November 24, 2005

Through train

There's a saying about having looks that could stop a bus: I don't seem to have them. Not a bus, not a train, not a Tube. Of course they stop, when you want them to carry on, but worse than that, they carry on, when you want them to stop.

An unfunny thing happened to me on the way home last night. Unfunny at the time: funnier now, in both senses of the word, now that I am rested, warm, next to a radiator rather than freezing outside on a long walk home watching myself exhale little clouds of breath. I should have seen it coming: they've been working on my paranoia since Saturday afternoon, when on a similarly cold evening, I was waiting for a bus to central London, to drop me off on Charing Cross Road near the Walkabout (where I was going to watch the rugby league). I waited for an unhealthy length of time, and then, summoned as if by a quantity of curses, three came at once: the first of them anything but full, which, I expected, would cause it, on approaching the stop, lead it to slow down and move towards the kerb. Rather than, as was the case, speed up and move towards the middle of the road. This unexpected movement on the part of the bus was matched by an unexpected movement on the part of the driver, who jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the buses behind him and presumably suggesting that I should take one of them instead.

That in itself was odd enough, given that nine of ten buses that pick up passengers at my stop probaby have rather less room to pack them in than did this particularly half-empty bus. What was odder still, odd to the point of stretching odd so far it spelled outrageous, was that while the leading bus was a 176 - which goes up Charing Cross Road, where I wanted to go - the buses he bid me take instead were both 185s. Which do not go up Charing Cross Road. Which actually go to Victoria, which is somewhere completely different. Which is why I would have preferred to get on a 176, be it packed or empty or anything in between, rather than a 185 in any state. Which is why he had no business directing me to take a 185 instead.

Which is why, upon this becoming apparent, I fired so many expletives at the back of the passing 176 that, had I been firing arrows rather than expletives, they would have proved more than enough to win the battle of Agincourt. My own barrage proved rather less historically significant: the bus passed without damage to anything save the sensibilities of the passing public. The barrage did, however, seem to impress the driver of one of the 185s, who stopped, despite his own bus being full and my not having flagged him down. He opened the doors and said:
I can probably catch him up, you know.
I declined his offer and caught, some minutes later, a 176 no emptier than the one before.

That was the weekend: last night was midweek and by the middle of any given week I have had enough distractions, enough everyday annoyances to take my mind off brooding about the wickedness of public transport over the preceding weekend. Until late yesterday night. When, following a chess match near the Barbican and a subsequent drink to celebrate our failure to be thrashed, three of our team, James, Angus and myself, arrived at Farringdon station in good time for the 2310 to Sutton. The 2310 not just to Sutton but to Blackfriars, Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill, Streatham, Mitcham Junction, Hackbridge, Carshalton and Sutton, all displayed over two pages of a monitor and reeled off by the station announcer, on the approach of the train, as if listing the titles of a member of the nobility. Calling at Blackfriars, Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction....and especially Loughborough Junction, since that is where two of us were getting off. Were planning to get off. Were used to getting off, as it is our normal train home from a chess match at that venue.

There's no problem: it's our routine, as is calling National Rail Enquiries from the pub beforehand just to check what time the train leaves, as is leaving the pub in good time to get to Farringdon, as is getting out Angus' magnetic set, once we're on the train, to review as much of one of the evening's games as we have time for. On went the announcement, off went the train and out came the chess set: and we had reached a crucial point in Angus' game, a mutual error in the middlegame, when the train slowed and the signs for Loughborough Junction appeared outside the windows.

James and I got up and went to the door as the train continued to slow, and slow, and slow to a crawl so slow that it wasn't clear whether the train was moving or not: it seemed to have stopped, and yet seemed to not quite have stopped, as if the driver couldn't make up his mind what he should be doing. On the assumption that the doors were about to open (which, had we been asked, would have appeared to us less an assumption than a stone cold certainty) we - small groups of people at every door along the length of the train - began pushing the Door Open button.

The doors, however, did not open: and rather as if somebody had pushed a Do Not Push This Button button, it actually had the opposite effect to that intended, as the train, if it had stopped at all, began to move. I thought it must have accidentally stopped too early, incorrectly positioned on the platform, perhaps part of the train having come to rest before the platform started: but within a few seconds, without the train particularly picking up speed (London commuter trains do not, if truth be told, "pick up speed") the end of the platform had slipped away. We were not, after all, going to stop at Loughborough Junction. Or if we were - if we had - we were not going to let anybody get off there.

It was bizarre. At first, I thought that I must have been pushing a duff button to try and operate a duff door, as sometimes happens - the door refuses to open and you scuttle across to use another one. Scuttling, however, even if I had had the time to scuttle, would have done no good. I looked across and there were a group of people next to the carriage's other door, all looking angry with the door, or with the train, or with the entire world and everybody in it. A duff carriage, then. I needed to get across into the next carriage if I wanted to get out at Herne Hill instead. But when I did, similar groups of people, wearing similar angry expressions, were at the carriage doors.

I have heard of trains deliberately missing out small stations in order to keep to the timetable, dropping off the passengers at stations beyond their preferred destinations and expecting them to get the next train back (which, were it not ludicrous enough in the first place, conjures up an imaginary sequence involving passengers taking the return train and being taken past their destination then as well: and travelling from one wrong station to another in an infinite sequence without ever being allowed to get off at the right place). But this was the last train and there was no train back. And it was cold, bastard cold outside. And if I had to go out into the cold, which I surely did, I would rather I went out at the place of my choosing.

All I could assume was that the driver didn't realise that the passenger doors wouldn't open - as they had worked perfectly all right at Farringdon, Blackfriars and Elephant and Castle. Which meant, I assumed, that he wouldn't realise that they didn't open all the way along the line. Not at Herne Hill, nor at Tulse Hill, nor at Streatham: he would pass through Mitcham Junction, Hackbridge and Carshalton with passengers pressing desperately at the buttons at each succesive station, pressing their faces to the windows and thinking of homes and loved ones left behind, until we would finally arrived at Sutton, the driver would pack up and leave the train and the passengers would be stranded in the carriages overnight. Chipped out, perhaps, by firemen in the morning.

As it turned out, we were spared. The train arrived at Herne Hill - arrived, too, properly, slowing down and stopping in the conventional fashion and allowing the doors to open without difficulty. At which point the passengers, released from their confinement, piled onto the platform and - some of them - hurried over to bang on the window of the driver's cab and ask what he thought he was playing at.

He opened up and told us that the train wasn't supposed to stop at Loughborough Junction. Immediately he received a number of passionate testimonials to the contrary, illustrating a wealth of experience gleaned from many journeys on the 2310 from Farringdon on evenings such as this. They made reference also to the monitors at the stations we had called at and the announcements made on the arrival, at these stations, of Loughborough Junction as among the stations at which the train was due to call and at which, therefore, we might have expected to be invited to alight.

These submissions failed to shake his confidence, which, it appeared, was based on textual evidence: for he produced a schedule, that, he claimed, exempted Loughborough Junction from the list of stations at which he was required to stop. It listed, in the manner of any railway timetable, a number of stations and the times of arrival next to them. And oddly, next to Loughborough Junction the time was listed with an o in the middle, like this:
Loughborough Junction 23O23.
According to him, that O was his escape clause (though not ours: rather the reverse). Never mind the announcements. Never mind what it said on the monitors. He was not to stop and not to let us off. But I had my own schedule too, a timetable, valid for, according to the cover, 12 June to 10 December 2005, which latter date was still half a month away. I pulled it from my bag and flicked through it as quickly as I could, to see if I could find evidence to contradict the driver. On page 20, listing trains Monday to Friday, it showed the following:
Kings Cross Thameslink 2306
Farringdon 2310
London Blackfriars 2316
Elephant & Castle 2319
Loughborough Junction 2323s
Herne Hill 2327a
What was that s? He bolstered his case with an o: what could I do with my accompanying s? I hurried to the bottom of the page and there it was:
s - Stops to set down only.
Stops to set down only. That's stops to set down passengers. That's stops. To set down passengers. With the doors open, unless they are expected to lever themselves through the windows. Eureka! I had the smoking gun, the missing link, the killer piece of evidence, the clinching argument. Like the photograph that Winston saw of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, but in my hand, incontrovertible, indestructible, there.

But futile, futile as a photograph consigned to a memory hole, as futile as the pushing of the Door Open button at the station I had wanted. Because the window was closed, the driver was back at the controls and as I stood there, on the platform stupidly waving my proof at him, he moved gradually away, looking at me just like Fernando Rey looked at Gene Hackman in The French Connection.

I told him, loudly, what I thought he was. Loudly, but pointlessly. It was no more effective than my barrage at the 176. The train was gone. The air was cold. My breath was visible. The bus would never come. The walk home was a long way, and seemed, as I walked, to be even longer than it really was.

November 20, 2005

Revelations but no apocalypse

Following the revelation that nearly every public school in the country has been engaging in price-fixing in order to fleece its customers, and the subsequent announcement that Ampleforth College and the Catholic Church had been engaging in, and covering up, child sex abuse for many years (something that could only be termed a "revelation" if "revelation" meant "fact that could not possibly surprise anybody in any way whatsoever") I fully expect, indeed confidently forecast, the following chain of events:
  • the Government will send hit-squads into public schools to take over and reform their corrupt and wasteful financial practices
  • a major educational initiative will be launched by Mr Blair to take education out of the hands of private business and religious institutions

  • middle-class parents will start removing their children from public schools and placing them in comprehensives
  • the newspapers will begin a shock-horror campaign searching for paedophiles in public schools. They will also dub Ampleforth the "worst school in Britain".
See if they don't.

November 10, 2005

Democratic deficit

I was watching, on BBC Breakfast yesterday, Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, justifying her support for the ninety-day detention period that was mercifully rejected by the House of Commons later in the day. She argued, much as the government argued, that the police had asked for the powers: and that as they were better placed than her to make that judgement, and were in possession of the information that led them to make it, she had, therefore, no business standing in their way. I paraphrase her argument: I do not think I misrepresent it.

It struck me - rather later, I must admit, because my brain works no better in the early morning than most Labour backbenchers' operate at any other time - that this was the most specious of specious arguments. Far from Ms Ellman having no business questioning the claims of the police, to do precisely this is, in fact, her basic duty as an elected representative.

The question here is not, specifically, whether the legislation was right or wrong, or whether the police can be trusted. The question is what elected representatives are there to do. As individuals, as part of the body to which they are elected. The answer is that they are there to scrutinise. On our behalf, they are there to ask questions.

That is how a representative democracy works. Functions are carried out professionally, but overseen democratically. If we want a bridge to be built, the design and construction are not carried out by the people at large: they are carried out by professionals, quite likely well-paid professionals at that, without whose expertise nothing substantial can be done. Within the terms of reference which they have been set, they make the decisions. But every one of these decisions stands to be questioned, both at the time and afterwards, by the representatives of the people on whose consent (and contribution) everything rests.

At every level of representative government, from the parish council to the Standing Committees of the House of Commons, people carry out scrutiny. They call the servants of the people to account. That is neither an obstructive purpose nor a dispensable one: it is the principle and practice on which our consent to government necessarily stands. It is also the principle and practice on which depends our very ability to let the professionals get on with it, whether they be teachers, architects, librarians or police. You can let them operate without standing over them, provided you know that anything they do, they can be held accountable for later. Held accountable, by our elected representatives. In all sorts of ways, our representatives are there, not just to vote, not just to contact if we personally have a problem, but to perform the role of democratic scrutiny within the wider function of governance.

So for Louise Ellman to exempt herself from that responsbility is not, as she might have it, to defer to the greater and more urgent knowledge of the police. It is actually, to refuse to do what she is there to do. She must - must, if we live in a proper, functioning democracy - say to the police that if they want extra powers then they must show reason why. Their word, unsupported, is not, cannot and must not be enough.

Not, specifically, because they are the police (although their track record is none too special). Not, specifically, because of what they are. But because of what Louise Ellman is, or ought to be. Because of what representative democracy is. Or what it ought to be.

[This piece can also be read at Dead Men Left.]

November 09, 2005

Electoral arithmetic

"With a government majority of 66 every vote is crucial"
Reeta Chakrabarti on BBC Breakfast this morning.

November 08, 2005

Identity crisis

When I was a boy, living in a newish estate on what was, then, the edge of Stevenage, we used to go and play cricket with a tennis ball in a piece of waste ground in between a couple of the cul-de-sacs and the dual carriageway. It must, I imagine, have been filled in long since, for all the land on the other side of the dual carriageway is housing now, right up to the motorway and probably beyond.

But, at the time, it produced a nice little square for football and cricket, and therefore produced a fair number of balls lofted over fences, kicked or hit or rebounding into the imagined crowd. If we were lucky, they would bounce into the road, where we could retrieve them with a minimum of adult interference if not a minimum of danger. If we were not, they would loop over back fences, into back gardens and into history unless we were prepared to overcome the dangers involved in getting them back.

Most of these were merely verbal: specifically, the likelihood of a telling-off, either directly from the householder, or indirectly via a report to one of our parents, the magnitude of the telling-off naturally increasing with the transference of responsibility. (I often recall this principle when watching a football match in which a player's transgression is reported by the linesman to the referee. Much, much better, if one is to express dissent, to swear at the referee directly, rather than his underling: better by far to annoy the parent than the parent's neighbours.) But there were small attendant physical dangers, mostly involving falling off fences in the act of climbing them, though the danger to the fence was normally greater than the danger to the child - provided you could get to the top from the outside, an easy enough task with a bunk-up, the inside of the fence afforded a couple of ledges which would get you down, and, the ball retrieved and thrown over the fence, get you out and over again before you could be seen. Or, if you had been seen, before you could be identified.

I was never that fond of climbing fences, though, being neither athletic nor brave, and it was therefore a happy day if the ball, though over a hostile fence, were nevertheless to rebound in such a way as to make its retrieval possible without feats of daring or the danger of exposure. There was a particular fence - the closest on the legside boundary, batting right-handed at the dual carriageway end - and it could be done by sticking the bat under the fence, which was ill-fitted and left a gap at the bottom, until the tennis ball, if it had bounced back within reach, could be manouevered into a position where it could be reached with a hand and put back into play.

But even this had some element of risk as the householder, presumably not with the primary purpose of frightening off the nation's future Test match cricketers, was the owner of an Alsatian dog. In fact, as I recall, there was more than one Alsatian dog, though I suppose it may have only been the one. I suppose there may not have been an Alsatian at all - I am not sure I ever saw it and it may just have seemed like an Alsatian at the time, or become one through the exaggeration of successive childrens' anecdotes, a Boo Radley of a dog and possibly an imaginary one. The dog itself may have come into existence only when I recalled the memory more than a quarter of the century down a very rocky track.

But that is the memory, nonetheless: and one memory in particular, that, as I reached for the tennis ball, I heard the dog, or dogs, hurrying towards me and my unprotected hand. That just as I got the ball and pulled my arm back through the gap, I felt the breath of the Alsatian on my flesh. An instant from its breath. An instant from its bite.

I had forgotten that memory - or repressed it, or stored it up, whichever way you choose to say exactly the same thing, for a long time. There is shock in the memory and shock floods and numbs your mind, so that you may subdue your fear. I subdued that fear for years, the fear of being mauled and mangled by a dog, but I recalled it, just today, this lunchtime, after having unexpectedly to do some retrieval work, work that retrieved the long-lost memory as well.

We are all obliged, at work, to carry our ID cards with us, in the service of security. Most of us wear them hung around our necks, as children do, or used to do, with latchkeys, or as conference delegates have recently begun to do. It's fine until the cards begin to crack, or the plastic holders begin to fray, after which the cards start falling out at unexpected times, making one retrace one's steps after noticing, occasionally and then frequently, that the card is missing and the holder empty.

Usually the card will fall without drawing attention to itself. Today, however, it practically whisked itself out of its container and threw itself into the air. It was lunchtime, I was on my way to Sainsbury for sandwiches to sustain me through the hour - a journey that takes me through the hospital to which the library is attached. I go in through the back and come out at the front entrance, where just across the road on which the taxis stop, there are a couple of goldfish ponds. These provide a little bit of relaxation to the patient who wants to take a walk, and quite likely a fag, outside the confines of the hospital.

I went through the revolving doors, crossed the little road, and at that very moment the wind got up, caught my card and wrenched it out of its holder, briefly up into the air and then, slow enough for me to watch, but more than swift enough to stop me doing anything about it, it floated through the air until it landed in the pond. Whereupon it ceased to float.

I thought, for a brief moment, that it would be light enough and flat enough not to sink. But sink it did. It sank, however, slowly, slowly enough for me to watch it sink, slowly enough even for me to have time to plunge my arm in to the water in an effort to retrieve it. I grasped at the refraction, but missed the card itself, and with a soaking arm, inside a soaking shirt, inside a soaking sweater, I saw it settle on the bottom. Where it lay, in view, but not in reach.

I looked at it and cursed it. I stood at the edge of the pond like a cat pawing at a goldfish bowl, fascinated by the contents but unable to get at what I wanted. I would, I was sure, be able to see it every time I walked past the ponds, from now for evermore. Everybody would see it. Somebody would take a closer look, pick out my name and I would be known as the bloke who dropped his card in the goldfish pond. A hospital is a small community which can be compared to a village: and I would be the village idiot.

The village idiot. That was it! That was the solution. If the moonrakers could try and rake the moon out of a pond, I could at least try and rake my ID card out of one. There are some bushes in between the ponds and the Fulham Palace Road, and rummaging around for a while I found myself a stick, long enough to reach the bottom of the pond. I poked it in and dragged the card across the bottom of the pond until I had brought it to the side, plunged in my arm again (forgetting, as it happens, to roll up my sleeves first, not that it really mattered any more) and fished my card out of the water, gave my regards to the fish and went, dripping, off to the supermarket.

A bit later, with my sweater on the radiator and my arm underneath the hot air dryer in the Gents, I remembered (if I remembered) poking about underneath the fence for the tennis ball. At least there had been no Alsatian this time, racing across to try and take a chunk out of my hand before I could make off with my prize. It's a bit cold, outside on a London November day, for any predators a pond is likely to house: no piranha for the entertainment of the public. Perhaps I shall imagine some, in order to embellish the memory, when I fish it out another two or three decades down the track. But at least I didn't get a telling-off. And if I was in any physical danger, it was only from pneumonia.