Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

First Scotrail

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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Diary Of An Anti-Tory Protestor – Part 1

George Square, 30th March 2013

There comes a point in every man’s life – or, at least, I hope there does – when you realise that clicking “like” on shared Facebook photos and statuses is not an adequate or forceful form of protest. My own study of history leads me to believe that women received the vote as much for the roles they fulfilled during the First World War as for their widely-known protest movement. Yet, it is is hard to believe that Emmeline Pankhurst would have been quite so powerful and historically renowned a figure had her cohorts not chained themselves to the railings of Downing Street and instead merely hashtagged #Suffrage on Twitter. On Twitter, due to the limitations of hashtags involving punctuation, it is not even possible to accurately tag it #Women’sSuffrage.

I was aware, through Facebook, of an actual physical protest being held in my city on Saturday 30th March. This was the end of the week in which, as previously documented here, I had sent out a Tweet requesting that someone hit That Cunt Cameron in the face with a shovel, which was subsequently retweeted by an MSP. It was reported in the Daily Record, and then raised at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament. My involvement, the reasons for my tweet, and the sentiment behind it were not discussed, and the full (lack of) reaction can be read in the follow-up post here. It seems that I had violently and abusively summed up the consensus of growing public opinion.

I can’t remember how the protest first came to my attention, although due to the political motivations of several of my friends and mutual friends, it began appearing on my pages with some regularity. I have since joined the Anti Bedroom Tax Protest In Scotland page, and have long been a follower of the “The last person to enter parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes” page.

 

Last summer, I had bought a couple of Scottish flags, saltire crosses upon the centre of which I stencilled the logo of my favourite band. One of them ended up on stage with them at their Glasgow gig, held aloft during their encore at The Arches to loud cheers. I had planned to do something similar for another band I was seeing in Berlin at Christmas, but never got round to it. With this “spare” flag still in a drawer, I looked it out and wrote “F_CK THE TORIES” across the middle of it. While the back of my shirt has the same phrase uncensored, it occurred to me that self-censoring the first word would make it more publication friendly, should any photographers or cameramen happen to record it. The message is still unmistakeable, and I deliberately used an underscore in place of the “U” so that, if I decide to, I can fill it in later. The task, which I had started when I got in from a late-night comedy show, was finished by about 5am. I slept a few hours, and then dragged myself out of bed and down into the town.

I knew a few people who had said they were going, and another couple of dozen who had clicked “attending” on the facebook page with no real intention of showing up. One of the former, my friend Matt, was also attending his first ever protest, and I had provisionally arranged to meet him. The overall plan was to assemble at the Green, march to George Square, and rally there. I was running a little late, thanks to the company who – due to the frequency with which they announce it – may be known to the uninitiated as “Scotrail Apologise.” This same company is better known to users of social media as “Fuck Scotrail.” Thanks to their sterling inability to run trains to anything even approaching the timetable they set, I made it to the Bridgegate just as the march set off. Matt was, he texted me, next to a large black Scrap Trident banner, and I stood on the corner of the street until I spotted it. This being a protest march and not an orange walk, it was very easy to infiltrate the ranks to cross the marchers and join him.

 

It fair fills you with civic pride to march alongside hundreds – thousands – of others who all care passionately about the same thing. Especially when you know you are in the right. This “Bedroom Tax”, to use the accepted colloquial term, is completely unworkable. The government are demanding people downsize into homes that just do not exist – it has been widely reported that there are tens of thousands of people who are now required to move into a couple of thousand homes. The housing needed – affordable single-bedroom homes – is not physically available in anything even approaching the numbers necessary. Those affected, therefore, will have to make up the resulting shortfall in their rent, on the back of this cut, and if they can’t keep up payments they will face eviction. On the face of it, this does not affect me. I live in a one-bedroom flat. However, on the back of all the other ill-thought-out strategies – involving Workfare, ATOS, the NHS in England, funding for Trident – and the general hypocrisy of Tory rulers who are, largely, millionaires and have little or no idea what life is like on the breadline – I have had enough. This party has one MP in Scotland. One. That is not a mandate to rule, and when That Cunt Cameron installed himself as the Prime Minister I immediately wrote “Fuck The Tories” across the back of a shirt, in the DIY protest spirit of the original punk movement.

 

With growing anger, I have watched as the Tories have systematically undermined the entirety of the welfare state – rights that were hard fought for by our recent ancestors. On the back of my infamous tweet, mentioned in the blog already linked to, and the general apathy with which it was mostly met, I realised that it is time to protest in a more visible form. I don’t mean, and am not advocating, masks and molotov cocktails, but just being on the streets and marching and swelling the ranks by the number of one. It is my belief that people are taking to the streets to protest the Bedroom Tax, because if they don’t then inordinate numbers of people will be forced to LIVE on the streets. That’s when homelessness increases, and then crime increases, while businesses fold as people divert disposable income into living expenses. It’s time to stand and fight.

This is how I came to find myself in the midst of three thousand people, wearing a shirt and holding aloft a flag that both state my view clearly – Fuck The Tories. I didn’t join in with any chants, partly from being self-conscious, and largely because everything I wanted to say was clearly written upon my person.

msp shirt protest

To my mind, this is the part in the film “Network” where he says “I want you to get up right now, go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’ I want you to get mad!”

I want you to get mad. This affects us all, directly or indirectly. You don’t have to support the SNP or want independence to realise that this whole Bedroom Tax fiasco is unjust and totally unworkable.

 

When we got to the Square, I bumped into or met up with another few friends. My friend McGovern is no stranger to socialism and protest marches, and he joined us to listen to the various speakers being introduced by comedian Janey Godley. I found the pair of us in one of the photographs that was circulated online after the event.

msp protest circled me mcgovern

At least four people took pictures of the back of my shirt – they got my best side – and three of them had the courtesy to ask first. When I went home afterwards, I stopped at a local shop to pick up some messages. A wee woman came up to me from behind and said “Do we just add a tick if we agree?”

Like I said, the feeling is widespread. If you feel that passionately, then do something. Make yourself heard. Stand up for what you believe to be right. Stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Today, for the first time in my life, I realised that I feel prepared to lock arms with people and prevent evictions, if it comes to it. I’ve had enough.

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.

 

bedroom tax meme