True British Spirit - Transport Style

Posted at 00:00am on 28th October 2008

It was with a sense of dread that I left home, at the weekend, to travel north to visit my eldest daughter. It was a trip which should have taken eight hours and included three trains journeys, with a car ride either side. As it turned out, it took nine hours, five trains plus the two car rides – and because my itinerary was shot to bits before I even started, I felt I was stepping into the unknown.


My first train was cancelled. The second was more than twenty minutes late. With two loads of passengers on a mere four coaches, it was standing room only. Having missed the connection for the scheduled third train, I faced a wait of 90 minutes. Except that another option opened up within the hour. But as that train was also late, I had to run like blazes to make it to the fourth. That, too, was late, and racing up the steps, across the bridge and down the other side, I failed to observe a notice which announced that the handrail, on which I leaned heavily for fear of tripping headlong as I hurtled down to the platform, said ‘WET PAINT’. Stained and dishevelled, heart racing and lungs panting, my arms nearly dragged from their sockets by the weight of my luggage, I threw myself into the only available seat.


What a journey! It could only happen in Britain. I’m getting too old for this. Whatever happened to grandchildren visiting grandmother? The thoughts that might have teamed through my mind didn’t. Instead, I had a feeling of adventure. Was it worth it, this trauma? You bet! Amongst all the passengers I met there was a real feeling of camaraderie – the sort that comes only from a communal sense of being under siege. The sort that’s truly British!


On train number two – or was it three? – I couldn’t help overhearing a mobile phone conversation from a young woman in the seat across the aisle. Everything about her reminded me of my daughter: the one who died. Same pretty, but unkempt appearance; same accident-prone personality; and evidently, every bit as scatty. She had, she told her friend on her mobile, set off on her journey without money or credit cards, and she was ‘STARVING’.

Now I like to think that there were those who offered my daughter help in the days when she most needed it. So naturally, I want to reciprocate. ‘Here, have this,’ I said, offering the girl a squashed ham sandwich. She declined, on the grounds that she was vegetarian. I found a large unopened bag of crisps.

‘I can’t’ she said, salivating.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘I don’t want to take from you,’ she replied.

‘And I don’t want to see you hungry.’ I thrust the bag at her and turned my attention back to my book so that she could eat without feeling embarrassed.


On the last train, The Shack, William P Young’s acclaimed bestseller, took a back seat as I eavesdropped on the two lads with whom I was sharing a table. Conversation was animated, humorous and rife with the sort of familiarity you’d expect from a couple of lifelong friends. Except that they weren’t. As they drew me into their conversation, it emerged that they’d only met on the train.

Both British, one was of indeterminate Asian origin, the other Chinese. The former lived with his dad and a sister in Cumbria and was en route to visit his mum and the ‘little ones’ who would demand his attention when all he wanted was to revise. He was about to take his GCSE’s. The older lad worked, part time, in a Chinese take-away, and had been to an open day at a university where he hoped to read Physics. His math passes, he told me, were way above the criteria set by the university, ‘but it’s not Cambridge,’ he finished, ruefully. Cambridge, it transpired, was where his older sister had been.


Openly admiring their academic aspirations, I told them about my own grandchildren’s achievements, referring to them as boys, then apologising because in reality they were almost young men.

‘You sound just like my gran,’ grinned the younger of the two. ‘I don’t think she’ll ever think of me as anything but “her little boy.”’

‘I can’t believe you two have only just met,’ I said. ‘You sound as if you’ve known each other all your lives.’

‘I talk to anyone,’ said the Chinese lad. ‘I was talking to two girls earlier.’

‘Must be a bit of a come-down sitting next to someone’s grandma,’ I said.

They laughed.

Just then my phone rang. It was my husband. ‘I’m busy chatting up two young men,’ I told him, noting, as I did so, the mutual admiration that passed between him and a couple of girls moving down the aisle.

And then we were there – at my destination. But instead of feeling tired and fed-up with my journey, British public transport, and humanity in general, I felt elated. Glad to have passed time with three young people that day, who met none of the social stereotyping we’re so used to being fed by the media. Youthful and scatterbrained, considerate and kind, personable and aspirational – I take my hat off to them all. They were certainly an inspiration to me.

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