This is the night train: a commercial break (featuring Audrey Tautou)

Thinking of things no-one else likes but I do (see Glorious ’39 – “I’d give it a wide berth if I were you – The Harborough Mail”) I am rather fond of the perfume adverts you get on the telly in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  I do appreciate that they appear at this time of year to persuade people to buy as Christmas presents the overpriced but still affordable products that enable the major fashion houses to continue producing their otherwise completely unfeasible haute couture collections, but I still look forward to their annual appearance.

My favourite this Christmas  is this one – for Chanel no. 5 (featuring Audrey Tautou):

She was wise, I feel, to choose the Orient Express to Istanbul rather than the Eurostar to St. Pancras, though – having said that -St. Pancras would have offered her faster connection times to Market Harborough, not to mention an excellent selection of quality pies and pastries, and two branches of W.H. Smith & Sons.

Odd how corridor trains were so conducive to romance,  comedy and thrills – in the cinema at any rate – when the modern arrangement seems so prosaic.  I think the last time I travelled in one was on a day trip from Haringey North to Southend in 1989 (not, I’m afraid, that I can remember any r, c or t occurring on that particular occasion).

Credibility gap (and a bit of Glorious ’39)

A text message  from my daughter (14) –

“Top up yr fone!  Its dangerous to have no cred”

I think by “cred” she meant credit with the telephone company, rather than – as I think it would have meant in my young day – credibility, although, frankly, I sometimes suspect  I’m running fairly low on the latter as well.

It is  true that I always encourage her to make sure that she has a useable mobile ‘phone on her when she and her friends go on one of their jaunts to Leicester, not because I’m worried about them being attacked by bandits or sexual maniacs, but because there are two trains which depart from Leicester in the direction of London within five minutes of each other, one of which stops at Harborough, the other speeding straight through to London.  One or other of these trains is usually late, the platforms get  switched and it would be perilously easy for them to find themselves on the fast train to London by mistake.  If this were to happen they would not only be unable to get off until London, but would be at the mercy of the much-feared Revenue Protection Team, who might use their new powers of summary arrest to lock them up in the dank cell at St. Pancras that they, no doubt, keep for precisely this purpose.  If she had her ‘phone with her she could at least let us know where she was being held and we could negotiate for her release.

I don’t suppose she thinks that I am actually in any specific danger if I don’t have a working ‘phone on me, but because she has the expectation  that everyone is permanently in contact with everyone else (via MSN, Facebook et al.) the simple fact of someone being uncontactable becomes a source of anxiety in itself.

I saw a film last week – Poliakoff’s Glorious ’39 . In spite of the reviews( “How does Stephen Poliakoff get away with this stuff? – The Independent) I rather enjoyed it.  There were several points in the (on one level Buchanesque) plot where the heroine desparately needed to make contact with somone but couldn’t and I found myself thinking “Why doesn’t she just call him on his mobile?”.  In fact the plots of a great many classic films would have been ruined by the existence of the mobile.

A trailer for the film, if you fancy a look –

A glimpse of the sublime at Ratcliffe on Soar

As Friday was the first time I’ve travelled North of Leicester for some time (I didn’t make it to Trent Bridge in the Summer and I never fly anywhere), I hadn’t quite grasped the fact that the new East Midlands Parkway station is  right opposite the Ratcliffe on Soar power station.  Whatever your view of the environmental issues, the cooling towers, I always felt, provided one of the most sublime (in the true sense of the word (Sublime)) experiences in rail travel.  On a clear day the smoke is visible from miles away, but, if you’re not paying attention, the towers seemed to loom hugely and unexpectedly and magnificently as you sped by and rounded the corner.  The surrounding area looks fascinating too – there is a small marina close by (on the River Soar, presumably).  Now the new station has opened I might be thinking of a quick day trip some time in the summer.

This video was presumably filmed by a train enthusiast, interested principally in the engines, but might give some idea of what I’m talking about –

London Fashion Week on the Harborough to London train, represented in photographs of birds

Write about what you know, they always say when handing out advice to aspiring writers.  What do I know about most intimatelyat the moment?  Well, commuting, as long-suffering long- term readers will know.  And what’s going on this week in the world of trains? Well, it’s London Fashion Week.  I should explain.

A relation, who once had cause to  be at Harborough Station early one morning, told me he felt as though he’d stumbled into a previously unknown world, and that the poor benighted commuters, in their dark suits, looked like a flock (or murther) of crows.

A murther of management consultants

A murther of management consultants

 This week, however, we poor subfusc creatures have visitors from a more brilliant world.  It’s London Fashion Week and people who – I think (I don’t entirely understand this world) are generally buyers for clothing stores, in the likes of Sheffield and Nottingham travel down to London to view the latest collections- and what birds of paradise they are!  What brilliant plumage they have!   A day or two ago, for instance, I sat opposite a woman who appeared to have been sprayed with metallic gold paint – not all over, obviously, but she had quite a lot of the stuff in her hair.

A fashion person

A fashion person

And your correspondent?  Well, in the Autumn, at any rate, I tend to favour what could kindly be termed earth tones –mud, lichen, gravel, that sort of thing, so I suppose, in this scenario, I could represent myself as a throstle –

Turdus Backwatersmaniensis

Turdus Backwatersmaniensis


Well, I hope that’s given you an insight into a – perhaps unfamiliar -corner of contemporary life.

Twa Corbies

(I began writing this last Sunday, before the judgement about compensation for those affected by waste from the British Steel plant was announced.  It might now be less necessary to explain where and what Corby is. I haven’t altered what I wrote). 

At a loose end this afternoon, I decide to visit Corby.

For those who don’t know, Corby used to be a small village in Northamptonshire, until – in the thirties – a large steelworks was established there and there followed an influx of – mainly Scottish – workers that transformed it into a fairly substantial industrial town. In the fifties it became a New Town and there was more immigration, again mainly from Scotland. 

In the late seventies/early eighties the steelworks shut down and the town almost went down with it.  Recently it’s been subject to sustained attempts at regeneration : adverts on the tube in London encourage people to move there – as (apparently) does Stephen Fry, in some capacity.

I’ve never been there.  My Kettering-based family have generally portrayed it to me as a kind of Wild West boomtown, where you’d expect to walk down the High Street on a Friday night and see drunks being flung out through the swing doors.  An uncle who drove a bus on the Kettering to Corby route has an anecdote where he parks his bus for a tea break and finds, when he returns, that the wheels have been stolen.

I’m curious to go there because they’ve recently reopened the disused train line from Kettering to Corby.  This is obviously a good thing, and I’m curious to see where the journey takes me.  I think I’m expecting to be moving through open countryside, attractive vistas and villages visible along the route.  This merely demonstrates the sentimental dreamworld I inhabit.

The journey takes nine minutes. It takes us two or three minutes to get out of the new augmented Kettering (past the horrors of the Prologis Business Park).  The next two or three we’re in what seems to be a deep cutting with high  trees at the either side.  Emerging I spot some houses to the left of us – perhaps a village? – but no, we’re already in Corby.  I think there are only three of us on the train, by the way.

Emerging from the station (functional) a signpost points to the Old Village Shopping District (or something like that) to the right, the Town Centre to the left.  I head to the right. 

You can make out what’s left of the old village – a thatched cottage, some older houses, the church.  There are shops, including a Polski smakand a place selling fo0d supplements – mainly, I think, creatine – the concentrated protein that makes you puff up look like a bullfrog if you eat enough of it.  A distinguished looking old house – probably the old rectory – is boarded up, labelled as a “construction site”, though what’s being constructed isn’t clear.  A small war memorial, with almost as many dead in the second as the first war. 

One gravestone in the little churchyard catches my eye –

In memory of John Eno

who died August 17 1861

aged 26 years

I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me

Interesting because of the name (which I’ve rarely come across except in relation to Brian of the same name – believe it’s of Huguenot origin) and the rather elegant and enigmatic epitaph, which I – sentimentally – imagine to have been written by his young widow.

Then head back to the Town Centre. On the way I  pass a couple of stereotypes – a young man impressing his girlfriend by turning a can of Lynx deoderant into a flamethrower by lighting the spray with a cigarette lighter, and a youth in a Rangers shirt slaloming his way out of a dodgy-looking pub.

I know nowhere looks its best on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but the town centre (effectively the shopping centre) is pretty raw.  Picture  the average “clone town” high street, remove anything built before the sixties and the more “aspirational” chains and you’re there. Can’t see a bookshop, record shop, not even a W.H. Smiths.  Even the Corby Cafe – voted 3rd best cafe in Britain in 2006 by the Daily Mirror – is shut. I eat lunch in McDonalds.  There is a taxi rank outside, doing excellent business, and two teenage girls talk about getting a taxi home.

There is more to the town than this, though.  A monument to Workers killed at work, erected by the GMB, where you might expect a war memorial.  The Willows Arts Centre is closing down (to be replaced somewhere else) and rehearsals are going on in the foyer for some kind of farewell performance.  It’s packed. A new swimming pool has just opened (rather absurdly branded as East Midlands International Pool – are they expecting people to fly in to use it?) – and the queue is out the door and down the street.  Go past the pool and (for about 5 minutes) you’re in a thick dark section of the old Rockingham Forest.  Come out of that into a park with a boating lake – rough hewn, and I see no boats – but maybe pretty when the sun shines.  The whole place has a kind of Soviet frontier-town ambience about it, but – and I could be imagining this – also some sense of a rather old-fashioned kind of  solidarity and a hankering after community.

All of this I think I could cope with, but what makes me realise that I wouldn’t last five minutes here is what I see when I decide to take the bus back to Kettering.  Mile after mile of newbuilt housing estates.  Some offices – accountants and so on – but not a shop to be seen.  I now realise why the taxis were doing such good business.  A non-driver like myself couldn’t survive here – I’d starve to death.  Wikipedia says that Corby has “a car-friendly layout with many areas of open space and woodland“, and now I see what they mean.    

And on the on the housing goes.  It seems to reach almost as far as my poor old ancestral hunting ground of Geddington and there is only the briefest flash of open country before we’re back at the wretched ProLogis Business Park.

Eventually, I suppose the two will meet up, and Geddington will go the same way as Corby Old Village. 

If you’re thinking of moving there, incidentally, don’t let me put you off.  Just make sure you know how to drive.

Hard-working gypsies put lazy commuter to shame

(No – not a recent headline from the Daily Express).

Buy my copy of the Big Issue this morning from the young girl who’s been selling it outside Sainsbury’s for – I think – a couple of years now.  She is – I’ve always assumed – a Roma gypsy (originally from Romania, I believe).  I’ve occasionally run into her- laden with a backpack of Issues – in the evening when detraining (dread phrase!) on the northbound platform at Harborough Station. 

I’d always assumed that she must live in Leicester until a letter to the Harborough Mail from a lady associated with the one of the churches pointed out that she actually lived in Birmingham, was – I think – 15, and was looking after her younger sisters.

Now I sometimes feel  that my daily commute to London is a bit of a slog, but I have to say that there is no power on earth that would compel me to commute to Birmingham on a daily basis.  Although – as the crow flies – it’s no great distance, by train it actually takes longer than it does to London: it’s quite likely – in my experience – that you’ll have to stand, the seats are damned uncomfortable and then there are all the horrors of New Street to contend with.  So hats off to her, I say.

Can’t help wondering how she can afford it, apart from anything else.  The Daily Express view would be that she must be bilking her fare, but – frankly – it would be a great deal easier to make one’s way on forged papers through occupied Europe from Colditz to a friendly port than to travel from Harborough to Birmingham without attracting the attentions of the much-feared Revenue Protection Team.  Unlikely to be true either that – on arrival in the country – Romanian gypsies are issed with free rail passes, in addition to their luxury apartments, free spectacles, lifetime subscriptions to Country Life and whatever else the Mail/Express axis alleges they are entitled to*.  So unless she’s a shape-shifter of some sort and can transform herself  into a pushchair or bicycle, she must spend most of her earnings on the rail fare.

Before this particular girl took over a slightly older Roma woman used to sell it from the same pitch.  Didn’t see her again until I went to Oakham for the – now sadly discontinued – Oakham cricket festival (or match, at any rate) and heard the familiar cry “Yoohoo Big Issue” – and there she was.  I think she’s the cousin (or possibly aunt) of our current vendor and presumably commutes in from Birmingham too – a more scenic journey, but lengthy too.

I do feel that this part of the world wouldn’t be the same without divers Egyptians at the fringes of its towns, whatever  their cavalier approach to planning permission.   John Clare, of course wrote about them “Tis thus they live–a picture to the place, A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race”  (for instance) ;  my Grandfather used to claim that he could remember gypsies living in Gipsy Lane in Kettering (now a fairly affluent area);  Rothwell too, I think, has its Gipsy Lane.




*If true then, obviously, IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!!!

Duckworth-Lewis Method (2) – a hit, a palpable hit!

Picked up the disc itself on the way to the match today, and the first indications are excellent (having listened to it once on the bus on the way back to Harborough).  Certainly never thought I’d live to hear a song that namechecks Fuller Pilch but sounds like the Kinks with a hint of Harpers Bizarre.

Look forward to it being my constant companion when I’M ON THE TRAIN for the rest of the week.

Tomorrow, of course, the Ashes start.  Like the rest of the desk-bound population I shall be following it via a tiny box at the bottom of my computer screen, rather than rushing out at lunchtime and after work to buy a paper – Ashes latest, read all about it!  Not clear whether this is an improvement or not, really.


Sorrows can come as single spies

There’s been some correspondence recently somewhere (possibly the londonpaper (lower case intentional), but it may have been the Guardian) about why, if you’re reading a paper on a train, the next person’s paper is always more interesting than your own – even if you’re reading the same paper.  This isn’t often precisely the problem on my commute, as I tend to be the only Guardian reader for several carriages, and the dear old thing can usually hold my attention until at least Luton.

Today, however, I found my attention wandering early on.  It might have been about the time I’d read the cricket pages and made my way through to the Toynbee zone.  Anyway my gaze strayed in the direction of my neighbour’s laptop.  Normally this isn’t very fruitful, as the staple diet of the trainbound laptop-pecker is the spreadsheet – but this chap was working his way through his e-mails.

Couldn’t help noticing (that not always entirely honest phrase) that what my fellow-traveller was looking at was a report from some kind of company that specialises in sending out mystery diners to report on the customer experience in restaurants.  Inevitably, this consisted of a series of tickboxes – yes/no answers as to whether the staff had faithfully followed the corporate script.  As far as I could see, although the gastronomic nark seemed to have enjoyed the food, the crosses in the little boxes soon mounted up, mainly because the – no doubt  ill-paid and harassed staff –  had failed to do all the things that I personally find a little irritating when visiting a restaurant – introducing themselves by name, pointing out (more expensive) alternatives on the menu, explaining all the ingredients in a particular dish and so on.  And there were greenfly on the windowsill, apparently.  At the end of the tickboxes the thing did a little sum and came up with the baleful verdict (in red)  – FAIL.  Result a quick e-mail to the manageress saying “not pretty – please comment”, or similar.

Now, this really does strike me as an utterly abject and ignominious way to earn a living – going around eating free dinners (decent ones too, from the sound of it) – no doubt saying “Very nice, thank you” when asked  whether “everything was alright”  and then going off and sending off a secret dossier to the middle managers of the chain concerned, resulting in the ruin of some poor lower middle managerial bugger’s morning and no doubt some serious grief for the cleaners.

For all I know,  the whole country is swarming with these wretched spies.  Lord Sidmouth must feel that he was ahead of his time.

(The more fastidious ethical philosopher might question the entitlement to indignation of someone who is reading someone else’s correspondence over his shoulder and then reporting on it on a pseudonymous blog – but well, it’s … er … obviously quite different.  Think of it as counter-espionage). 

Penguins, Labyrinths and the West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Now here’s a funny thing.

Here’s the cover of Leicestershire’s own psychedelic crypto-hooligans Kasabian’s latest waxing (West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum) –


(No. 1 in this week’s album charts, apparently).

Now, take a closer look at the chap seated in the front row (using  a magnifying glass if necessary) and he appears to be displaying a copy of “Labyrinths” by (presumably) J-L Borges.  Interesting enough in itself, but it also appears to be a Penguin edition in the old pre-pictorial cover livery.  I haven’t carried out an extensive bibliographical search, but I’m reasonably sure that Borges wouldn’t have been published by Penguin at that time, so someone must have made a fair bit of effort.  (Does Performance come into this somewhere?).

Borges, with his love of false trails and fantastical pseudo-bibliographies, might quite have enjoyed this.

On a vaguely related theme, lured into the Foyles at St. Pancras by a display of a new Penguin series – English Journeys – 20 short (c. 100 p.)  titles in a smallish format with attractive, new but old-style designs.  Authors include Blythe,  Housman, Jefferies, Vaughan Williams, Edward Thomas, plus Elegy written in a country churchyard and other poems.

Exactly the thing you might want for a brief trip into England, or indeed for a daily two and half hour daily commute (and no fear of backache either).

£4.99 each, incidentally, from all good booksellers.