Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
If you don’t look anxious, you’re more likely to find a seat; this is one of the rules. Anxious people will be jammed in the gangway. You are not anxious.
It’s suddenly warm, this early evening weekday. Most were still planning for winter this morning, to judge from the number of heavy coats and scarves. Wearing too much clothing makes you sweat and that, of course, would make you seem anxious. You will not sweat.
The Train-god (subsidy be upon him) smiles – look, a miracle: the central seat compartment, six seats in two opposing rows of three, enough space for three normally-sized human beings, and there’s only one occupant and – oh thank you, beneficent god – he’s “elderly.”
Elderly means “visibly older than you” which means “60s” which means “one of us” in terms of train behaviour. Your journey home is unlikely to be interrupted by a phone call of vulgar inanity or private-Hertfordshire-school-kid shrieking.
All this has taken maybe two seconds. The train leaves Stevenage.
Late 60s probably.
And he’s smiling! On his own, and smiling. The sun is on him – must there be an angel, playing with your commute?
Too late. Not an angel. In the additional three seconds it took your body to move down the gangway to this man’s portion of seats, your consciousness caught up with reality.
No-one gets six seats to themselves on the 1740 stopping service to King’s Cross. No-one other than the violent, the drunk, the violently drunk – but the angel in front of you is none of these things. He smiles serenely at the push-me push-you sullen jam of the carriage around him. Maybe he’s “ill”.
Your eyes meet. Still smiling. “Only a fool smiles all the time,” whispered a character in the novel you read on the morning, outward leg of this journey, which at the time struck you as harsh. You do all your own smiling in those first two hours of the working day. After 11, to keep smiling would be as fatuous as it would be offensive. But you’re quite proud of those two hours.
He’s not ill. But – one more second passes; less than that, a heartbeat merely – there’s definitely something wrong.
He is sitting in the direction of travel, in the central of the three seats. On either side of him, in the other two free seats, are paper bags. Not “pokes”, like those in which your mum and Gran’s shop dispensed boiled 1970s sweets, but luxury paper bags, the pointless “Look at me, I bought something in Fortnums” sort, that you hold onto for months because it feels obscene to put them in the recycling.
Bad (bags) enough. But on the three seats across from the smiling elderly angel, where your foolish expectancy directed your body, where three commuters could sit, is his jacket. Placed, not laid, but placed, with care, over all three spaces.
This man is on one of the busiest, over-crowded, over-priced services of the day. All around him is a miasma of noise and despair; hyper, uncontrollable children (“She’s more like a sister than a mum!”) and the unsmiling (we’re not fools) salarymen and women, who hold their bodies rigid, lest you see them quiver with the desire to be home, and never to come back again.
(No: the distance of “you” doesn’t work. “You’re” not watching this and “you’re” not a bloody camera. So shut up and occupy your life.)
This man saw the chaos and the misery and the battery-chicken spacing, then chose, deliberately, to occupy six entire seats with his posh paper bags and his sports jacket, all lain out like it’s on a stuffing altar or something, like he’s on a holiday to the Alps in the 1930s, like we should edge carefully around the sacred jacket, be glad to stand and be jerked around while the jacket enjoys its rest, and he’s looking at me, and he’s still smiling, quizzically, like I’m some urchin from the village appeared at the front door of the big house, warbling out a carol in the hope that the squire will drop a coin into my tiny, frozen hand – God bless you guv’nor! – and I can’t actually see any longer, it’s not a red mist in front of me, but a dark red satin screen of sheer, murderous rage; I think I’m going to explode with fury – aren’t the vulgar school kids bad enough? Has the last bulkhead of decency been breached? I’ve been up since 5am and I could shake him; I could –
“Oh, excuse me,” you say, gently. “Is this your jacket? I wonder, are you keeping these seats for some friends?”
“Oh no,” he says. Another heartbeat. “Would you like to sit down?” He moves the jacket from the furthermost space under the window. Then smooths it over the remaining two places.
You spend ten minutes squeezed into the corner, on top of his (of course!) Daily Telegraph, before giving up. “It’s a busy service,” you suggest to him, but he affects not to understand Scottish, and shakes his head. At Welwyn Garden City you change onto another train. Anaesthetise your rage – your rage at the man, compounded by rage at your own anger – by flicking through Twitter.
TV to Craig Oliver: we have given your proposal serious consideration but it doesn’t provide viewers with debates that discuss enough issues
— Chris Ship (@chrisshipitv) March 6, 2015
Debates about debates: and why not? It’s irrational to discuss those things we cannot control, as though we had a choice. Only the sweaty and the anxious give a damn about the state of our trains, the state of our lives.
It’s been a long day. I just want to sit down. You just want to sit down. Lay your jacket down to rest, and smile, obliviously, at the state you are in. Be glad the media are discussing what matters in this general election.