This article by Libby Purves appeared today in The Times. It is so well-written, so to-the-point, so much in accord with everything the GOS and his readers feel, and just so damned grumpy that we just had to pinch it. We hope Libby Purves will take this in the spirit in which it's intended, which is mostly abject admiration …
by Libby Purves
The misery of returning from abroad
Perhaps no British person should ever go abroad at new year. The homecoming is just too humiliatingly painful, not only because of Tupperware-grey skies but because of the all-pervading sense of reduced citizenship and snarling neglect that assaults the returning traveller. In summer it is bearable; in winter it casts you down.
Air travel obviously does it, whether you are picking your way through three weeks' worth of chaotic baggage at Heathrow, barred from Bristol airport because it surfaced the runway wrong, or queueing for 45 minutes at Luton airport immigration (why not separate queues for British passports and the rest of the vast EU? Why stand in line to enter your own country?) But rail travel can do it too. As a fellow passenger glumly observed at the weekend, you can't even say it is like arriving in a Third World country. In a Third World country you get sunshine.
I always swore not to write one of these grumpy holiday-return pieces. I am aware that plenty of my fellow citizens don't even get a week's respite from slum-Britannia, and to them I apologise. But this sense of reduced citizenship is not confined to travellers, so maybe it is worth recording what the sharpened senses perceive.
The most striking thing, obviously, is public transport. Under a Government that repeatedly nags us to get out of our cars, and that has failed to reverse its predecessor's disastrous privatisation, too much train travel is physically and psychologically nasty. Mainline fares have just risen by between 4.3 per cent and 7 per cent. Last year's rises were between 3.7 and 8.8 per cent. In return we get squalor (often) and insult (occasionally). After being wafted serenely 500 miles across Europe on fast, clean trains with smiling staff, our party crossed to Liverpool Street on a busy Saturday to find only one train an hour on the main line towards Ipswich and Norwich. Inconsiderately "scheduled" engineering works meant that at Colchester it was replaced by a bus.
The train, slow and grubby and without a ticket inspector to keep order, was packed with snoring lads belching and resting their feet on seats, their beer-cans rolling and leaking across the floor while quieter travellers resignedly tried to keep their children's feet out of the mess, or sat on their baggage by the door. At Colchester there were buses, but only one with a luggage hold; we did all right but my brother's family were ordered to put their heavy bags in one bus, then unload them all again because there were no seats, then switch to an ancient double-decker where cases were piled in the aisle, blocking any escape route. Which was a shame, since the vehicle then began leaking exhaust fumes into its lower deck as it bucketed down the A12, causing passengers to cough and gasp and one, recovering from a chest infection, to feel seriously ill. Through the fumes of carbon monoxide loomed a large sign announcing a fine of £1,000 for smoking.
This tone of reprimand mingled with disregard, all too familiar to anyone who deals with British institutions, was continued when they stumbled out and reported the safety problems to the "duty supervisor". She snapped that it was nothing to do with her because the buses were subcontracted. The idea that her company had charged a full railway-comfort fare and provided a journey on a poisonous cramped bus seemed not to occur to her. Minutes later, coughing and struggling to load their car on an empty forecourt, they were accosted by the same official and vengefully told to move on.
Well, sometimes things go better. But that combination of official self-righteousness with contempt for the client-citizen is too familiar. Think of local authority decisions to collect the filthiest garbage only once a fortnight even in high summer, and soon charge by weight. Think what happens when you try to reduce that weight by telling the Royal Mail not to deliver sackfuls of unaddressed circulars: you get a threatening message telling you that if you opt out of double-glazing flyers you will miss "leaflets from Central and Local Government and other public bodies" because they refuse to separate these. So you won't know when your dustbin or surgery day changes.
And it'll be your fault. Everything is always your fault, in Britain. Never mind that your water company paid its directors huge bonuses rather than fix its pipes: the shortage is your fault for having baths. The theory behind Thatcherite privatisations was, I vaguely remember, that we would get better service if we were customers not sharers; in some cases it worked (it took the old GPO weeks to install a phone, and BT speeded things up). But in many cases - railways, airports, car parks, water, power, PFIs that overspend and put our children in hock for decades, NHS and Whitehall consultancies - the arrogance of state monopoly simply blends with the greediness of commerce to produce a hideous all-British hybrid in which the key principle is worship of its own systems and contempt for the public. John Major dimly saw this when he set up citizen's charters and cones hotlines; but the momentum was already too great.
Still, never mind. The latest political buzz is a "wellbeing index", masterminded by 3WG, the Whitehall Wellbeing Working Group, whose civil servants now have a report in their hands commissioned by the Department for the Environment. It reveals that people are happier if they get plenty of sleep and a social life, are not too fat and get promotion at work; and that they get unhappy if they are jilted, sacked or soaked by heavy rain. With discoveries as startling as this, it cannot be long before another costly Whitehall survey finds that our wellbeing suffers when we are treated like pointless nuisances by services and authorities that we are paying for.
The GOS says: Libby, I'd ask you to marry me only I think Mrs.GOS might have her own views. Not a woman to be trifled with, Mrs.GOS.
As Grumpy Readers know, The GOS is a bit of a train buff. He'd like to assure Libby that she is likely to get admirable service from our railway system provided she steers well clear of London at all times. By "well clear", he means about a hundred miles, give or take. Not a bad rule for life, really …
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