The Anonymous Widower

The Thunder of Three-Thousand Three-Hundred Horses

I think it was Paul Theroux, who wrote about waking up to the sound of the railroad.  At home in Cockfosters, I used to hear the sound of the steam trains travelling north towards the North and Scotland, as they ran through Oakleigh Park and New Barnet.  From about eight I used to cycle to the line to collect train numbers. It was towards  the end of the steam age, and I can still see and smell, Gresley‘s magnificent A4 Pacifics as they roared through Hadley Wood, where we used to put pennies on the line, so they were squashed flat. I also broke a front tooth at Oakleigh Park,  when I fell off my bike. It has been capped twice, so hopefully it is a good omen for the rest of my body.

Everything started to change in 1955, when an interloper arrived on the scene, in the shape of English Electric’s Deltic prototype, which I could hear as it raced north once a day. It was called Deltic after its lightweight and very compact Napier diesel engine of the same name. At the time, the 3,300 bhp made them the most powerful railway engine in the world. The diesel engines had originally been developed during the Second World War to power ships like MTBs and mine hunters, but found their fame in the powerful railway engine. Some of the engines even ended up in fast patrol boats in the US Navy.

The Deltic signalled the end of an era and by the time I went to Liverpool University in 1965, all the formidable A4s had gone to be replaced by the production Deltics or Class 55s, as they are more correctly called.

When I worked for ICI at Welwyn Garden City in the very early seventies, I travelled north a few times to the manufacturing site at Wilton on Teesside behind the Class 55s.

One of the most memorable train journeys I have ever experienced, if not the most memorable, was on one of the return trips from Teesside.

I had finished my work at Wilton that day, when I was rung by the Transport Office, who asked if I ‘d mind being taken to Darlington early to catch the London train, as they had a VIP, who wanted to go early for the train to Bristol.  I said yes, as that would mean a car journey in comfort instead of the local train from Eaglescliffe, through the hell-like landscape of the steelworks.

In the end, I arrived at Darlington with about an hour to wait for my train.  After looking at Locomotion No. 1, which in those days was displayed on the platform, I retired to the bar for a pint. Just as I was settling in a chair, an announcement said that the train now arriving was the delayed Talisman for London. I asked if I should board the train and if I did would I get to London early.  I got a double yes, left my pint and got on the train, which at that time was running forty-five minutes late, as a generator slung under a carriage had disintegrated and they’d had to stop to leave the offending carriage behind.

There is an interesting aside here about Locomotion No. 1, in that Hunter Davies saw the engine on the station and then went into W. H. Smith on the station to buy a book for the journey back to London. As he had just seen the engine, he looked for a biography of its creator, George Stephenson , only to be told that no-one had written one. Later he supposedly checked this with his agent, who then suggested that he write the book. So that is why an author of popular biographies of the such of the Beatles and Wayne Rooney, ended up writing the first biography of the only engineer, known to nearly everybody.

At the time of my return trip, the fastest Darlington to Kings Cross trains took three hours, whereas today a time of two hours forty-five minutes is about average, with the fastest ones taking about two hours twenty-five minutes. I should say that Darlington is 232 miles from Kings Cross.

My train that day had a clear run, as it had delayed everything behind it, so the driver was able to open up those Napier Deltic engines to try to regain the lost forty-five minutes.

And regain them he did!

Despite stops at probably York, Doncaster, Newark and Peterborough, he was able to keep the speed to such a level, that by the time we stopped in London, he was on time. So that means he probably took two hours fifteen minutes, which worked out as an average speed of just over 103 miles per hour including stops.  Not bad for a train with a maximum speed of just 100. I actually timed the train at about this speed, just north of Peterborough.

Train journeys are not like that today. I remember eating dinner on the train and it was possibly the worst-served meal, I’ve ever had on a train, as the waiter had difficulty walking up and down, as the train bumped and lurched.  The guard also kept passing through, announcing the latest estimate of our arrival time in Kings Cross.

I sometimes think that time has enlivened this story, but it was a wonderful thrill to find out what a properly-driven Deltic could do. Eurostars, TGVs and the other modern fast trains don’t give that same feeling! Certainly my trip to Middlesbrough behind a Class 91 for part of the way will not be so exciting.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport, World | , | 12 Comments

Shirley Valentine

I have never seen Willy Russell‘s iconic play, Shirley Valentine about the Liverpool housewife, but I have seen the film starring Pauline Collins and Tom Conti. It is now being staged in London again, with Meera Syal as Shirley. It may seem stage that an actress of Indian origin should take this role, but this play has a history of good actresses of many races and nationalites having success with the part of Shirley.

I remember once many years ago, I drove from Chicago to Washington, leaving The Windy City just as it was getting dark. For the first two hours, I was listening to a chat show on the radio, where Ellen Burstyn spoke about her role as Shirley in the play, which was touring the United States and was at that time running in Chicago. Having heard that interview, I regretted that I had not known about the play, whilst in Chicago, as I would certainly gone and seen it. Ellen explained how she had been nervous to take on the play, as being set in Liverpool, she was worried about the accent.  But then Willy Russell had reassured her and she decided to have a go. She said she couldn’t do the accent, but that she could do Irish, as she had that blood. Willy then explained that most Liverpudlians had Irish ancestry, so an Irish accent would do.  In the end she made a great success of the part of Shirley.

So now that Meera Syal is taking over the part in London, all she is doing is following a great tradition of playing one of the best parts ever written for an actress.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | World | , , , | 2 Comments

Cameron, Obama, BP and al-Megrahi

I have just reread all of my posts about al-Megrahi.  Even with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, it is a mess.

But I wouldn’t want to change any of the words I wrote.

The guy who is lucky in all this is Obama, as he now can blame BP for the mess, and give them a good kicking to boot whilst they are down. This all helps to move the guilt from Americans and American agencies and companies, who have failed. These failures started with those that were responsible for shooting down the Iranian Airbus.

David Cameron may be lucky too, but as he will have to preside over the dismantling of BP, he may feel that he has been placed between a rock and a hard place.

I do hope we have a full inquiry into all of this, as I feel we’ll see the dead hand of Prudence in all the mess!

It has been a sorry affair and those that died at Lockerbie and in the Gulf deserved a lot better.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | World | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Invisible Bus Map of Middlesbrough

As my trip to Middlesbrough is only at the end of next week, I felt it would be sensible to make sure that I can find my way around. It looks like the B & B, where I will be staying is within walking distance of the Riverside Stadium and the station, but it would be nice to have a bus map, so that I can perhaps get about quicker.  After all, I have a pass for all buses in the UK, so I should probably use it.

But there would appear to be no map on the Internet of Middlesbrough buses. Perhaps everybody who travels always knows where they are going or uses their own car. But compare the city, to Cambridge and Ipswich, both of which have excellent maps giving all you need.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport | , , , | 3 Comments

The Opposite of Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sometimes we just concentrate on how austerity generally means cuts, cuts and more cuts.  But in this month’s edition of Modern Railways there is an example of the opposite.  East Coast, the company that runs services from London to the North and Scotland, has just introduced Operation Peppercorn, which is series of many small upgrades to increase the capacity of the route and get the London to Edinburgh time under four hours. Perhaps, it’s just looking after the pennies and letting the pounds look after themselves in an engineering sense. 

There is no references to Operation Peppercorn on the web, which is a pity, as many would benefit by reading the article, which shows that small amounts of money targetted at a problem, can often make a big improvement in a short time.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport | | 2 Comments

Buses, Trains and Walking

On Wednesday, I needed to get from Aldgate to Piccadilly Circus, so I took a bus.  In London, you just look at the list of places on the shelter and then find out, which stop in the area is the one you want.  In this case, I was lucky as it was the same shelter, but usually, it’s only a walk of a couple of metres. I think I waited perhaps a minute before my 15 bus arrived.  I have a free pass, as I’m over sixty, so it was just a matter of showing the card, climbing upstairs and finding a seat. As I get tired, I find that buses are a convenient place to sit in towns like London.  After a brief rest, I arrived at my destination.

Similarly, the trains are now pretty comfortable and for my journey home, after a second bus ride to Kings Cross, I was able to get a seat.  As the train was busy, First Capital Connect were employing a firm lady to organise everybody in the carriage.  We do things differently here to Japan, but she had the same effect, as she got everybody sitting orderly, by eliminating those, who feel that they are entitled to two seats.

I was quite refreshed by Cambridge, before my transfer to the train for Newmarket. There was a bit of hassle, as I had to exit the station to get another ticket, rather than purchase it on the train. They have now installed gates at Cambridge to clamp down on  fare dodging, but they’ve also made it difficult to say go to the M&S in the station to get your supper, whilst you are waiting for your connection. They should think these things through properly.

I don’t really have a problem with walking, but where I was in London wasn’t too well provided with places to sit, to get the rest I need to take. So in some ways, I thought that it might be better to use my pass and just sit in a bus.

But at least I know I can manage!

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport | , , | Leave a comment

Let’s Have Some Simple Computing!

I am getting more and more fed up with computing.

A few days ago, I went back to the computer in my office, that hosts my favourite computing language, Visual Basic 6. How refreshing to use something that was designed for sensible and sane people to use? It doesn’t lead you down blind avenues, that have been dreamed up by nerds in Seattle or Mumbai, who have phDs in computing, but no experience of life.

Here are a few things that are annoying me at present.

  1. The keyboard driver still hasn’t materialised.
  2. Google maps used to be simple, but now it’s been loaded with so many features, that I don’t need, it doesn’t do the simple trhings quickly enough. For instance, I’ve just booked a B & B in Middlesbrough and want to print a map, which shows the route from the station. It doesn’t seem to drag like it used to after typing in the post code.
  3. Internet Explorer 8 greets me with a screen, which asks me if I’d like a tour of the new features. There is no button, to say, that I’m competent and would you please stop wasting my time.
  4. Java anf Flash always want to update themselves, but I don’t do this, as Java updates have caused me problems in the past. There is no way to say no!
  5. HP always want to check my computer. It works, so please leave it alone.
  6. Microsoft are always wanting me to use Bing.  Why would I want to deal with a dead crooner? Does he sing you the results of the search?

I could go on, but I have better things to do!

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Computing | | Leave a comment

Hotels in Middlesbrough

In the end I gave up and booked the only one I could find that looked reasonable on Late Rooms, the Thistle. After my experience on Tuesday with Premier Inn, I felt that might be an idea, but that didn’t work out, as the one in the town itself was fully booked.  I phoned the others locally and they were all clueless about how you get to the Riverside by public transport.  They just assumed everybody comes by car and you could almost hear the sentiments that only losers use public transport down the phone.  Premier Inn don’t even provide decent maps on their site about where the hotels are.

Incidentally, there is nothing on Middlesbrough FC ‘s web site either.  After all, all I would need is a cosy B & B.  Or don’t such things exist any more?

I have since cancelled the Thistle, as I have found a B & B, which sounds pleasant.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport | , | 3 Comments

Premier Inn

On Tuesday night, I stayed in the Premier Inn by the Tower.  I have stayed in places like this in the past, but what a revelation; a very clean room, a disabled shower, that was a joy to work and had a seat, full Freeview digital television, so I could listen to Radio 5, a compfortable bed, that you could fall onto safely  a la Lenny Henry.  So the breakfast wasn’t really too coeliac-friendly, but as I skipped it, it didn’t matter.  If I’d wanted one, as it was the city of London, there are lots of places to have a snack.In the book,  I will be using more of the hotels, but I still haven’t managed to get anything in Middlesbrough.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Transport | , , , | 2 Comments

Travels With My Stroke

Yesterday, I proved that I could undertake simple journeys by myself.  Admittedly, I had lifts to and from home, but everything in the middle was done by myself, whether on train, tube, bus or by walking.

Did I have any problems?

Not really!

I thought about it afterwards and feel it could be a newspaper column, followed by a book. I could visit all of those places, I’ve never been before, stay in cheap hotels or with friends, travelling most of the way by public transport.

Yesterday, was the first trip, although I suppose you could could the return from Hong Kong.

I travelled up and back to London, by train from Cambridge, then used the Circle Line to get to my hotel and then used buses to get back to Kings Cross. This would seem a model that could be used for many trips.

My first planned trip will be to Middlesbrough for the first match of the season. My secretary will drop me at Bury St. Edmunds station on the Friday afternoon and then I’ll take the train to Middlesbrough, changing at Peterborough and York. I’m still trying to find a hotel in Middlesbrough for two nights, as hotels and especially near the Riverside Stadium appear to be very thin on the ground. Surely, places to stay should be one of the priorities of a council these days, as it attracts visitors, who spend money and thus create jobs. 

The next weekend, I’m going to Edinburgh to see Jarlath Regan at the Gilded Balloon. Again it will be by train, with perhaps a rush back to see Ipswich on the Saturday.

I’ll see how it all progresses.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Health, Transport | , , , | 4 Comments