The train was late, then cancelled (no driver), then uncancelled (driver found), then the doors broke, then it was diverted all round South London because of engineering works. I was surrounded on three sides by a racist, a great bear of a man, who ranted all the way to East Croydon.
I think racist is fair: he brought Soweto into the argument very early on, presumably a reference to the ethnicity of the people actually trying to fix the darned train and get it on its way. Anyway he finally got off at East Croydon and took his ranting and his wife with him. I found myself imagining life in her shoes. Not pretty.
The broken door refused to shut again. A fellow traveller and I tried to force it shut. A guard turned up, then another, then another. Three blokes, brute force, and we were on our way again, later than ever.
The great British railway network hadn’t finished with me yet. I changed trains at Gatwick Airport, inquired politely of an outstandingly hairy guard which platform I needed and watched as my train pulled in to a neighbouring one. By this time it was after 11 at night, and cold. I sprinted up the stairs, hurdling the suitcase-wheeling hordes, and down again. I flung myself into the train. A final six-mile car journey and I was home. Two-and-a-half hours to come 40 miles.
The sign above the platform at Gatwick had apologised for the delay to my train. There had, it seemed, been “a congestion” in the East Croydon area. Apart from the surprising use of the English language, this was surprising news: it was the one thing which hadn’t happened.
This Christmas the bewildered trains have seemed fuller than ever of complex family groups, exhausted harassed single mothers, weary looking young couples, lost tourists and people who seem to have no hope of arriving, ever, anywhere. An Italian couple this morning asked at London Bridge how many stops it was to London Victoria. They were unable to name the place they were trying to reach, other than “central London”. I wonder where they are now.
Shorter trains seem to be being run through Gatwick Airport to coincide with the holiday season. Huge suitcases, children, pensioners: you can imagine the hell. The reluctance to “move down inside the train”, even when being shouted at by a guard, is quite impressive. These are people who know how to stand their ground in a crisis.
And that’s quite apart from the floods, which must have thwarted many a Christmas journey. It took a colleague at least three attempts to reach the remote city of Cardiff. “Reading,” he reported mournfully on Facebook in the tone of a war correspondent, “resembled a refugee holding station.”
In my worst single incident of recent days, the peace of a warm cosy waiting room (yes the train was late) was shattered by the arrival of family of three: small but deadly. The first I knew of their arrival was the mother criticising the father and calling him a donkey. They spent some minutes playing their daughter off against each other. She was about five.
The child finally took to singing Nick Nack Paddy Whack. The mother waited until she had finished. “Stop making so much noise,” she shouted, making far more noise than the girl had in the first place. The girl sang it again, but louder, uninterrupted. “Stop that noise,” the mother shouted even louder, once the girl had finished.
“I’m not being noisy,” the girl insisted. “It’s just a very quiet room.” Fantastic logic, terrible singing.
Her father intervened: “Do Jingle Bells next”.
I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I was reading Zola. “Don’t you know,” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you know how HARD this book is to understand? The vocabulary, the sentence construction, the…. the FRENCHNESS of it all.”
If travelling in general broadens your mind, Christmas excursions in south-east England open a window on the great British family. In the interests of balance, I should make clear that there have been some examples of great parenting too, and some great British humour. But train travel is approaching an extreme sport at this time of year. It should only be undertaken by the physically fit and very resilient.
Tomorrow I set out for Edinburgh. Wish me luck.