Saturday morning and Favourite Man (FM) has gamely been persuaded to stand at Slough Station at Ridiculous O’Clock (blame my father and last week’s post) so that I can be assured of arriving ridiculously early in London for the matinee performance of ‘Hamilton’. (I know, I know, I am lucky to have seen it once already, but it is the gift that keeps on giving, so I persuade FM to have a birthday as an excuse to earn my stripes as a returning ‘Hamilton’ groupie. (https://wordpress.com/post/thedragonflyjar.com/229 if you wish to remind yourself why I will never be writing in rap again).
Anyway, great though the show is second time round, (greater in my view – but it isn’t my birthday so not my place to say) my thoughts are following a different track today.
Now I have got to know Great Western Railways (GWR) quite well recently and, although I am not a frequent ‘flyer’, when I do get to visit the Smoke, I am impressed with their upgraded carriages, friendly staff and streamlined logo. I go wild a few weeks ago and download the GWR app – I know! Mama J using paperless ticketing and rocking a QR code – there is absolutely no stopping me (well, unless my phone battery runs out and I can’t access my ticket).
Back to Saturday then, FM and I stand on the train platform looking smug as more harassed and less tech passengers wrestle with the self service ticket machine. I am uncharacteristically calm because I know I have also reserved a front-facing seat and that FM has chosen an aisle-facing option to accommodate his long legs. I have no need to juggle a portable Americano onto the carriage because I know that very shortly there will be carriage service. Jay Rayner may have started a twitter storm by berating GWR catering and advocating BYO, but I am happy in the knowledge that GWR coffee will be hot and that KitKats will be delivered directly to my pre-booked seat.
The sun is shining and, even better, the platform signage tells us that our train is on time. We are on track for a great day out.
What the platform signage – and the reserved seating option on the app, now that I come to think of it – does not tell us is that GWR has knocked 5 carriages off this particular train. So, same number of passengers, less train and a free-for-all on the seat front. I am no mathematician, but this sum doesn’t look promising. I no longer look so smug.
Rail though I may wish to, twenty minutes into the journey and still standing in the aisle, I have to admit that I am still having a great day out. On our carriage we seem to be travelling with the best of British (well, apart from one young man but we will come to him later).
Firstly, because there are more passengers than seats, most of us have had to push well into the carriages, furring the aisle arteries and standing firm at least until we can by-pass Swindon. We try not to look too enviously at seated passengers who are well into their first word search or crossword. It is at this point that we realise GWR still intend to run the catering trolley down the carriage aisle.
GWR understandably don’t want to miss out on any sweet or savoury up-selling, for they make so little on the ticket prices (‘honestly’). Two uniformed members of staff valiantly attempt to do the impossible; they wheel their food trolley through a packed corridor of standing travellers. It is like breaking through Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross to board the Hogwart’s Express. We could do with some of Rowling’s magic.
Maybe because it is a Saturday and there is no commuter rail rage, standing passengers retain their sense of humour and attempt the air hostess aisle shuffle we all perfect on long-haul flights; we have no passing points unless we agree to sit on the lap of a seated passenger in an uncomfortable GWR version of spooning. Bizarrely this is what we find ourselves doing, and suddenly total strangers are embracing an inner Dunkirk and talking to each other. Even if we could move – or reach our wallets – the drinks trolley is now redundant for everyone is sharing flasks and biscuits with each other.
One on-board hen party became dispersed throughout the carriage when the Slough contingent rudely imploded into their clutch just as they had poured out plastic flutes of prosecco to toast their bride. Not to be deterred, a Mexican wave of glasses is handed to the designated hens who are now scattered down the aisle in a diluted pink conga and soon most of the carriage know everything there is to know about the forthcoming nuptials.
A group of would-be rugby fans take the hens’ lead and soon a hefty prop is shouting to his estranged flanker at the far end of the carriage, ‘there’s a pint coming down with one of these girls, mate; wish the bride luck!’.
At Swindon, much of the carriage decants and we are gifted two seats by a grandfather and his young charge. They leave with a smile and gamely push their way to the exit. We are thirsty, but pleased to sit down and heartened by the camaraderie we have experienced. FM has his paper, and I take full advantage of my caffeine withdrawal to rest my eyelids before ‘Hamilton’. It is at this point that we realise we would have been better off standing further down the carriage. I can see why Grandad was smiling when he left his seat.
We are now sitting in front of the LOUDEST young man in the world and it soon transpires that he is learning Spanish. He has his head phones plugged in and recites responses to his Spanish app at a pitch which makes us all yearn for our own ear plugs. He is learning Spanish. His girlfriend is learning Spanish. We will all be learning Spanish.
By the time we reach Reading, I ask FM if we can book a weekend break to Madrid in the near future so that I can continue conjugating verbs with the locals and perhaps ask for half a pint of cold beer for my friend (I don’t drink beer, and doubt I’ll be buying one for a friend, but Mr Spanish selfishly didn’t progress beyond beer to wine and spirits during his tutorial).
He then spends the next ten minutes eulogising about learning languages by rote. I think his girlfriend is replying to him, but any other noise in the carriage is drowned out by his grating volume so I can’t earwig into her response. I try to bend my head to give him a cold Paddington stare through the gap in the seats (I am too shy to stand up and just tell him to pipe down) but GWR have designed their carriages for maximum privacy and maximum noise. It seems that, happy with his work, Mr Spanish has switched off his tutorial and is now moving on to discuss his waistline.
As we pull into Paddington I feel I know this chap’s life story. (Just in case you are interested, he is on a weekend break with his girlfriend, he is a yo-yo dieter; trains hard but loves to drink and loves salted peanuts more than the gym. His grandmother once told him, ‘you are a total porker, Bill, look at the beer belly on you,’ which made him laugh rather than fire him into the action she intended). I am starting to warm to him until I stand up to exit the train and see he has four empty Budweiser cans in front of him (It is 10 am people!) and has been talking to himself for the last half hour – his girlfriend is out for the count (or feigning sleep and reconsidering the weekend break) and dribbles onto his shoulder. I am concerned now for the rest of his romantic sojourn (multi-lingual, moi) so venture, ‘que tengas un buen dia,’ to him as I leave. He looks at me blankly. I have silenced him at least.
As we scan our tickets at Paddington Station I feel strangely primed for ‘Hamilton’ and relieved that I still have phone battery. We are on time (early, of course), and, without any extra surcharge GWR has unwittingly freed us from the shackles of a boring commute and ensured that we have stretched our legs, learnt a little Spanish and been reminded how some humorous brief encounters are the best response when the best laid plans hit the buffers. It has almost been worth the price of the ticket. To paraphrase (I will always love you ‘Hamilton’), we are running with the sons of GWR and we are loving it!