This is the Age of the Train

Saturday, 28 July 2007

I travel by train a lot. I was, if not actually born, raised on the railways. Childhood holidays included Camping Coaches in Marizion, and trips through the Alps. So as well as doing things like the trenhotel to Barcelona, I also use the train nearly weekly, often to get up to London. Exeter has two routes up to town: the old Great Western to London Paddington and the old London & South Western to London Waterloo. I mostly use the Paddington route. First Great Western, who now run the route (and Exeter St Davids station – see fulminate’s architectures of control blog for my thoughts on that), have taken to advertising their cheap fares. When I first saw the advertising campaign they ran from winter 06 till summer 07, I burst out laughing. Here’s an example of one of the posters, along with what it instantly reminded me of:

Hitchcockian train travel ~ bass

Saul Bass is one of my favourite graphic designers, who produced many fabulous title sequences as iconic as the Hitchcock films they introduce. For example, the title sequences to Vertigo, North by Northwest and Pyscho. Bass tended to favour a limited set of bold colours (like the FGW adverts) and reduce forms to shapes (like the FGW adverts). The image is often tilted to induce a sense of being off-balance (like the FGW adverts).

The problem here is that the advertisement designed by FGW wants to entice us to use their online booking in order to get cheap fares, but it uses iconographic images which suggest the nightmarish world of Hitchcockian chaos where the everyman is confused, bewildered and caught up in a system they do not understand. A world in which Jimmy Stewart is conned and sent insane. A world in which a simple error results in Cary Grant being forced to flee on a train before being attacked by a crop-spraying plane and eventually dangled off a cliff. A world in which strangers on a train plot murders. Is that really want FGW want their potential customers to be reminded of when trying to get them to use a train booking system?

The campaign seems to be being replaced with a rather more boring set of posters which lack the same accidental subtext but also any visual flair.

Some other random train advertising fun:
The National Rail Musuem’s History of British Railway Posters
Screenonline’s history of British Transport films

You tube finds – WARNING! once you start watching old adverts on you tube, forever will you be in their thrall (due to the “similar videos” listing):
This is the Age of the Train (late 1970s)
British Rail – Relax (1980s)
British Rail – The Night Mail (1980s)
GPO Film Unit – The Night Mail (1936 – music by Britten, words by Auden)
Intercity brings something good (pre-decimalisation)
British Rail Weekend Away advert (very Benny Hill – BR appears to be a cheap date)
Cyclists’ Specials 1 Cyclists’ Specials 2

I’m not the only person to notice Hitchcock had a thing about trains.

What I Did On My Holidays, Part 1

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Or, there and back again.

We went to Barcelona by train. Not out of some Grauniad-reading eco-smuggity but because it is just much more enjoyable than spending three hours at Gatwick. Also, due to the usual arcane train rules, it worked out cheaper to travel to Paris on Eurostar first class.

We started the journey with the Misery Line, however, getting the Tube from the chap’s to Waterloo. Security, even with the patdown I got, is just so much less stressful on the Eurostar. No standing in long snaking queues wondering why the people holding you up hadn’t noticed the large multilingual signs telling you to remove your jacket, belt and shoes. Then we were whisked at slow speed past Battersea and at slightly higher speed towards the channel, being given champagne and a pretty good late lunch. The trolley dolly was so camp he should have been in Ugly Betty.

Estacio Franca Main Hall Having once been caught out by the change in timezones, I’d given us lots of time to cross Paris to Gare D’Austerlitz. As the Metro train swooped out onto a bridge crossing the Seine, I could see the Eiffel Tower through the girders. I’m fairly sure my travels with my family, which also entailed many a trip across Paris from Gare D’Nord, have taken me to Gare D’Austerlitz before but it may just be the curious familiarity of major rail terminii at night. There’s always an orange sodium fuzz and too much echo in the marble hallways. There was a rather 70s bar, suitable for a beer or two before boarding the Trenhotel aka the Night Sleeper.

I love sleeper trains. Really love them. There’s something just too fascinating about falling asleep looking at one world and waking in another. We went Gran Classe, which got us a private ensuite cabin, dinner including drinks and breakfast. Whilst at dinner our beds were made up for us, complete with chocolates with pictures of trains on them left on our pillows. I kept waking in the night and quickly recalled the trick to watching the night landscape: keep the curtain pulled, put your head under and you can see things beyond the glass. I gave out a small squee as we drew into Perpignon, as it was a place I’d used in H101. As we crossed the Pyrannes we went close to the coast, and there was a moonlit view down into a bay. On a sleeper, you can imagine that only you will have seen that moment unlike the shared vistas of daylight travel.

When we got to Estacio Franca (after more H101-related eeping from me), we locked our bags up and strolled into the city ready for more cafe on Las Ramblas.

The journey back was similar yet different. I warn anyone going not to drink the beer in the bar at the Estacio Franca. Really nasty. There’s also the sad realisation that you are heading home, so rather less excited midnight wakings to look out of the window. And the drop in temperature was more noticeable, with my toes feeling the cold Northern European air. We breakfasted as the train ran along next to the Seine through, arriving back into Paris with plenty of time to get back for lunch in London with Smith and Robson. Then I got on a train back to Devon and was sitting on my sofa with a bag of chips less than 24 hours after I’d been in a bar in Barcelona.

It’s not the fastest or even the cheapest way to travel, but you gain a sense of distance and of change which planes just don’t give you. Also, there was champagne included, which always sweetens a journey.

Details of how to travel from London to Barcelona are available on the fabulous Man in Seat 61 site, which provides me with many happy moments of idle speculation (“ooooh, they’re opening the silk route…”). We booked via RailEurope.

We did mention at the time of booking that I was veggie but this info didn’t appear to reach the actual train companies (something which I’ll be sending an email about). The Eurostar always carry a spare veggie meal but I was ticked off for not having mentioned my special dietary requirements. The Trenhotel doesn’t carry a spare, but I had the ensalade for a starter and the soup as a main which was yummy. I emailed Elipsos re the meal before we returned and they changed my booking. However, I didn’t enjoy the proper veggie options as much as the make-do stuff I’d had on the way down. The starter was a much heavier salad, and the main a plate of grilled aubergine and courgette which I could have done better. The breakfast was different as well, being some heated egg and cheese thing instead of those well known meaty foods of pain au chocolat and fruit. It’s possible that the veggie food is lovely – the chap had to send his chicken back as it wasn’t heated properly so the crew was definitely less good – but I think in future I’ll ‘forget’ to book veggie and just workaround from the normal menu.

All my photos are now available on flickr: photos tagged barcelona07. I’ll do Montserrat and architecture and bars in future posts.

Sorry…where was I?

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Ah, yes. Barcelona.

Just back from a longish trip. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in the sun on Las Ramblas, sipping sangria. It is a rather gauche thing to do, but very satisfying. We dined in Barcelona, as the train slipped northwards through the suburbs towards the Pyrannes. Breakfasted as the sun rose over the Seine to the south of Paris. Lunched in London and, less then 24 hours after pulling out of Barcelona I was having chips for supper on my own sofa back in Devon. It may not be the fastest way to travel but, by the gods, it’s civilised.

Flickr photos to follow.

Summer shoes

Monday, 31 July 2006

new shoesI got these today, since I’m off to two festivals within zones 1 & 2 (the free fruitstock in Regent’s Park and the rather less free Get Loaded in the Park in Clapham). Years of working outdoors makes me nervous about wearing flimsy shoes at festivals, but converse all-stars get all sweaty. So these cheap things are a compromise. Which rub my heels, but that can be fixed with tape.

London is way too sweaty at the moment, hence the need for new footwear. We were at a party at Cubana in Lower Marsh on Saturday night, very rapidly decamping to the street outside. At almost 1am, the humidity was still hugging us close, pricking at the skin and making you dream of cool rain. No such luck.

I’ve also discovered something rather smart. There are many ways to get from Devon to London. The megabus and megatrain are the cheapest but longest and least flexible. The 21 quid apex on the Waterloo train is good if you can get it, and Waterloo is rather handy if working in Westminster/Lambeth. But right now I’m going for the Paddington line – more expensive but barely over 2 hours and I’m going to Norf London anyway. And I just discovered that not only are two superadvancethingy singles cheaper than one saver return, but that you can – if lucky – get two first class singles for less than a standard saver return. More space, less children, getting into Paddington at the front of the train…

London Shelf

Monday, 30 January 2006

Back from a long weekend in London. A couple of hours of work in Shoreditch, then an evening at the Barfly in Camden on the Friday. Saturday I saw more exhibitions than you can shake a stick at before going along to a friend’s birthday party at the Duex Beers in Hatton Wall. I drank way more Leffe than is good for me. The journey back on Sunday involved a train, a bus, another train and another train. The buffet was open on Yeovil Junction station, which was a delight. It’s one of those old-fashioned railway buffets, with a long marble counter you can prop up, and tables to sit at. There was a tall young goth standing behind the counter, like a male nilhilistic version of Manet’s Folie Bergere painting, and then it became apparent that he – and his 12 year old little sister – were helping out their gran. If it wasn’t slightly surreal enough, since such railway buffets seem to belong to a long-forgotten age, they had Johnny and the Bomb on the TV in the corner, so suddenly there was a WW2 song blaring out. You half-expected to see a couple having a Brief Encounter.

The whole weekend has produced two clear ideas for short stories, which is cheering me up no end. I just need to knuckle down to the writing. After doing the taxes. Do you think I can claim the cat attacked it? He’s already sat on the receipts twice.

All that journey time means I wrote up a review of the bands at the Barfly for London Shelf. I’ve been writing the odd review for shiny shelf for a fair old while now, and this is their London-based version about life in the city. So despite not actually living in London, I’ll be writing the odd bit for there as well. You can tell I tried to go all Julie Birchill in that music review, as well as trying to make it London-centric with the descriptions.

note re London

Thursday, 7 July 2005

Just a note to say that I wasn’t in town today – I try to conspire to get work appointments in London on the first Thursday of each month so I can attend the infamous Doctor Who Tavern and quaff red wine with the other writers – but my ever-shifting diary colluded to send me to Bristol instead. Both family members are checked in, with the customary stories of transportation* – as are all friends. I’m still waiting to see a few bloggers post, but there’s no point in panicking over that – they may well have more urgent priorities than blogging right now. Over the past three decades, I’ve had to worry about people getting caught in events – from the Birmingham pub bombs in the 70s to the Reading derailment last year – with a ridiculous amount of frequency and the main thing I’ve come to realise is that being calm, getting on with something else, and maybe having a cup of strong tea really are the best responses until communications can be established. If they can, the person will check in. If they can’t, either because the networks are down, or they are stuck somewhere, or worse, no amount of unanswered calls will ease your uncertainty.

*if there is something the British love to talk about more than football, and almost as much as the weather, it’s transport. One family member told me the route they took on foot to reach an open train station, another told me how the train they were on – which I assumed had been stopped at Reading since it passed there at 10am – had in fact gone all the way in to Paddington and then back out.

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