As I boarded the 14.51 from Edinburgh Waverley to London Euston, I had a moment. I made my way to my allocated seat in Coach C, which was a table seat, stowed my backpack in the overhead rack, tossed my newspaper onto the train table, and made myself comfortable.
Even as I did so, an elderly man with stern grey hair and a narrow, flinty face made his way to the seat on the other side of the table, stowed his suit-carrier in the overhead rack, tossed his newspaper onto the table, and made himself comfortable.
My newspaper was the Independent. His was the Daily Telegraph. And I would swear that as these two symbolic opponents across the left-right divide hit the plastic tabletop simultaneously – they may even have touched – both I and my fellow-traveller felt the same internal clutch, the same twinge of condescending sadness at each other’s political foolishness.
We were set up admirably to confirm these prejudices. I was young, scruffy and ill-shaven. He was old, immaculate and headmasterly. I was in a cheap black shirt still bearing two small holes where my supermarket name-badge used to sit, he in a white office shirt of phenomenal crispness. I accompanied my newspaper with a Young Person’s Railcard and John Carey’s book on literary elitism; his was joined by two glossy magazines: Saga and Management Today. I must have struck him as another, identikit liberal-arts idealist type. He struck me as another, identikit free-market corporate-manager type.
(It’s curious, how accurate the newspaper still is as an identifier of its purchaser’s demographic. Orwell’s Tribune articles from the 1940s are full of this publication pigeonholing; so and so writes in the Express, the Criterion, Peace News, the Herald, the Daily Sketch – and the reader is expected to know immediately, as no doubt they would, exactly what type of journalism, with what political sensibilities, is being referenced. The practice continues with newer media; consider the global use of Fox News as a shorthand for American conservatism.)
I made these observations idly, laughed at Mark Steel’s acerbic piece on the need to unionise non-traditional industries in the Indy (“The modern employee is to be seen tapping at iPads on trains, arranging spreadsheets and yelling “Hello, hello, hello, oh NO, I’ve lost you” at customers as it goes into a tunnel, whereas even miners weren’t asked to finish their shift, then carry on digging coal all the way home.”), and settled into the journey. I was entertained by the idea that myself and my Opposite were opposed bundles of prejudices, ineffably distant, each unable to truly grasp the rationale of the other. I found that I was considering us as innate phenotypes, who had arrived at our Indy and Tele positions not through reason, but through universal determinism. The great Sorting Hat of the Universe had assigned us different houses.
After a while, I got up to use to the toilet. When I had entered the strange ovoid cubicle with its sliding door, a robotic voice (this was, for point of reference, a Virgin train) made a joke.
“Door locked,” it (she) said. “Please do not flush nappies, sanitary towels, old mobile phones, unpaid bills, your ex’s jumper, hopes, dreams or goldfish down the toilet.”
I surprised myself by chuckling. Yes, okay, well played, I thought grudgingly. A moment of corporate humour that actually worked, through surprise and lightness of touch.
Then I noticed that the same joke was written, in exactly the same words, on a large sticker on both the top and underside of the toilet seat. Researching this blog, I find that Richard Branson has himself smugly blogged about the very same joke, and about how wonderful Virgin Trains are for allowing such “mischief”. I retracted my chuckle forthwith. Bland, vile appropriation of the humourist’s art, forced home by the company over and over to force you into thinking: yes, yes, how funny you are! How in touch with the common man! Virgin Trains, let me polish your bureaucracy!
And then I realised: my nemesis was not simply my fellow-traveller across the train table. He was my very means of conveyance. He, and his Management Today, were on the side of the toilet-joke.
This was confirmed when I went to get a coffee from the catering car – tiresomely branded “THE*SHOP” with a star that couldn’t get a job with the SWP. THE*SHOP sold drinks, snacks – and newspapers. which newspapers? Only the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.
Shortly before Wolverhampton, where Adversary and his suit-carrier departed, a young man in Virgin’s employ – doubtless for minimum wage – came along the carriage collecting rubbish. I dropped the tinfoil from my sandwiches into his bag, and thanked him as he moved along. Man Opposite picked up his own polystyrene coffee mug, and with a gesture of surprising curtness flicked it into the passing rubbish-bag without offering even eye-contact to its carrier. I am clutching at straws, but I live in hope that my prejudices may not be entirely ill-founded.
(At Birmingham New Street, the extra seats at the table were filled by a young couple with a delightful mixed-race toddler. She, wiser than all of us, was reading a Peppa Pig magazine, which unlike either the Independent or the Telegraph, comes with brightly coloured stickers.)