A SNAPSHOT of life on our small and disproportionately frustrating island. I am on my way from London to Cambridge to do an interview.
So far, so whatever. But fear not, schadenfreuders, things are about to go wrong. The night before, Ma R points out that “the overhead lines are down” somewhere around where I want to be.
Now let’s be honest. None of us really knows what the hell this means. It’s like pretending to understand Brian Cox on that Wonders of the World series. Overhead lines are mysterious things, like dark matter or the proverbial leaf on the line. But one thing we do know: they should be up, not down. The clue is the ‘overhead’.
I phone National Rail Enquiries and am immediately told – by an automated message, obviously – not to bother. Demand is high, expect to wait unto death, only the stupid would call when there is such a thing as the internet, blah blah blah. With a cavalier attitude, I decide to hold. Forever. That’ll show ’em. Within seconds, I get through to an actual person. Aha! Victory! And they thought they could wear me down... Your correspondent: one, National Rail Enquires: nil.
Except, of course, they can’t help. “At the moment there is a limited service but that could change,” a woman says optimistically. This glass-half-full attitude is unfamiliar. She must be foreign. “Phone back in the morning.” I explain that by the morning it will be too late. I need to know now whether to plan an alternative route. She does not understand this dizzying circle of irony. We give up and say goodbye.
Next morning the service appears to be up and running again. Result. I set off and at the station decide to buy coffee from a chain. This is something I never normally do. I’d like to say it’s because of my principled stance against giant, tax-evading corporations but it’s more that I’m a coffee snob.
Here’s the thing. My coffee of choice – a dry cappuccino – is to any other country in Europe a cappuccino. That is, a shot of coffee with a small amount of milk and a lot of froth. It comes in a small cup with a sprinkling of chocolate and goodwill. Add any more milk and what you have, so-called barista, is a latte. This concept is apparently hard to understand and explaining it has the unfortunate result of making me look like a total ass. So I’ve learned to bite my tongue and calmly ask for a dry cappuccino. (This still makes me look like an ass, but you can’t have everything.)
We are a nation of coffee drinkers. We spend a third of our salaries on the stuff and probably a third of our waking lives waiting in queues for someone overworked and underpaid to froth milk and grind beans on our behalf. Yet no-one has a clue how to make coffee. No matter what you order, you get a bucket of hot milk shot through with something bitter, brown and boring. It tastes like a cup of disappointment that has destroyed the will and digestive system of a dozen other people before it got to you.
Eventually I get to King’s Cross, tired, queasy and ground down from all that hot milk. Another queue to buy a ticket: £33 for a day return. A journey that takes 45 minutes. I board a train littered with mindless free newspapers and hollow-eyed commuters, and we cock our heads to listen to an announcement that the service is delayed. Of course it is. I call National Rail Enquiries, ignore the ‘turn back NOW!’ warnings of the automated doom-monger. And wait...