Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

Central Station

Like A Virgin, Train Cancelled For The Second Time.

Virgin Trains cancelled my travel to Preston, UK, and that complaint can be read here. The following refers to that letter, their response, and the cancellation of a second train four days later.

Dear Virgin Trains, you are the Rolling Stones of cross-country commutes. I can’t get no satisfaction.

While I appreciate that, for a company of your stature, it is easier to throw money at problems rather than adequately address them, I had hoped for a better response. In addition to the cheque which you sent, reimbursing the first of my problem trips with you this past week, I had – perhaps naively – hoped you might address at least one of the many issues highlighted.

Your response, full of irrelevant standard paragraphs, assures me that you will be working hard on “improving the environment on board” two types of train “during 2014.” With two weeks of 2014 left, these proposed changes should have been enacted by now, unless you are planning a rush job – and it does not matter how comfortable your trains are if you cancel them and replace them with buses, as per the nature of my complaint.

As previously documented, in the six-page essay which formed the basis of complaint number VT-111214-xxxx, I had a train cancelled on Wednesday 10th December. A replacement bus eventually delivered me from Glasgow Central to Preston, and it was borderline unbearable. On Sunday 14th December, you then also cancelled my train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. So much for your stated hope that “the work [you] are doing this year is reflected in [my] experience next time [I] travel.”

I have followed the band Combichrist religiously, pun fully intended, since 2005. Beginning as venue crew working for the local promoter and helping them load in their gear, I was instantly a fan of their music and of their live show, and have befriended them in the years since. I find myself in the rare and privileged position where my favourite band are as happy to see me as I am to see them.

They tour the UK annually and, since they changed promoter, I now make the effort to catch them a few times around the country during the one week in fifty-two that they are here. This is the sole purpose of my journeys to Preston and London recently, hence my annoyance when you punished my loyalty by hindering my travel arrangements.

With the poor experience of Wednesday behind me, my faith in your company was partially restored when – on the return leg the following day – your ticket office staff in Preston allowed me to travel on an earlier train home than booked, at no extra cost. In fairness, I was just happy to be able to take a train and not another excruciating replacement coach.

I then saw the band in Glasgow on Friday, with plans to see them in London on Sunday. This latter trip involved travelling with Scotrail, Trans Pennine Express, and Virgin Trains. Ahead of departure, I once again checked for any possible disruptions. It was absolutely imperative that I made it to London in a timely fashion.

On the Saturday evening, I had received a message from one of the band’s road crew (and drummer for their support act) saying he had mislaid his jacket in Glasgow and – with it – his passport. For an internationally-touring band on a strict schedule, this mattered. Could I, he wondered, help try and locate it?

Faced with the daunting prospect of tracking down a single black jacket from a gig that hosted four-hundred people wearing them, I offered suggestions and made enquiries. If the passport could be located and placed in my possession before mid-morning on Sunday, I would be able to carry it with me and return it in person.

It was a possibility, if the jacket had been lost or left in Glasgow. However, if it had been mistakenly taken home to Edinburgh or Aberdeen, then the band were looking at the prospect of either abandoning a core member of their touring party, or paying a hefty sum of cash to alter long-standing plans and amend bookings while waiting on an expedited courier to deliver it.

Against the odds, an appeal on their Facebook page resulted in its retrieval from behind the drum riser, where it had been safely hidden so well that it failed to turn up during two previous venue searches. Arrangements were hastily made, and I collected the jacket and its contents prior to leaving my hometown on Sunday. Together, we travelled to Manchester and alighted in readiness for catching the connecting train.

As I walked into the main concourse of Piccadilly, with forty-eight minutes to kill, I glanced at the departures board and saw that it did not yet list my onward journey. Looking around, I quickly spotted half a dozen of your red-coated staff dotted about and considered approaching them, to enquire if there had been any service disruption since I was last able to check. I quickly dismissed the idea as folly – sure, you had cancelled on me on Wednesday, but today there was not even a weather warning. It would be ludicrous to presume you could not do your job – so I thought.

I stepped out of the station momentarily, time being at my disposal, then made my way towards two Virgin trains sitting idle. I knew neither was mine, and yet I felt compelled to double-check. Imagine my dismay when, reading the information board, I learned that you had cancelled the 1515. Unlike last time, cancelling my travel was not just an inconvenience resulting in me possibly missing the gig. This time, the immediate continuation of the tour rested on this passport getting back to its owner.

By some stroke of luck, one of these two trains was bound for Euston. I decided I was going to board it, sick of the hassle you had so far caused me. Storming towards the station inspectors, with no intention of them stopping me, I was ready to tell them I was taking this earlier train. Your staff pre-empted me, and said I could get on.

Fighting through packed carriages, and crossing through the shop, I eventually found an empty and available seat. Three minutes later, we started moving. While joyful at the comparative ease with which I had managed to continue on my way, I remained furious that this had happened a second time.

With no idea when my new mode of travel was due to arrive, and aware that my tickets were booked for a specific train and thus not valid on this one, I opted to seek out the manager for clarification. The easiest way, I figured, would be via the shop. Sure enough, the chap serving there was able to provide our estimated arrival time. Then he confused me.

My ticket was valid, but my reservation was not. This, he assured me, would not pose a problem. If something is not valid, then surely that becomes a problem? All I knew was, I had two ticket-shaped pieces of paper, and one of them was invalid. Having failed to obtain the manager as requested, in the incorrect belief he had helped me, the presence of a sandwich-buying customer at the till-point cut short our conversation. I gave up, found the seat I had left, and tweeted to ask if you were taking the piss or just enjoyed my previous complaint letter so much that you want another one. In retrospect, you cannot have enjoyed it very much, or you would have replied to it directly and not in vague genericisms.

Reasoning that I should not be on this train, it occurred that I should definitely not be in First Class – so I went to sit there instead, seeking what little comfort I could from your appalling service. There, at least, I had a table and a socket where I could charge my phone. In truth, I fail to see the attraction – I had passed through emptier, quieter, and child-free, carriages to get there. The Wi-Fi might be free, but it is not up to much.

DSC_3208Above: The passport and jacket at the centre of this tale.

I had not been in First Class very long, before a trolley was wheeled through and free stuff handed out. I politely declined, reckoning that way you cannot accuse me of anything. In hindsight, I could have accepted a box of free shit – crisps or chocolate or whatever you put in it – and then, in this letter, pretended not to. The reality is I did not take anything, and it is probably this characteristic integrity and honesty which contributes to me being trusted to return American passports to their rightful owners, rather than clandestinely sell them to willing Russians.

Without warning, the ticket inspector appeared in the carriage ahead of me. I took a drink of water (which I bought prior to my journey, though I suspect I could have had some free while masquerading as a genuine First Class customer), and formulated the case I would present when handing my tickets over.

“You should not be in this carriage,” he would say, in the scenario I mentally concocted.
“If you look closer, I should not even be on this train,” I would contend. “Since the rules don’t apply, I will sit here, with a socket and a table and some legroom.”

If met with resistance, I would say, “Listen,” and gesture for him to sit opposite me while I relayed the tale which forms this email and the one which preceded it. Showing him the notes I had jotted down, I would give him the option of being a hero or a bad guy in this letter. He would obviously elect to be a good guy, and let me stay here, right?

How disappointed I was to be, when he simply took my tickets, circled the date in biro without question, and handed them back to me.

The mother at the adjacent table then engaged him in an involved discussion about the benefits (or not) of having a particular type of discount railcard. Having taken the time to relay the various merits, he turned back to me.

“Here we go!”, I thought.

His face showed a flicker of recognition. “I’ve done you, haven’t I?”
“Aye.”

And he disappeared down the carriage, behind me.

What a hollow victory that was, Virgin. I had prepared my strategy and planned for battle, only to have my rebellion not so much quashed as unnoticed.

– – – – –

Once in London, my nostrils immediately assailed by the stench of piss which seems to define that city, I made my way to the venue. I found the stage door with relative ease, having once performed there myself in my occasional capacity as a stand-up comedian.

I could tell you how I came to perform stand-up comedy as a means of introducing Aesthetic Perfection, Mortiis, and Combichrist, to a thousand Londoners – in front of the band’s L.A.-based manager – but, frankly, given you all but ignore the content of my letters, you do not deserve to know.

[You, the curious reader, can find out a bit more on this post, over on my comedy blog.]

Suffice to say that it remains a life highlight, and a continuing source of personal disbelief, that – as the screen rose and a crowd of die-hard fans screamed for their heroes – all they saw was me standing there, microphone in hand, saying, “Yes, I know you want to see Combichrist. But first, a joke…”

This time, knocking on the stage door, I breathed the magic words: “I have Ben’s passport.”

I was ushered straight up the stairs and into the green room, and do not think I have ever been hugged so much in my life as I was that day. The band would now be able to leave for their ferry and continue the tour as scheduled, your cancellation of my train a mere blip on the route to this happy ending. Having travelled from Scotland to London every year since they played a one-off December show there in 2005, I was glad that it finally served a practical purpose: my appreciation of a good live music show prevented a lot of unnecessary expense and red-tape.

The gig itself, I enjoyed. There are minor differences in the set-list every night, and variations in the band’s onstage antics (every one of them is a showman and performer as well as a consummate musician), and I might not travel as much if they spent their evenings trundling out a tired wade-through of familiar crowd-pleasers. No, this is a highly energetic band who never seem to have less fun onstage than the audience do watching and listening to them.

I partied with friends – also fans – and then with the band after the show, leaving them to make their way to the coast and mainland Europe as I wandered into the early-morning darkness in pursuit of my 5:30am train back to Glasgow. Would you have cancelled it too? As it stood, I had booked four trains and you had cancelled two of them. This was your chance to pull back from being seventy-five percent shit and retain the reputation of only being half shit.

Hurrah! My train was listed as running to schedule. As soon as I was able, I boarded and took my seat, and you began slow-cooking me.

Firstly, I do not understand how you can call it The Quiet Zone when you broadcast loud announcements non-stop. You were making more noise than any of the passengers, repeating every destination twice per station – once on arrival and once (a minute later) on departure. And, my God, there were a lot of stations to stop at. The one positive was the sweet, blessed relief as the doors opened and a gust of fresh air blew in with each new set of customers. Sitting in a festering sweat-pit is not my idea of the “comfortable trip” you “aim to ensure” in the copied-and-pasted opening of the letter you sent regarding my Preston journey. I was that hot and uncomfortable I began to consider whether it could be the onset of the menopause, which I had never before thought my gender could even experience.

Having baked torturously for several hours, we finally arrived in Glasgow – late. Of four services in six days, you cancelled two and delayed one. That is a pretty poor record.

Furthermore, having made this journey annually for some years, I now know to allow myself a few days recovery time to get over whatever cold I invariably catch while travelling with you. It would, to my mind, be far more honest if “Air-Conditioning” was relabelled as “Recycled Breath.”

This year, presumably on the back of you effectively running an incubator of germs from one end of the country to the other, I have been infected with the most Hellish chest cold, which has impacted on my asthma and made every breath a chore and every cough a Herculean effort. Picture Patrick McGoohan on his deathbed in “Braveheart”, multiplied by Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge”, and you have an idea of this discomfort.

In conclusion, then, I expect you to reply in a relevant manner this time and without resorting to your stock responses. I still request reimbursement for seventy-five percent of the price of the ticket for the Preston show, since you caused me to miss most of the gig. In addition, I expect you to reimburse my travel costs from Manchester to London, and from London to Glasgow, plus make a goodwill payment on top to cover the stress of having two time-sensitive journeys cancelled at zero notice.

For ease, here is a breakdown, in figures:

Preston ticket: £13.13 (75% of the £17.50 face value)
Manc – London: £35.50
London – Glas: £30.50

Which is a total of £79.13

Accounting for the discomfort and distress caused throughout this week by your failure to run trains – the sole expected duty of Virgin Trains – and taking into consideration the inadequacy of your previous response, I will be happy to receive a cheque for £120 to write off the whole sorry matter.

I look forward to your (this time personalised) reply.

Here is their lacklustre response. My reply to it is here.

Virgin letter - second replyAbove: Their brief and misspelled reply. Read my response to it and them here.

 

 

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Stop Me If You Need A Favour.

Sometimes I think I am a magnet for bams. Here in Glasgow we call them neds, Edinburgh calls them schemies, I think Liverpool calls them scallies, and most of the rest of the UK calls them chavs – those tracksuited perpetrators of underage drinking, muggings, stabbings, and the provision of unwanted children.

First off, I think it is all a question of circumstance – I think everyone is fundamentally decent, and it is the life you experience that shapes you. It is easy (too easy) to write people off as dole scum, benefits cheats, as unworthy – it is less palatable to examine the decay of industry, the social decline of areas, and the mass unemployment that has helped shape this class. This doesn’t mean that I want to engage with folk like this on the dark streets on my way home though, and yet I am constantly being accosted by them.

It used to be easy – they asked you for money, and you either gave it or declined. Now, though, they want a conversation – “excuse me, pal, can you do us a favour?”

Now I have to find out what this “favour” is, even though we both already know. It’s this instigation of a dialogue that irks me, I don’t want to talk to you, and I certainly don’t want to stop (or even break stride) to do so. Just be upfront. “Don’t suppose you could do me a favour?” You suppose correctly.

Here are two recent incidences.

I was outside the Classic Grand nightclub, which neighbours a huge McDonalds and has a bus stop outside. These are two of the main draws for nutters. I was standing outside the club with my friend, with whom I’d been for a drink prior to her shift starting, and she was making her way inside but talking to the door staff. The next thing, a ned comes up to me, removes his knitted hat (with the long tassles hanging down at either side, you know the kind), thrusts his temple at me and says “Here, mate, am I bleeding?”

I resisted the urge to answer “not yet”, or “aye, bleeding annoying.” Instead, I just answered in the negative.

He then turned to his friend, standing nearby and wearing the brightest blue and yellow tracksuit I have ever seen, with matching baseball cap. It was in primary colours, and he looked for all the world like a bammed-up version of children’s cartoon hero Bananaman. The one who had addressed me turned to him, removing his headgear, and shouted “Quick, swap hats afore the polis get here!”

That’s a Glasgow master of disguise right there – one who thinks the police will be foiled by the adornment of a different hat, regardless of the fact his accomplice is decked out like a fucking disco…

 

Later that same night, as I walked up Hope Street, I was stopped by some drunk looking for directions to Central Station. I gestured down the hill, as it is a straight road and the station sits on it, with one left turn onto a side street to make in order to get to the main entrance. I said this to him, just go down and turn left at the — looking, I could see the distinctive spire of the Central Hotel — “look, see the skyline?” I asked him. He looked at me without comprehension.

“Look at the skyline,” I said, “See that spire? Turn left there.”
“Left??” he asked with uncertainty, bordering on disbelief.
“Aye, fucking left. You’ve asked me for directions, I’ve just gave you them. Don’t question my knowledge of my own city, ya dick!”

So this is Glasgow, a place of hope or despair depending who you bump into (or who bumps into you) as you walk through it. Most of the time I love this city, it’s just the arsehole element that lets us down. Repeatedly.