Monday, 22 December 2008

You Get What You Pay For.

In the last week I have done four standup 'gigs' (industry term) and consequently caught quite a few of the last trains out of Charing Cross station in London. If you don't know Charing Cross, it's like a King's Cross Lite, in that instead of exciting overnight sleepers to the highlands, trains only go about 20 miles to Orpington.

That's not completely true - some trains go to Dover Western Docks, which is exciting, and makes you think of great industrial landscapes with ramps going all over the place and ships and horns and France and holidays.

But I get the Orpington train.

And they are very suburban trains - not sleek Pendolinos with dining cars. They look like Fisher Price versions of tube trains, all very plasticky and primary coloured. There have been various brouhahas about these trains, as rail companies keep trying to rip more and more seats out, so they can squish more people into each carriage, reinforcing the notion that commuting Londoners are little more than self-herding cattle.

One of the most laughable notions they had with these trains was the installation of a First Class Compartment. About a third of one carriage is given over to an area with very slightly bigger seats, which are coloured maroon = not a primary colour = classy.

The point is, these areas are generally regarded as the rail companies' little joke, an ironic nod towards the days when customers were passengers, and service actually meant something other than taking £3.40 off you to make you stand up the whole way and arrive consistently behind schedule.

So last Thursday, I'm on the last train home, it's the last Thursday before Christmas, and the train is heaving with drunk people. It's what I like to call the Society Train - a civilised affair where people enjoy sophisticated repartee and four-for-a-fiver lagers. By around midnight in Charing Cross, they leave the ticket barriers open, as if understanding that most people are fare dodging, and that it's simply not economically viable to let your staff be assaulted by 8,000 people.

I get on the train, and I'm fairly sober, having been performing. I go into the First Class section, as I have many times, having failed to see that this train is, astonishingly, staffed by a conductor, although presumably he is just cadging a lift home. And he says to me, he actually says to me: "Have you got a first class ticket?"

People have spattered the whole train in sick, and are openly humping each other, writhing around in a combination of Burger King wrappers and WKD Blue. And this guy is asking me if I have a First Class ticket? Of course I don't. Is now really the time?

Maybe it's like chess. Maybe he was trying to protect the King. Maybe this pretentious little compartment is the last bastion of civilization. When falls the First Class compartment on the 00.10 to Orpington, England falls. Or maybe he could tell I was a soft target. Damn.

I should have asked him for an upgrade.

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