"Welcome to this 13:30 First Great Western service from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington, arriving at London Paddington at 15:14. The quiet carriages can be found in Coach A to the very rear of the train, and in Coach F in First Class. If you're travelling in one of these quiet coaches this afternoon we do ask that you refrain from using your mobile phone and keep all conversation to a minimum."
How I love the soft cadence of those lines, the hushed yet urgent rhythm and breathy exhortations to keep your belongings with you and don't hesitate to report anything suspicious. I write them down, these non-aphorisms of standard travel, in the notebook that's always with me. As a journalist and presenter I travel up and down the country every week enjoying the seat crumbs, freezing air con and barren toilets of all the nation's rail providers. I always book my ticket in advance and always book a seat in the quiet carriage where I and everyone else "do refrain" from making noise.
It's good. You get a lot of work done.
On Thursday 29 August - exactly eight hours ago as I type this - I did take the 13.30 First Great Western from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington. The previous night I'd presented Margaret Atwood at St George's: she was sharp, yet deep; the full capacity audience was adoring, yet shrewd; the venue was large, yet elegant; Atwood's latest novel, MaddAddam, is ingenious, yet humane.
I was presenting on behalf of the excellent Bristol Festival of Ideas, whose media partner is The Observer newspaper. I present for the Festival of Ideas often. I've also come to Bristol to present and speak at the Women's Literature Festival, Bristol ShortStoryville, the Bristol Palestine Film Festival - here I am interviewing Ken Loach and Leila Sansour - and countless other events, mainly at the Arnolfini and the Watershed. I do hope all my Bristol colleagues are reading this - and indeed, I will direct them to it - because it will explain why I am not likely to be in Bristol again, and why all the writers and artists they've invited to speak or perform might think twice about getting the train there from London, and why.
I sat in the quiet coach, Coach A, seat 20. The carriage and the rest of the train were half empty. The journey was fine. Didcot Parkway, Swindon, Bath Spa; it wasn't quite Geneva to Versailles but there you go. In my notebook I planned out a short story for a forthcoming collection with Spread the Word - here I am, on their site, looking like I was abandoned in a forest and raised by wolves. The collection is linked to their short story prize, which I judged alongside Tania Hershman and Courttia Newland, two of London's freshest writers. And I looked ahead with pleasure to next week, when I will be delightedly reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri's latest book, the Booker-longlisted The Lowland, for Saturday Review on Radio 4 - here's a quickie guide through my last BBC bits, First Great Western. I was tired after giving three talks - about war reportage, about journalism in the digital age and about the Middle East - at the Greenbelt Festival, and before that chairing six events at Edinburgh.
This is all to let you know, First Great Western, that I am typical of my profession. We journalists are mobile, well-connected, visible and verbal. Our job is to be one individual who speaks to many. I do that through TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and countless live events. Whenever I arrive at these events I am asked casually by colleagues, "How was the journey up?" From now on I will answer, "Oh, fine - but I had the most astounding experience on First Great Western."
At Reading a group of extremely young, chipper, happy and well-spoken graduates got on. There were about six or seven of them, twenty years old or so, male and female, in those wonderful first business suits you buy at that age from Austin Reed or somesuch. My first suit, which I still wear, was a lovely soft trouser thing, navy blue, polyester through and through, from Dorothy Perkins (I cut the label out). Posh, bouncy, articulate and full of the joys of life, this group were loud and garrulous but absolutely not crude in any way. I gleaned from their top volume, non stop and very enthusiastic conversation that they were studying finance and management at university. One chap mentioned his training course in Abu Dhabi while another said casually to his friend, "You know Jason Statham? He goes to my mum's gym, and he offered her tickets to his film premier." A young woman asked her friend, "In the Cotswolds, what do you want, brownies, cookies or croissants?" Another one teased his friend, "Why is your suit not in your suitcase? Suit. Case. Your suitcase is there, but your suit's hanging here. I'm being ironic. It's a play on words." "We're supposed to be clever," chimed in another friend. Another one talked about going on a Spanish language exchange to an area of Spain where "They don't pronounce their s's. I'm like, 'I don't understand you. Fuck off.'"
How marvellous it is to be young, joyful and entitled! I know this type well. Too well, actually: I'm one of them. All my friends went into banking, management consultancy (it was the late 90s yuppie revival), medicine and law. Indeed, this noisily upbeat, loose-tongued party in seats 13 and 14, 9 and 10 and 11 and 12 had a distinctive, extremely familiar, drawling accent, just like me. So it was no surprise to hear one young man refer to "my parents' reward for me for getting into Habs."
Ah, Haberdashers'. My old school. I wrote about it here, First Great Western, in my Guardian column.
Reading to London is about an hour and I sat through the noise for forty-five minutes. I didn't begrudge this young group their energy and pride, their joy in life and good achievements, which were not oafish or obnoxious in any way. I don't believe in giving bitter looks or tutting and rolling eyes or scolding and making things unpleasant. I think it's petty to puncture wholesome young people's happiness. But I was getting no work done and I thought about asking the guard to ask them to tone it down a bit.
I, like you, reader, have been in countless quiet carriages where the guard or other passengers have shushed a noisy group by saying, "I'm sorry but this is the quiet carriage." It's normal and both the complainer and the complainee get it. The quiet carriage is supposed to be relatively quiet. That is why the quiet carriage is called the quiet carriage.
At 14:57 the guard passed me and went up the carriage to the end - "the very rear" - of the train.
At 15:00 the guard went back along the carriage towards the front. This time I caught his eye and gave him a pathetic, silent, yearning look.
"Everything okay?" he asked me.
"I'm sorry," I peeped, pointing my pen tinily behind me, "they're just really noisy."
"Can't really stop people talking."
I said nothing. I just looked at him.
"Can't really stop people talking I'm afraid. Long as they're not on their phones," he said for good measure.
I said nothing. I looked at him.
With a satisfied toss of his head and a smirk he went off, through the noisy group, and the doors shut behind him.
Oh, First Great Western man, how very easy you found it to shut up, answer back to and put down a woman like me. How quickly the dismissal flashed to your tongue, how very pleased you looked when you delivered it straight up and how plainly the gloating disrespect shone on your face. It must be a great pleasure, First Great Western man, dismissing a woman like me, like that, and judging by your swift proficiency I think you have had plenty of practice.
Oh, First Great Western man, your distinction doesn't hold. There's no difference between talking loudly on a mobile and talking loudly in person. The issue is the volume, not the technology.
Oh, testify! First Great Western man,
what did you think I would do, numbly accept your rudeness, which you delivered so happily and so openly? Swallow it down and crawl like a nobody back to my nobody hole, having been put down by you?
You might say, First Great Western man, that I have not submitted a formal complaint. Well, First Great Western, consider this to be it. And let me be clear with you: I am not a liar, I am not mistaken and I am not overreacting. The events happened exactly as I have described and I wrote them down two seconds after they happened. I have been on countless train journeys throughout my career and you, First Great Western man, are the only man whose rudeness and passive aggression I have experienced and the only one I have ever complained about.
What I want from you, First Great Western, is an unequivocal apology direct from the perpetrator. I do not want victim-blaming. I do not want lies. I do not want excuses or explanations designed to cover the perpetrator. If you send me these I will make them public along with the name and contact details of whichever passer-offer sent them to me.
"Please refrain from using mobile phones and keep all conversation down to a minimum."
That is the official announcement you made at the beginning of the journey and which you make at the beginnings of all your journeys.
"Well you can't stop people from talking," said the guard straight to my face without a second's hesitation when I made my one, tiny, small-voiced comment after sitting through the noise for forty-five minutes.
I will not travel by First Great Western again, and so I will never hear those sweet murmured words, "if you're travelling in one of our quiet coaches please do refrain from using your mobile phones and keep conversation to a minimum" because, according your own guard, keeping conversation to a minimum is not necessary on your quiet coaches.
I suggest you get your story straight, First Great Western, and teach your guard two simple things: how to understand his own announcements; and how to show respect to a woman, like me, who will not be dismissed.
In the meantime, First Great Western, I am going to tell every single one of my colleagues because, hey, as your own guard so cleverly and quickly said, you can't stop people talking.
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