Yesterday I had occasion to travel to Liverpool Street for an appointment with an orthopaedic consultant, exactly seven weeks after suffering a hip/thigh injury whilst playing golf on a hilly course. In normal circumstances – i.e. at any point in the previous four decades – this turn of events would have been unusual to impossible but, as I’m beyond the age of sixty, I guess it’s now just an occupational hazard.
Having escaped to the suburbs many years ago, my excursions into town are now the exception rather than the rule. I’ve never been a particular fan of commuting, or standing cheek by jowl with other people on crowded trains. Why would anybody of sound mind do this by choice? Even during the years when I travelled to work in central London, as a habitual early riser, I deliberately sought to avoid rush hours by setting off about 6.00am and ‘setting myself up for the day’ in the office before everyone else arrived.
I’m a compulsive people-watcher in an ‘I’m an alien in a foreign land’ sort of fashion. I never heard him myself, but there was once a Yorkshire radio personality called Wilfred Pickles, one of whose catch-phrases was “There’s nowt to queer as folk” and he wasn’t wrong.
People are infinitely fascinating. Who are they, and what are they all doing? The use of mobile phones is a case in point. Over the course of a train journey, tens of people begin making, or taking, phone calls. Obliged to listen, as we fellow travellers are, to just one half of a conversation, it is impossible not to wonder … not only what it’s all for, but actually would it even matter if all phones in the world were suddenly confiscated by government decree.
An example. Shortly after my train pulled out of Clapham Junction yesterday, a lady brought out her smartphone in order to advise someone at the other end “I’m on the train, just pulling out of Clapham Junction …” What possible use was that news, in the scheme of the vast blackness of the ever-expanding universe? Yesterday I listened to some gentleman on his phone openly reviewing what I presume were highly confidential figures and business tactics with someone back in his place of work. Supposing I had been a commercial rival, or even a colleague of the person on the other end of the negotiations he was discussing?
Yesterday’s four-and-a-half-hour expedition began in inauspicious circumstances. I set off not long after consuming a light lunch of a tagliatelle, mushroom, asparagus and pine nuts concoction. Five years ago or more, there was an item on Radio Five Live in which presenter Nicky Campbell revealed that every human being – male and female – on average farts fourteen times per day. He comforted those of us listening with the fact that this was perfectly normal – apparently, if anyone did not release gas in this way, he or she would gradually blow up like a balloon and eventually explode.
Some quarter of an hour later, after walking to the station, I was reminded of this revelation when realising that en route I had already used up about two-thirds of my daily allocation.
Much later, at 5.00pm – on the way home from Waterloo, having by now exceeded said allocation by a significant margin – I began speculating that perhaps I personally might be part of the answer to the current political ‘hot potato’ of the UK’s future energy supplies and consumer prices. I made a mental note to write to Number 10 suggesting that, if I was set up in pleasantly-decorated three star standard hotel accommodation, with a Sky Sports subscription and suitable amounts of the correct food on tap, I (and perhaps others like me) could become a vital and sustainable national resource.
Upon arriving at Liverpool Street armed with a printed-off version of a basic map I had found on the internet, I was slightly thrown by the fact that the landscape had much altered since I had last been in the vicinity, perhaps fifteen years before. Worse, the area was infested with building developments, full of scaffolding, hoardings, canvas screens and the like. It was initially impossible to tell which point of the compass I was facing, let match my map to what I could see before me.
At one point, having apparently travelled around in a circle, I came across a building site that was heralded as a partnership between the developers concerned and Museum of London archaeologists. (I never discovered what period of history or ancient building was involved).
London is in a constant state of flux – intellectually, of course, that much is plain, but it reflects poorly upon me that it had taken a physical trip to town to reacquaint myself with the fact.
I was back home well before 6.00pm, having been part of what I presume was a standard Friday night London exodus, and doing my best to stave off the conviction that if a bomb dropped on Wednesday of next week and took out 50% of the UK population (not my 50%, obviously), the world would not be disadvantaged in the slightest.
I even saw one young guy standing on the train, wearing a beanie, talking earnestly into a smartphone held to his ear that was about the size of an iPad. It may even have been an iPad. He looked completely ridiculous. He was probably arranging the finer details of his heavy night out on the town last night.
Me? I was close to the point of exhaustion, happy to be going home to haul up the drawbridge, take off my shoes and watch television.