Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 5)

In which The Author remembers a work colleague

I’m sitting in my local pub, having a quiet pint after chatting for a while to Ian P., an old schoolmate of mine. We were talking about the standard of general education in this country, and how things have gone downhill since we were lads. When I went to the toilet, I spotted an advertisement for next weekend’s entertainment:


Now, let’s just analyze this for a moment. The media are full of sixties nostalgia as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, not to mention the fiftieth anniversaries of the deaths of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley, all of which fall next Friday. (Personally, my Inner Geek and I will be marking a far more important fiftieth anniversary next Saturday night…)
I doubt whether, of all the possible science fiction scenarios dreamt up since William Hartnell first stepped out of the TARDIS, one has yet to include the former leader of the Nation of Islam singing in my local pub.
The sign reminded me of when I started working in the book trade, way back in 1989. One of my colleagues was a lovely girl named Kathryn, who had a degree in Theology and very little knowledge of what went on down here on Earth.
[A digression: With perfect comedy timing, Jason D., who used to work with me in Dillons and Waterstones, has just been online, asking me when we’re going to meet up for a long-overdue couple of pints or five. He said he was looking forward to reminiscing about students and their daft questions. I told him that it wasn’t just students I had to deal with…]
During the summer break of 1990, Blackwell’s took delivery of the set texts for the forthcoming academic season. To say we’d over-ordered would be putting it mildly. They arrived by the pallet load during a very small window, and we needed to fit them into even smaller windows – namely the ones which made up the long edges of our rectangular shop. (You’d be amazed by how many books we managed to squeeze into a tiny space. Not even the Time Lords themselves could have got away with it!)
One of the books on the American Studies course was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-written with Alex Haley. In the fullness of time, thirty copies of the Penguin paperback arrived in the shop, complete with the striking photo of Malcolm X that everybody knows from old TV documentaries and news items. Well, almost everybody…
In a classic piece of Kathryn dippiness, she picked up one of the books, scrutinized the cover for a few moments, and then turned to me.
‘All right, I give up,’ she said, perfectly seriously. ‘Who was Malcolm the Tenth?’

Autumn Woes

In which The Author lets the train cause the strain

‘Autumn woes’ was the headline on BBC Wales’ summary table of the home nation’s dismal performance in the Autumn Rugby Tests since 2009 (eleven defeats and a draw.)
‘Autumn woes’ could also sum up the experience of passengers on the South Wales Valleys Lines over the past couple of weeks. As I told you in Wet Wednesday, Martin H. and I were fortunate enough to catch a delayed train home from Abercynon last week. Had it actually been on time, we’d certainly have missed it.
On 5 November, my friend Alexis reported that the train from Cardiff to Aberdare was running approximately twenty minutes late. Arriva Trains Wales had come up with arguably the best excuse to date – the delay had been caused (this time) by a fireworks display.
Back in the days of British Rail, the late running and cancellation of trains was a standing joke, and a great source of comic material. Reginald Perrin (see No Laughing Matter) used to arrive at Sunshine Desserts eleven minutes late. every morning. Driven (no pun intended) by distraction by Southern Region’s increasingly implausible excuses, at one point Reggie asks his secretary Joan to take a letter:
The Traffic Manager,
British Rail (Southern Region),
Dear Sir,
Every morning my train is eleven minutes late. This is infuriating. This morning I took a later train. This also was eleven minutes late. This also was infuriating. Why don’t you re-time all your trains to arrive eleven minutes late? – then they will all be on time.
Yours Faithfully,
Reginald I. Perrin
Needless to say, the trains continue to run late, and Reggie’s second letter of complaint is a superb piece. The little complaint forms you fill in and send back don’t permit this sort of scope:
The Traffic Manager,
British Rail (Southern Region),
Dear Sir,
Despite my letter of Friday last, I see you have still taken no action in the matter of the late arrival of trains at Waterloo. This morning my train arrived, as always, eleven minutes late. It is rapidly becoming apparent to me that you are not only not competent enough to hold your job, but you could not even run a game of strip-poker in a Turkish brothel. It should be obvious, even to a retarded Belgian hamster, that all of your trains should be re-timed to take eleven minutes longer.
Yours Faithfully,
Reginald I. Perrin
PS: During the pollen season, Peter Cartwright’s sneezing is rather offensive to those of us who, like myself, are allergic to sneezing. Today he blew his nose on the Greater Manchester Development Plan supplement, which is a sound enough environmental comment, but not a pretty sight. Why don’t you divide your carriages into ‘sneezers’ and ‘non-sneezers’?
David Nobbs, a sparkling gem among British comedy writers, came up with an inspired litany of excuses that even British Rail at its worst would have found hard to match:
‘Eleven minutes late, staff difficulties, Hampton Wick.’

‘Eleven minutes late, signal failure at Vauxhall.’

‘Eleven minutes late, staff shortages, Nine Elms.’

‘Eleven minutes late, derailment of container truck, Raynes Park.’

‘Eleven minutes late, seasonal manpower shortages, Clapham Junction.’

‘Eleven minutes late, defective junction box, New Malden.’

‘Eleven minutes late, overheated axle at Berrylands.’

‘Eleven minutes late, defective axle at Wandsworth.’

‘Eleven minutes late, somebody had stolen the lines at Surbiton.’

Driven to madness by his relentless routine, his pointless job, his annoying family, his unsatisfied lust for Joan, and his looming middle-age crisis, Reggie fakes his own death, leaving his clothes on a beach à la John Stonehouse. Eventually he returns, passing himself off as Reggie’s old friend Martin Wellbourne (who had sequestered himself in Brazil following an amorous disappointment in Sutton Coldfield), and is offered a job at Sunshine Desserts, running the Reginald Perrin Memorial Foundation. By this time, his train is arriving seventeen minutes late every morning, with more bizarre excuses:
‘Seventeen minutes late, defective bogey at Earlsfield.’

‘Seventeen minutes late, water seeping through the cables at Effingham Junction – there was a lot of Effingham and a good deal of Blindingham!’

When his true identity is revealed, Reggie sets up his own company, Grot, selling rubbish products at inflated prices. By now, his train to work is twenty-two minutes late every morning, with an accompanying poor explanation at the terminus:
‘Twenty-two minutes late, black ice at Norbiton.’

‘Twenty-two minutes late, obstacles on the line at Berrylands.’

‘Twenty-two minutes late, badger ate a junction box at New Malden.’

‘Twenty-two minutes late, fed up by train delays, came by bike. Slow puncture at Peckham.’

‘Twenty-two minutes late, escaped puma, Chessington North.’

Fair play to Mr Nobbs, those are truly inspired (and a lot of them sound as though they might have been adapted from genuine BR apologies for late running.) But even he never went as far as the real excuses from recent years, some of which have passed into legend. What hard-pressed British commuter of a certain age can forget ‘leaves on the line’ and ‘the wrong kind of snow’? Wasn’t the rationale for rail privatization that it would shake up the industry and put a stop to this sort of nonsense one and for all? Or is it just me?
My three personal favourite excuses, however, are the ones which I witnessed for myself. The first one took place several years ago, on a beautiful misty winter’s morning. There was no sign of the 0743 arrival at Aberdare, and as time ticked away my fellow commuters and I started to get a bit agitated. Some of us phoned into work to let them know we’d be late (again!) while others kept a stiff upper lip and stayed quiet. I expect some of them were practising witty Reggie-style repartee to amuse their colleagues when they eventually strolled into the office eleven (or seventeen, or twenty-two) minutes late.
To our surprise, Elaine from the ticket office left the safety of her little concrete bunker and stepped onto the platform.
‘Sorry about the delay,’ she announced, ‘but I’ve just had a call to say that there are horses running loose on the line.’
Naturally, we all laughed. Horses on the line? What was this – a real-life episode of Dodge This? Just when we thought we’d heard it all, the headlights of the train pierced the mist in the distance. Galloping before it were four fine horses, emerging from the mist like Apocalyptic outriders. They’d been escorting the train since it left Cwmbach, having escaped from a field and making their way onto the track. That was one excuse which nobody in the shop believed.
The second was more mundane, and if anything more annoying, because it was so trivial. The 0751 service couldn’t leave Aberdare because of a ‘train failure’ – something which you hear frequently in the platform announcements. I’d always assumed that it referred to a serious mechanical fault, like a blown gasket or a faulty brake. I was wrong. On the morning in question, the ‘train failure’ was nothing more serious than a non-functioning windscreen wiper. I wouldn’t mention it here, except for the fact that it was a glorious summer morning, without a cloud in the fucking sky!
The third brilliant excuse was unleashed a couple of days after I met Lorna Prichard, when she was a cub reporter at the Cynon Valley Leader. I’d promised to feed her any news stories I picked up when I was out and about, and as if by magic a beauty of an Arriva excuse presented itself to me when I got to the station. All the trains were cancelled owing to ‘the theft of signalling cables at Mountain Ash.’
I jotted a hasty hungover note to Lorna – ‘Copper thieves derail Valleys train services. We say stop this evil trade!‘ – and posted it through the door of the Leader office before boarding the (eventual) replacement bus service. (Note for overseas readers: This is one of the three phrases which every British person fears and hates in equal measure, along with ‘Party political broadcast’ and ‘Last orders, please.’)
Anyway, let’s get back on track (geddit?) and return to the present day. I went to Pontypridd this morning for a protest march against Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s proposed cuts to nursery education. The train left Aberdare on time, and then sat outside Pontypridd for five minutes or so while we waited for the late running service from Treherbert to clear the station.
That was nothing new – the junction where the lines from the Taff and Rhondda Valleys meet is one of the most notorious bottlenecks on the entire network. (There’s another one at Cardiff Queen Street, where the lines from the Taff and Rhymney Valleys meet. At the moment, there’s extensive work in progress at Queen Street to alleviate the problem. I’ll keep you posted…)
My cousin Kayleigh, her friends Catherine and Lucy and I once spent a whole hour stuck at this black spot owing to the failure of the Advance Warning System. This fail-safe device was introduced after the infamous Moorgate Underground train crash of 1975. It replaced the old ‘dead man’s handle’, the failure of which had led to the deaths of 43 people at Moorgate. The idea is that the brakes are automatically applied if the driver doesn’t respond to an audible warning every time the train passes a yellow signal. It also means that a train can’t proceed past a red light without a manual override from the signalling centre.
On the morning in question, the signal at Pontypridd had stuck at red, and even though everyone could see that the platform ahead was clear, we couldn’t proceed simply because the manual override didn’t work.
Luckily, there was a moment of light relief when the wrong announcement came over the tannoy. Instead of the usual safety warnings, we heard a recorded voice advising us that the catering trolley would soon be passing down the aisle, with a selection of snacks and hot and cold drinks. I caught the conductor’s eye, put up my hand and shouted, ‘Four coffees over here, please!’ It got a laugh from our fellow prisoners passengers; not as big a laugh as Mr Nobbs would have managed, I admit, but then, I’ve never claimed to be a comedy scriptwriter, have I?
Anyway, by the time I arrived at Pontypridd the march had already set off, and I eventually tracked them down by the YMCA, where they were making their way back to St Catherine’s Church. By the time I joined them, there were a couple of hundred people gathered there, with placards, banners, and even campaign t-shirts. A couple of police officers were holding up the traffic to let the stragglers through, and to judge from the car horns blasting into the Saturday morning gloom they were attracting a fair bit of support from drivers.


I took advantage of the fine weather to call into B&Q and PC World, on a small trading estate just outside the town centre. With time to kill, I browsed through the digital cameras and DAB radios on offer, fancying several items which will remain forever beyond my budget. Then I walked back into town and bumped into Graeme Beard, my fellow revolutionary from the RCT Ratepayers’ Action Group (see No Future.) We had a good chat and a catch-up before I headed back to the station.
I’d bought a paper on the way through town, and I was glad I had. I’d fallen foul (not for the first time) of the Ghost Train. You see, although the daytime trains run half-hourly between Aberdare and Cardiff most of the time, there are a couple of gaps in the timetable. Officially, they’re ‘operating windows’ which allow the freight train from Tower Colliery to run through to Aberthaw Power Station. Unofficially, they’re are known as the Ghost Trains. One pub in Mountain Ash, a couple of minutes’ walk from the station, actually had a list of the Ghost Trains on the wall by the bar. Presumably it was the first port of call for passengers who, like me, had been caught out.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve miscalculated the non-runners, and found myself hanging about for an extra thirty minutes until the normal schedule is resumed. When I was working in Cardiff and Sharana used to meet me in the shop every evening, it used to happen to us regularly. We used to take advantage of this to have an extra drink in Kitty Flynn’s before going home. At least she had a ready-made excuse when her parents asked her why she was late getting in. Just about everyone in the UK would believe you if you told them your train had been delayed.
When I was a student, I got caught out several times as well, usually on my way home but occasionally on the way to Treforest. I missed a couple of lectures thanks to the Ghost Train, but more often I found myself killing time in the Rickards Arms before heading home. This afternoon I’d toyed with the idea of going for a pint, but I’d decided against it because the rugby was on. More fool me! I got to the station just in time for the Ghost Train, and did the crossword while I waited for the later service to arrive.
Anyway, Arriva Trains Chaos ensued again. The Merthyr Tydfil train came through next, running about fifteen minutes late. Hot on its tail came the delayed Treherbert service, and then another Merthyr train, this one more or less on time. Eventually, nine minutes late, the Aberdare train came in.
Now, the Valley Lines timetables have been cleverly constructed to allow for ‘recovery time’ at crossing loops and intersections, meaning that sometimes the train has to wait a few minutes at Abercynon and/or Mountain Ash for its opposite number to clear the section ahead. Even taking these scheduled stopovers into account, we were still four minutes late leaving Mountain Ash.
We were lucky. Several times in the bad old days, the train would arrive so late at Mountain Ash that Arriva would pull off their evil masterstroke – the premature termination. Instead of running to Aberdare, it would terminate four miles to the south, leaving several dozen angry punters on the platform. The next service was expected to pick up the slack, and we were usually told that it was ‘a few minutes behind.’
I was not especially surprised to find that Arriva Trains Wales still pull off this trick from time to time. Only this week, Sam M. complained on Facebook that her train had stopped at Mountain Ash and was going nowhere fast. It must be the fault of those damned leaves again!
My friend Steve C. and I once worked out the timetabling for ourselves. I’m a railway enthusiast (you’d never have guessed, would you?) and he used to work for one of the rail companies, so we knew what we were talking about. Anyway, we established that the earlier train could have made it to Aberdare and back without blocking the later one, simply by using the crossing loop on the site of the Phurnacite Plant. When we pointed this out to the driver and conductor, they told us were talking crap and refused to listen to us. We ended up being turfed out in Mountain Ash along with everyone else, and (surprise!) the train which was ‘a few minutes behind’ took nearly twenty minutes to get to us. Needless to say, it was pissing down as well.
At least twice, when the novelty of the evening stop in Mountain Ash had worn off, I phoned Mother to see if she could pick me up from Mountain Ash. The buses travelling northwards were even more unreliable than the trains (see Nice Work If You Can Get There), and it seemed to be the only (if slightly impractical) way to get home at a reasonable hour. I remember the second occasion well, because the train had terminated at Fernhill, a Goddessforsaken little halt near a large housing estate with absolutely zero facilities – not even a working telephone box. I ended up walking as far as the Mountain Ash Inn to use their phone, as I didn’t have any credit on my mobile. This was in the days before Anthony and Claire were running it, so I had a quick can of Coke before making my excuses and leaving. It was a very odd place in which to kill half an hour.
However, the best (or worst) excuse we had for not reaching Aberdare happened after a sudden fall of snow several years ago. Shanara, Naj and I were heading home after a very long day in work and uni, and we’d reached Cwmbach. The conductor stepped onto the platform to check that everyone had got on and off safely, and fell heavily on a patch of ice. He injured his back quite seriously, and the driver had to call 999 so that his colleague could be taken to casualty.
Of course, the train couldn’t go anywhere without a conductor, so we were stuck in Cwmbach. None of us fancied walking the three miles or so to Trecynon, especially as the snow was still falling.
It was one of those occasions where teamwork pays dividends. Shanara and Naj didn’t have any cash on them, but I’d taken a tenner out in Cardiff before I got to the station. However, I didn’t have any credit on my phone, and Shanara’s phone didn’t have a signal. Luckily, Naj had a signal and talktime, and I had the numbers of several friends who drive taxis. Between us, we were able to get the last taxi in Aberdare to pick us up and take us to Trecynon (every other driver had abandoned the rank when the snow began to stick.) The girls persuaded him to take us to their house, a few doors from the Llwyncelyn, which was my next port of call. I needed a bloody pint after that adventure.
The next swathe of fun is due to happen in about three weeks. That’s the weekend that the Winter Timetable comes into operation, heralding (if previous years are anything to go by) at least a fortnight’s worth of delays, cancellations, platform alterations, premature terminations and increasingly bizarre excuses. I’m just waiting for the escaped puma…