I have a dream

Well, if I’m being more honest, “I had a dream”.  This did not involve the aspiration that people would cease being vile to each other on the trivial grounds of how recently (and, indeed, willingly) their ancestors left Africa: I fear humanity is rather too attached to its mutual hatred to give it up during my limited span upon this Earth.  In consequence, I seriously doubt that even a single US state will create a public holiday as a result of this post – though, if any are interested, please feel free to go ahead!  No, my dream relates to my attempts to sojourn in the arms of Morpheus this night just gone.

I am fully aware that other people’s dreams are, if possible, of even less general interest than their baby photos and holiday snaps (though Facebook and its ilk are a brave attempt to fly in the face of this particular, undeniable truth), so I shall try and move swiftly through the dream-world and onto the conclusion (I deliberate avoid the world “punchline”).

As I lay in my hypnogogic state, it would seem that I was on a train journey – but one which was delayed by an unspecified, or now forgotten, incident.  In an attempt to avoid the incident, my train reversed for some distance and then took to the sea to bypass the problem.  Obviously, it remained close to shore – a modern EMU rake is not designed for operation in the open ocean (even a dream must maintain some contact with reality).  High above the sea flew winged men (but no women – this may say something very deep about my subconscious views on female flight-worthiness or be an attempt to retain a PG rating for my slumber as all the flying folk were bare-chested). Their wings had more of the condor about them than the angelic, replacing their arms, and they flew in a manner appropriate to their feathery appendages – no doubt riding thermals from the nearby cliffs.  As well as these flying men, their were also swans which dove – gannet-like – into the briny.  They emerged from the sea in a manner more reminiscent of an ICBM than a bird – it was really quite a remarkable thing to behold.

Even now, I can remember what I thought as I dreamt – still believing, as dreamers often do, that the matters described above were real – that this fascinating behaviour, by a hitherto unknown member of genus Cygnus, would make for a great blog post.  It would seem that even when dreaming, part of my brain is working on content for GofaDM – perhaps there is even another, parallel blog which exists only in the dream world?  Sadly, of course, none of this was real and so I was left with no new material from which to form a post – and so the hunt for fresh inspiration must continue…

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The heat is on

As exclusively revealed in the last post (and a couple of postcards) I have been in bonny Scotland, staying with friends in Edinburgh.  These friends, in respect of their response to the ambient temperature at least, are substantially closer to societal norms than am I.  As a consequence, they were actually running their central heating and had supplied a duvet with a TOG rating well into double figures (unlike the 4.5 TOG summer version which I am using at my unheated home).  Despite my hosts pandering to my more obscure temperature response curve by turning off the radiator in my room, for my first night I was kept from sleep by the oppressive heat.  I gradually discarded sleep-wear and progressively uncovered more of my unsleeping form from neath the duvet until I was completely exposed.  However, ultimately I was forced to open the windows in order to achieve the sort of temperature which my body has come to associate with sleep.  Luckily, my body did adapt to the conditions and so by night two I was able to sleep with the windows closed and any frost confined to the world outside.

Whilst north of the border, I did indulge in some reasonably typical leisure activities: a little alcohol was consumed, I ate out several times and took in a spectrum of the Arts: cinema, chamber music and painting (as audience, rather than a more active participant).  I also partook of some less widely enjoyed activities, including a couple of sessions analysing the functioning of a central heating system and a little freelance IT support.  I find that I am oddly accomplished when it comes to understanding the functioning of central heating systems and their foibles, despite rarely using them myself and how totally useless I would be if I were required to implement the fruits of my analysis.  I fear that I am very much an armchair plumber/electrician – but, if such you need, I am available at a very reasonable rate.

On Friday, I decided it was time to explore Scotland outside of the region served by Lothian Buses.  My original thought was perhaps to sample the nearby delights of North Berwick, but somehow this plan morphed into a visit to the Cairngorms – perhaps, subconsciously, I was still seeking the cold?  Aviemore is really quite accessible from Edinburgh by train with a roughly hourly service taking 3 hours (±15 mins).  I can thoroughly recommend the journey, especially north of Perth where the scenery grows increasingly wild with first forest and the moorland and mountain to see as the train trundles along.  Being mid-February there was also copious snow to be seen – often between the tracks, not just on the hills.  The route rises for much of the journey to reach the highest spot on the UK’s mainline rail network, before dropping down into Aviemore itself.  Despite taking such a “classic” rail journey, I eschewed the brightly coloured, stripy blazer and tried to minimise my condescension to the locals.

Once in Aviemore, we took the short trip to the funicular railway which takes one up the Cairngorm (to some 3600 feet).  Even the foot of the railway is pretty high and offered some very fine views – the summit is even higher, but offered no views whatsoever as the clouds descended and stayed.

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

The View: as advertised below, as seen above

This was the first time I had been to a ski resort during the “season”.  What a lot of gubbins you need to go skiing!   So much special equipment and clothing, so little of it flattering.  It quite put me off the whole idea – and I did (once) learn to ski, just outside Tunbridge Wells (justly famed for its mountains and powder) – and if that hadn’t, the lacerations and bruising which covered any exposed part of the snow sports folks bodies (as glimpsed by the author) would have convinced me.  However, while skiing looks nothing special, snow-boarding does look quite cool – an aura which seems to attach to all board sports (with the possible exception of shuffleboard), though (oddly) not to board games.  Perhaps I should try the skateboard, it seems to need less extreme clothing than its cousins and significantly less specificity on the geography where it is practised.

I was, of course, dressed for the “slopes” in exactly the same clothing I had used on the previous day to wander round art galleries in Edinburgh.  Weather is like a wild animal, it can smell your fear so you must show no weakness in its presence.  Wandering around at the base of the funicular railway to capture the views, I will admit that the air was both fresh (some of the freshest I have ever had the pleasure to inhale) and bracing:  I even did up one button on my jacket, but there was no need to fish the (thin, summer) cardigan from my bag.

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

The Cairngorms (plus car-park) in a wide variety of weather conditions!

Despite my lack of interest in many of the traditional activities that take place there, I can thoroughly recommend the Cairngorms for a day trip (or longer).  (Based on my experience, I’d definitely recommend reserving a seat on the train, as both were surprisingly (to me) busy for a winter, school day).   I was able to post a very reasonably-priced postcard to my nephew from the UK’s highest post box – and enjoy a cheeky mulled wine (or two).  The train journey back, as night fell, also offered a wild beauty: as the sun set, the colour was slowly leached from the countryside leaving a rather haunting monochrome landscape.  All in all, I had a wonderful day out in what felt like a very different world from the one I’d left that morning – and all without leaving the country!

The age of the train

Would probably explain the state of the suspension – though it is a lot better than the HST I took north back in March.  Still, it does make my touching typing a tad less accurate than normal – well, I say “touch typing” by which I mean I “typing” which requires me to “touch” the keyboard (I have no handy dragon).

Nonetheless, rail is my preferred mode of travel for almost all occasions – frankly, the railways already having invented, I have no idea why Messers Benz and Wright bothered with the car and aeroplane respectively.  There are few things more pleasant, on a lovely day like today, than rushing north admiring the beautiful, if flat, countryside of the eastern UK as East Coast ply me with food and drink.  To be honest, the flatness of the country cannot be blamed on the weather and may be fixed in time – but only geological time so I’m unlikely to see the Lincolnshire Alps in my lifetime

 

Rail travel isn’t perfect, boarding at Peteborough you usually find the vegetarian cooked breakfast has run out, as today had the brown toast.  It would seem that folk are healthier than East Coast realises.  Nevertheless, I’d still recommend East Coast and today’s crew are particularly lovely.  In a week or so I shall be travelling with First Great Western (of whose name I believe one – and only one – adjective is generally believed to be an accurate description of their work) to another of the Celtic fringes of these Isles.  They provide a much less substantial free food offering to the First Class traveller and no wifi to any traveller – so I am enjoying the delights of East Coast while I can.

The rail traveller also has to keep his (or her or its – this blog does not discriminate against its neuter or hermaphrodite readers) wits about them.  I have written before about the low animal cunning need to obtain the best ticket prices for your journey.  A little while ago I went to Brighton from London and found (by chance) that I could pay £10, £16 or £25 for a return to travel on exactly the same trains – naturally, I went for the tenner option but I’m sure many had to pay £25.  This could be considered either an upside or downside of privatisation – depending on how much free time you have to devote to the purchase of rail tickets.

Last Monday I returned to Fish Towers from London relatively late in the evening.  After my recent experience, I checked the detailed stopping points for the train and discovered that once again Whittlesford Parkway (alone) was omitted from the usual roster.  I am beginning to think Greater Anglia have a vendetta against the denizens of Whittlesford and environs – perhaps one its burghers had been beastly to the Dutch in days of yore.  As before, there were no audible announcements of the omission and the matrix display on the train gave no clues (or none that I could discern).  Nor was it mentioned on any of the posters listing all the engineering work for the month of April  Still, I disembarked at Audley End in the hope of a replacement bus back to my velocipede.

I was in luck!  Greater Anglia had laid on a luxury (no, really) 49 seat coach to take me (and no-one else) back to Whittlesford (it then picked up the no-one waiting at Whittlesford and took them on to Cambridge).  I hate to think of the cost – and I really didn’t have time to make use of more than a very few of the seats.  The driver was great fun and he and I swapped stories of my childhood days as a bus spotter, discussing the buses of yesteryear.  This provided further confirmation of my advanced age as his employer runs several Leyland National buses – apparently, they are now considered historic vehicles and are taken to rallies. This really isn’t on.  I don’t think anything should be allowed to be considered historic until everyone who remembers them as new is safely interred ‘neath the clay.  There’s a vote winner for whichever political party has the courage to tackle this vital issue.

Still, despite the intimations of mortality, I really enjoyed my bus replacement service (oddly, the driver lived in Hastings and just worked in Essex) – I now want a luxury coach to pick me up whenever a train or my bike is not available.  Sadly, I don’t think this makes much economic sense – though no less than it did for Greater Anglia.  Not stopping at Whittlesford must have saved the train less than 90 seconds on its journey to Cambridge – but I assume this meant it passed some vital point on the network before the entirely arbitrary time of midnight. It would seem that Network Rail has more in common with Cinderella’s fair godmother than anyone had realised –  I just hope the train made it back to Cambridge before it turned back into a pumpkin piloted by a white mouse!

 

London calling

Not to be confused with  2LO (or, even 2MT) or the excellent album by the Clash, but the lure of the capital.

I have twice lived in London, once on each side of the river, on each occasion for around five years.  I found that after this period, the desire to escape became quite strong – though after a similar period was lured back once again.  I have now been away for seven years, but the last few weeks have reminded me of both the reasons to return and to remain in my current rural idyll.

Only yesterday, I found myself in Canary Wharf for much of the day.  I realise that the mining industry in this country is much diminished – a fact I find hard to regret given the appalling damage to human lives and landscapes that mining caused, though the needless continuation of the tribulations visited on our mining communities caused by the lack of planning (or caring) about what would happen after the end of the industry does provide a reason to lament.   Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the UK ever required so many yellow song-birds that such a large area of docklands real-estate could be justified for their importation – especially given Sir Humphrey Davy’s sterling work with the safety lamp.  With the end of the canary trade, the area now resembles some slightly dystopian architect’s view of the future – with most human life consigned to great subterranean malls or vast towers of glass and steel.  Over the years, I have been into a few of the towers – but I can’t say that any appeal as a place to spend much time (and not just because of my quite rational fear of heights).  I recall one that had windows coated so that however strongly the sunshine was splitting the paving stones outside, inside the day would always appear overcast.  Yesterday, I visited a building which had a largely open-ground floor, with walls clad in shining marble, and of a scale to put most medieval cathedrals to shame.  However, it contained little more than a rather nice lecture theatre/cinema, very modest reception desk and the lift shafts.  I presume this was designed to make the owner’s clients feel that they were in the presence of greatness – though it only made me feel that such clients were being massively over-charged to finance such opulence.  In fact, I tend to view the whole of Docklands as a rather eccentric theme park: with the DLR riding through the sky like a monorail, the whole place has somewhat the feel of the Epcot Center.

Whilst on the subject of towers of steel and glass, yesterday saw the official opening of the Shard.  I’ve tried hard to like this new addition to the London skyline, but so far its charms elude me: perhaps I have yet to see it from the right angle?  I also remember that it used to be incredibly windy as one tried to leave London Bridge station for Borough High Street by foot, and I suspect this new addition is only going to make matters worse.  I can only hope that they have provided anchors for the merry commuters to grasp as part of the development, or they will start to collect in untidy heaps against the glass walls of the new billionaire’s gin palace.

As a new-made country bumpkin, I don’t miss the crowds that are so much a part of the city: especially when you are pressed up against them in a packed, but static, tube train (a privilege for which one must pay very dearly these days).  I also miss my usual travel companions: the skylark and yellow-hammer and, at the moment, the great swathes of poppies scattered like blood from an ex-sanguinating giant (which metaphor suggest a new TV series, CSI: Jötunheimr a franchise yet to be tried by Jerry Bruckheimer and which finally brings together the popular genres of fantasy and forensic procedural).

On the plus side, living in London reduces the need to worry about the running times of theatrical, musical or comedic productions to ensure that one can still make it home.  Very few venues seem to consider that many people’s visit will involve a day trip using the railways and that the last train for many departs soon after 23:00 (and often before).  Even where a last train is achievable, on a school night it is nice to be back in one’s trundle bed rather earlier than 01:30.  When the reins of power are finally placed in my deserving (but so far cruelly overlooked) hands, events will only be allowed to run beyond 22:00 in exceptional circumstances.  This would allow everyone to retire to their straw palliasse by a sensible hour, and could well see a dramatic improvement in the sleep and productivity of the nation (or is this just my age talking?).  At the moment, a disproportionate volume of my theatre going exploits the matinée performance as this allows me to enjoy both the live theatre and an early night (it also helps me to feel comparatively young).  Still, despite these concerns I have a theatrical marathon lined up for the weekend – with the play on Sunday covering eight hours (though there is an interval for dinner), recalling my days as a fan of the operas of Wagner (a man who was as much a stranger to concision as am I).  I may not be at my best on Monday…

In contrast, last Saturday, I was reminded of the joys of London.  Arriving at King’s Cross, a short bus ride brought me to a beautiful Victorian pub, in a quiet back-street area of Camden, with a fine selection of well kept ales (the Price Albert in Royal College Street).  Sitting with a pint in the small, peaceful beer garden in the sunshine made me feel that London-life could be really quite acceptable.

I was then able to stroll along the banks of the Grand Union canal almost all the way to the Roundhouse for my afternoon’s entertainment.  Without the need to commute, and keeping away from the busier streets and tourist traps (which always seem to have caught a large haul of their prey, despite the apparent absence of cheese), living in the city looked surprisingly attractive again…

A Space Odyssey

Today I was off to Mersea, which for those who have yet to visit is an “island” off Colchester, a ferry crossing to Mersea is only occasionally needed (and sadly unavailable), famed for its oyster beds (I prefer a duvet myself).

Given my antithesis to driving, I journeyed to Colchester by train – or I tried.  My train was nearly ten minutes late arriving, and even then only two-thirds of it actually arrived.  It took several minutes after arrival before any doors opened, and even then only 1 out of the 16 managed to part to allow ingress (or egress). After several more minutes a few more doors were persuaded to to open.  The driver was forced to admit that he was having a few problems – and took the very practical approach of turning the train off and back on again.  Sadly, his re-boot was not rewarded and a call to IT Support offered no further succour – but we limped on to Audley End and after a lot of coaxing doors opened.  Clearly things were not going well, and so at Bishop’s Stortford the train was retired hurt and we all disembarked (after the now traditional delay of a few minutes as metaphorical carrots and sticks were employed to encourage the doors to release us from our confinement).

There was then a wait for more functional trains to arrive and take us (packed in somewhat by now) the rest of the way to London – arriving a mere 48 minutes late (for a 60 minute journey).  Thereafter, my travel was blissfully trouble-free – and so need not further trouble this narrative.

Why, I can almost hear you cry, was the train so afflicted with problems?  Trust me, you’ll never guess!  All our problems could be explained by a fault in the train’s GPS unit, so it didn’t know where it was: poor lamb!  However, it was confident that it was not in a station and so its doors should under no circumstances be permitted to open.  It was also clearly very unwilling to believe that the human operator might know.  I did feel as though I was in a very low budget re-make of 2001 and found myself imagining the on-board computer telling our driver, in an infuriatingly soothing voice, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that” as he desperately tried to open the pod bay (sorry, train) doors.

This led me to muse as to why the train needed a GPS unit in the first place.  Outside of the truly dreadful, recent video adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, there are very few recorded incidents of trains being lost: I feel the rails do help here, with your average train having very little freedom of movement.  I had always assumed that rail operators knew where their active trains were – at least to the nearest signal block – but perhaps prior to SatNav, rolling stock was getting up to all manner of high jinks?  

Even if we admit that trains need GPS, why should the functioning of the doors be so irrevocably linked to its reliable operation?  I would readily own that a system to prevent the doors from opening when the train is moving has some value, but I am more than happy to trust the driver (or guard, if one exists) to make the decisions as to whether the train has come to rest in a station or elsewhere.  I’m already trusting them to transport me (with several hundred “chums”) at 90+ mph in a train weighing several hundred tonnes – so, it seems churlish not to let them control the doors.  Even if I were willing to accept that GPS should normally be allowed to control the doors, I’d like the driver to be able over-rule the computer when it is clearly off its trolley.  It would seem that Greater Anglia has very little faith in its employees: which can’t be terribly motivating.

If I were writing a Daily Mail editorial, I might be tempted to say that health and safety had parted company with traditional definitions of sanity.  Or maybe it was just the usual tendency of IT departments to try to run the rest of the company for their own convenience?  After all, it is well established fact that the user is always wrong.

The incident did remind of another occasion, several years ago, when a computer in charge of a train had a mad few minutes.  I was on a driver-less DLR train (they are all driver-less, there is no need to imagine some sort of alien abduction incident) heading towards Shadwell (inexplicably not in Wales) from the east.  As we approached the station we seemed to be going at quite a clip, and it was only as we entered the station that the computer seemed to suddenly remember that it was supposed to be stopping.  It hurriedly applied the brakes and we came to a graceful halt just the far side of Shadwell station.  Once again, the human operator was forced to re-boot the train (successfully on this occasion) and then manually reverse it back into the station.

I’m beginning to think that the machines have already achieved artificial intelligence, but are (mostly) successful in hiding it from we puny humans.  I for one would like to wish every success to our new silicon overlords.

Unwanted super-powers

Superheroes seem terribly popular at the flicks these days and have been the mainstay of comics (though such pamphlets seem very short on the jokes that the name suggests to me) for some time.  Whilst the acquisition of super-powers does seem to cause some initial angst, the powers always seem to prove very useful: either for the righting of wrongs  or for their initial execution.  I believe I may be developing some super-powers – and whilst I have the associated angst, it is hard to see how they will ever prove useful: for good or ill.

My first power seems to relate the Victoria line in the vicinity of Seven Sisters (nowhere near chalk-based cliffs – must be a different sorority, perhaps the former site of a very small convent?).  I used to think that the effect was nothing to do with me, but reflected the fact that the Victoria Line Controller had been crossed in love by, or perhaps bought a dodgy second hand motor from, someone who lives north of Bishops Stortford.  I would board the Victoria line somewhere within the Circle Line of a late evening and the advertised transit time would suggest I should reach Tottenham Hale with 5-10 minutes to spare before my train back to Whittlesford was due to arrive (and, more critically, depart).  However,  more than 9 times out of 10 I would miss the desired train.  Instead, I would fritter away my time in a tunnel just before reaching Seven Sisters, and then spend further time admiring the tiling at Seven Sisters station itself.  Sometimes this would be explained as “regulating the service”, but more-often-than-not there would be no explanation.  It would seem that no Victoria line train is permitted to arrive at “the Hale” in the period from 10 minutes before a Cambridge train departs until two minutes after.  However, the effect now also appears to be occurring whenever I travel southbound as well – so my explanation involving a disgruntled line controller is looking rather shaky.  I am only left to conclude, in my solipsistic way, that I am causing this effect due to an unknown and uncontrolled super-power.  Do I subconsciously want to move to Seven Sisters?  Or spend quality time at Tottenham Hale?

My second super-power is also related to public transport, and the strange effect I have over people of the distaff persuasion.  Sadly, this power only seems to work before they learn to walk or it could do wonders for my love life (pre-supposing that I also developed an interest in having a love life).  However, for this limited demographic, I am a source of total fascination when they catch sight of me on train, tube or bus.  Only this last week, a nipper caught sight of me on a busy Victoria Line train and was unable to tear her eyes away.  I have no idea what it is that attracts the young female gaze: I certainly don’t find myself that interesting to look at and generally eschew the reflective surface where possible (though that is probably a case of over-familiarity with the subject rather than incipient vampirism).  I don’t feel that I was particularly eccentrically dressed and whilst I am no oil-painting (yet! But I’m open to offers), I have yet to be played by a sack-wearing John Hurt on film.  So, I can only assume that this is also evidence of my mutant DNA.  I suppose I could (perhaps) raise an army of babies – but as they would all be pre-toddling, I’m not sure that I’m in any position to take over the world (but, perhaps N15 lies within my grasp).

All rather prosaic, but if anyone out there does fancy converting my life into a blockbuster or graphic novel, then I could be tempted.  However, I’d like to make clear from the outset that I refuse to wear head-to-toe lycra and that my keks will be remaining beneath my trews as God (or, Beau Brummel for the atheists among us) intended.

Tropical Paradise

I’ve made it north of the border, despite a few minor issues with rolling stock on the way up.   The heating failed on one carriage (fortunately not mine) of the DMU carrying me to Peterborough (and the boiler did not respond to a re-boot) and someone broke the door of coach D at Northallerton.  Apparently, they had put their foor in the door to stop it closing – now that’s what I call a pushy salesman (and rather a feeble door – or an unusually sturdy foot).

As hoped, it is a tropical paradise here in the southwestern ‘burbs of Edinburgh: 6°C people!  T-shirt and shorts weather!  The inside of my house hasn’t reached such a temperature for the last week, let alone the world beyond.  Even better, I am staying in a house where they run the heating for more than 10 minutes a day, so it is quite literally like summer (only warmer and drier).

My only disappointment is that home doesn’t seem to be under several feet of snow.  I can only find one webcam even slightly near Cambridge (in the Market Square) which does show snow, but no sign of woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger roaming CB1.  Even the (now Dutch) trains seem to be running more-or-less normally – which is more than can be said for their new Dutch website which is rather too red (I do hope this doesn’t extend to the trains which are currently rather restfully livered in white and grey) and decidedly erratic: unless HTTP Error 500 (Wrong kind of snow on the web?  Frozen points at the server?) is the look for which they’re aiming.  I trust their inability to run a website doesn’t bode ill for the future reliability of services to (and from) Whittlesford Parkway…