. On arrival, my train emptied and another pulled in to the fast platform and also emptied. I had to let two Jubilee trains go before I could even get near to the platform edge. But in the end the waiting paid off with a seat on the third arrival.

As I arrived at my destination, Waterloo, I was delighted to find that the travelator between the Jubilee platform and the South Bank station exit was out of action, and thrilled to hear that the Bakerloo, my normal line into Waterloo, had severe delays. I don’t think I need to tell you what the stated cause for those delays was.

So a magnificent effort by LU to screw up this morning's journeys for travellers from NW London and barely a hint of apology from anyone, apart from the driver on the Met who did say sorry for all the “confusion” this morning. Nice idea, wrong word. Incompetence, mate, that is the hub, nub and crux of the problem.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Detour - part 2

Well folks it got worse. Assuming you've seen the previous post ("A detour") you will have learned that the Jubilee was screwed up yesterday morning. And on my homeward journey it was still screwed up (though they had a different reason for it now). I was unable to take my usual Bakerloo train north from Waterloo because the platform was so overcrowded that they were spilling back to the foot of the escalators. So I retraced my journey of the morning and used the Northern to get to Euston Square, where I hoped to find a friendly Uxbridge bound Met.

Alas, I had forgot me the date (as Julius Caesar might have said in another context). For it was the night of a friendly football match at Wembley. And the crowds that might have used the Jubilee to get to Wembley were obliged to use the Met, and though an Uxbridge did indeed arrive quickly, it was too full to be boarded, as was the following Amersham but by then I had gritted my teeth, girded my loins (mentally, you understand, I don't go in for much loin-girding in public these days) and I forced my way on and had a really uncomfortable journey most of the way home. But at least we caught up with the Uxbridge at Harrow so I didn't have to waste a further 10 minutes waiting for the next one.

And as I surmised yesterday, they charged me for making the short break between Euston Square and Warren Street and the bill for the day's delayed and stressed journey came to £10.

To cap it all, this morning the normally reliable Bakerloo was suspended.

Hum. I still maintain holding the Olympics in London is going to be a mistake. What on earth will they do when the Jubilee has some signal failures/ power failures / defective trains (insert your favourite excuse here) in that torrid summer of 2012?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Detour

I knew something was up when the wrong Metropolitan came in. You see, unlike the other lines on the Underground, Metropolitan trains run to a timetable and you know whether they are on time if you can recognise the header code displayed on the front of the train. Today, at Ruislip Manor in the morning, instead of my normal 433, the train was 466. And when they announced that the Jubilee was closed and trains on the Met were blocking back due to overcrowding, my fears were confirmed.

When we reached Baker Street, some 15 minutes late, both the southbound and northbound platforms were crowded, something I have never seen before in the morning. The Jubilee was still out (power failure) and they had closed access to the Bakerloo to prevent overcrowding on the platforms, so the Met platforms were jammed instead. Normally I take the Bakerloo but I did not try to join the mob but stayed on until Euston Square, got out and walked over to Warren St and continued my journey by the Northern (often derided but I have no complaints about it today).

It is always a little disorientating when you take a different route but end up at the same destination as usual. And it can hit you in the pocket - having gone out of the system and then gone back in, I may perhaps be charged for two separate journeys - how intelligent the ticketing process is will only be known when I look at the total charge for today.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tube English 3 - Ill on a train

The excuse "Somebody ill on a train" is becoming more popular on the Underground. This morning they halted London-bound Met line trains at Harrow due to "late running" caused by the mystery affliction smiting a passenger at Baker Street. Then they cancelled one and routed the other to Wembley Park, so we all had to get out there and cram on to the Jubilee line. And 'twas whilst dallying at this benighted spot that the station announcer told us he could not explain when the next Met was due because of "technical difficulties".

Laugh? I nearly bit through the cables on my headphones. They have radios. They have telephones. Possibly our man even has a mobile. But no, it was not possible, at one of the key stations on the Met, for the staff to ascertain when the next train to London might be running because of "technical difficulties". But my contempt for this inability to function was nothing compared to the disdain for the original excuse.

Look, if someone is ill on a train whilst it is running it proceeds to the next station. So the train in question must have been at Baker Street, not stuck in the tunnel. And then they get off. Or the staff help them off. Now maybe someone vomited so they had to get a cleaner. Or maybe "ill" is a euphonism and they mean they spontaneously combusted, or were abducted by aliens, or perhaps the police had to be called so that the train had to be held there. But the point is, there are three, yes three, available platforms at Baker Street (four in a real emergency). You can run trains into any of them and turn them round quick as you like. There is no excuse whatsoever, however poorly my fellow commuter may have been, to simply stop running trains and then blather on about late running and technical problems.

So what did they really mean?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Things go horribly wrong

And this month's Acton* award for poor commuting service goes to...

The Metropolitan Line. (Short pause for catcalls, throwing of non-EU standard vegetables and a general air of opproprium)

Yesterday morning I was detrained at Harrow. Yesterday evening the train I attempted to board at Harrow was defective and taken out of service. This morning, thanks again to late running engineering work, I was detrained at Harrow and delayed, and tonight I arrived at Baker Street to find one train at platform 1 with doors closed and the lights out, and another at platform 2 jammed full but clearly going nowhere. Tonight's excuse was signal trouble at Finchley Road. And LU excelled themselves. They announced that everyone wishing to proceed to Finchley Road and beyond should take the Jubilee. because none of the Met trains were going anywhere. Many poured out of the train and began fighting their way down the steps to the deeper platforms. And then the driver of the train announced, rather quietly, that he was about to leave. I jumped in, as did quite a few others and stood in a crowded compartment until Harrow. Whereupon, to my amazement, we were not detrained, but never mind, we crawled down the track thereafter because of the number of trains ahead of us.

I had stopped moaning about the Underground in this blog since ceasing to use the Piccadilly regularly and I do hope I don't have to start again. Actually, upon reading the foregoing, it seems that I may have begun so to do.

Footnote: The Acton awards are named in honour of Acton Town, where I have spent many hours waiting and cursing because trains were cancelled or diverted to the Heathrow branch. As a symbol of rotten management, it stands alongside Northern Rock, the Iraqi war and the 2012 Olympics.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the Beach

I should have known it was too good to be true. As I arrived at my station a few minutes before my normal train was due, a Metropolitan train came in and I was pleased to catch it, having had to run up the steps. So would I get in early to work? Nope. The train was very full as we pulled into Harrow and, predictably, we were all ejected due to "problems with a train at Finchley Road". Fortunately another came in soon afterwards but I had to stand, and therefore skimmed through my newspaper rather than sit and read the book as intended.

And it was whilst browsing said journal that I noticed the following gem in the IT section. In an article on a potential network to link car drivers together, Mario Gerla, one of the project leaders, from UCLA Network Research Lab is quoting explaining why this is so much better than existing technology"Imagine you're driving to a beach resort and want to find out what the best beaches are. You could stop at a gas station and download several video clips from an internet access point, but that's not very convenient."

I allowed my mind to boggle gently for some time considering this insight into the mind of a top software architect. The problem, as Mr. Gerla sees it? The desperate search for the best beach. Yup, millions of Americans are right now frantically driving in all directions, on their way to a "beach resort" but chewed up with anxiety that they might not get to the best beach at the resort. Probably the wife is complaining "Milton, you schmuck, why can't we go to the best beach? Don't I deserve the best? And the kids? Find it, Milton, or start counting out the alimony". (I think this scene works well if you envisage Bette Midler and Woody Allen as husband and wife).

And what does our sand-seeking hedonist do next? He (I assume it is a "he" because I like using stereotypes) has not bothered to check out the best beaches before he left home. He does not have a directory of beach resorts in the car. Presumably he has sufficient intelligence to point the car in the right direction, and not just reverse straight out his driveway across the street and smash into his neighbour's Buick but I wouldn't count on it. He has, however, got his trusty laptop computer. But he doesn't have internet access via his mobile (sorry, cellphone). So he stops at a gas station and logs on there. And what does he log on for? To download video clips. Not to access "BestBeachResorts.com" to read reviews about beaches and check out facilities, like someone with a brain might do. No, slackjawed and chewing gum (actually can you do those two things at once? I rather doubt it) he gets on to YouTube or similar and watches grainy footage of people eating foot long hot dogs or whatever it is they do at the best beaches at the best beach resorts.

Look, Mr.Gerla, the reason we drive is to get to work or do the shopping or visit people. We know where we are going. We don't get in the car and then go "Duh, where are the best shops?" What we want to know is the state of the roads. Are there are any jams or emergency traffic lights? Is there adequate parking available? The technology you are constructing seems useful but please design it for real life, not California.