Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The bulldog spirit: is it a match for a disrupted train?

The British are at their best in adversity, we are constantly assured.

Or, at least, we assure ourselves.

That, we all reckon, was the Dunkirk spirit. When things are as bad as they can be, the dogged British character comes to the surface and sees us through: little boats depart from the Channel ports and bring the troops back from under the mouths of the German guns. Powerful stuff. Even though, as Churchill pointed out, “wars are not won by evacuations.” However well executed.

The doggedness was at its most truly admirable during the Blitz. London and other cities weathered the bombs. The population refused to be panicked or even cowed.

On a much smaller scale, within my own lifetime, Londoners just kept living their lives right through the IRA campaign of the 1980s. Incidentally, the memories of that time always leave me smiling when I hear Americans denouncing terrorism as the most heinous of crimes – the IRA was kept going with funds from the US, and there was plenty of self-righteous resistance from across the Atlantic whenever the British authorities tried to extradite a known terrorist.

Funny how being attacked yourself changes your viewpoint – it somehow relativises everything, even in a country that likes to despise moral relativism.

On a far smaller scale still, I had the opportunity to watch the British soul in adversity the other night when my train home was delayed two hours, on a forty-minute journey. The cause was a suicide on the line ahead.

First of all, it was curious to see how our attitudes – my own included – altered towards the suicide. At first, I felt bad about his death. What drove him to such despair? What a lamentable fate.

That was good for half an hour. The compassion started to wear thin after that, so by the time we reached the hour mark, nerves were being rubbed thin. None of us said it in so many words, but from our comments, more and more of us were beginning to harbour feelings along the lines of “inconsiderate bastard. Why didn’t he choose some other method? Or at least, top himself outside the rush hour?”

The ice had, by then, been broken between us. The reserve that keeps British train travellers firmly locked in their own concerns, focused on their phone or their tablet, had dissolved, and the conversation had become general. Ah, yes, I thought to myself, now we shall see that grand old thing, the British sense of humour, or at least British stoicism, sustaining us in our hour of need.

What a shambles, someone remarked.

“They’re all complete incompetents,” replied another. 

“Look at their Twitter feed!” added a third, pointing at his phone, “it reckons there may be delays on lines out of St Pancras. Might be? What a shower. Why dont they do something about it instead of making fatuous comments?

Right. So that was the shape of things. Patience growing a little threadbare.

I wasn’t quite sure what anyone felt the executives of Thameslink trains should have done. Foreseen the suicide and warned us before we caught the train? Cancelled all the trains? I could imagine how well that would have gone down. Perhaps they should have parked the inconsolable guy on a siding somewhere, and maybe offered to shoot him themselves, in a decent and humane manner, somewhere no services would have been disrupted?

We were in the foremost carriage. One passenger started shouting through the door to the driver’s compartment, demanding information about what was happening.

“Other trains keep shooting past us. Why didn’t you tell us this was going to happen and let us get another train?”

The driver came out and looked at him, completely nonplussed.

“I told you whatever I could, as soon as I got told myself. How could I have known it was going to be this bad?”

“It’s hopeless,” replied the passenger, apparently building up quite a head of anger, “you’ve told us nothing useful. You’ve just left us sitting here without information.”

“You want me to tell you each time I’m at a red light?”

Red light at night. No passenger's delight
But not a lot anyone can do about it
A few minutes later, when we stopped again in the middle of nowhere, he cranked up the public address system again.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced helpfully, “we are stopped at a red signal. I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”

The passenger who’d been complaining cursed under his breath.

Another train went whizzing by on the track next to ours, making that wonderful and inspiring sound we all associate with railway travel at its best.

“Look, look!” cried several passengers, “it’s happening again. Other trains keep going past. Practically empty.”

I’m not quite sure what they wanted the driver to do. Flag the other train down? Hitch our train to it? Or just decide to ignore the red signal?

Eventually we got to my station and I left the train. I paused to wish the remaining passengers good luck. There were a few wry smiles, but mostly just groans.

Alas. Not quite so phlegmatic, these particular Brits, as their reputation suggests. Not quite so undaunted in adversity. Hardy the spirit of the Blitz.

How have the mighty fallen.

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