End of the Line

Commuting days until retirement: 10

So – with only ten more cycles of this curious daily shuttling between one place and another, it’s nearly time for me to say goodbye to commuting and finally justify the title of my blog. I’ve been at it, on and off, for just under half a century, which seems an astonishing thought. (And I’ve just thought of the journey to school – that extends my commuting experience to nearly sixty years.)  At different times I have shuttled by foot, bicycle, motor-bike, car, bus, train and various combinations of those.

Right now, travelling 25 odd miles into London, train is the only sensible option, even if it bites a significant chunk out of my salary. But that doesn’t stop my smartphone being convinced that I drive there, telling me faithfully every day: Time to work 95 minutes – 14 minutes delay via A1(M). Its little brain must be puzzled as to how I get there so quickly; and no doubt it will be even more confused when I stop doing the journey altogether, and will probably assume I’m dead and disable itself (although it seems to be making frequent attempts to do that already).

Silly walk

The Mony Python silly walk – perhaps inspired by memories like mine? (imgbuddy.com)

My earliest awareness of the daily cycle of travel was as a young child observing the disappearance and reappearance of my father, and it’s an image of the return home which persists in my memory. I would sit in my bedroom window to take in the view down the road, and watch the phenomenon as it was fifties-style: waves of largely identically dressed men – suits, bowler hats, rolled umbrellas – would be decanted along our street by each train arrival at the nearby station, and I watched until I could distinguish my father among the black suits and hats. The impression on me was such that I would play solitary games in which, with a stick, I attempted to imitate the particular way they swung their umbrellas in smooth arcs as they walked, half-synchronised with their steps like languid third legs. And even more impressive was their nonchalant way of crossing the street diagonally as they proceeded. Having been trained to look right, look left etc., and walk directly across, I would go for this much more sophisticated approach whenever unsupervised by an adult.

But of course commuting as an activity goes back a lot further in time, as I have been reading in Iain Gately’s book Rush Hour. The word itself originated in the United States in 1843, when passengers on the Paterson and Hudson River railroad were offered the opportunity to ‘commute’ their fares by buying a season ticket and getting a discount. Since then commuting by rail or Underground has become an activity where the normal rules of life can be strangely distorted. Normally etiquette forbids us physical contact with strangers – at least without a flurry of apologies if it happens – but on a crowded tube you can find yourself crushed intimately against a man or woman totally unknown to you. There has been awareness of this as an undesirable (or desirable, according to your predilections) aspect of the daily journey since Victorian times. One writer warned that the combined effects of reading stimulating popular novels while in transit, along with both sexes being packed together and shaken by the movement of the train ‘could lead to nervous collapse or the suspension of moral judgement.’

In my experience, however, quite apart from the difficulty of reading in the most crowded carriages, travel of this sort is the least orgiastic experience imaginable. The British in particular are skilled in maintaining a distant, uncommitted indifference even when someone else’s buttocks are pressed into their groin. Not so, it seems in all countries: in Japan, famous for its tightly packed metro carriages, a genre of literature and film has grown up since the publication of a story by Tayama Katai, The Girl Fetish, back in 1907. It generally features the lusting of Japan’s besuited commuters – the so-called salarymen – after schoolgirls, who in earlier times travelled to school in their kimonos. These are apparently not just stories, but extend into real life – there is an openly confident organisation called Chikan Tomo-No-Kai, or ‘The Brotherhood of Molesters’, to which quite eminent men belong.

Ladies only


Perhaps it was to ward off the possibility of such perversions that, at least until the time I was travelling to school, trains offered ‘Ladies Only’ compartments. A bit of googling reveals that these are still offered in Japan (not surprisingly) as well as a number of other countries, even if they haven’t been in Britain for some years. I can remember as a boy playing a silly and probably dangerous game which involved racing from the ticket barrier as the train arrived and trying to get in as near the front as possible, when one day I crashed into a compartment at the last moment only to find, as the train left, that it was Ladies Only. I was covered with confusion and embarrassment at the situation I had got myself into; but evidently the old ladies seated there found this terribly cute; they immediately adopted me as their pet for the rest of the journey. I was fussed over to such an extent that I was relieved that no other school friends had seen, and exploited the teasing potential.

However the battle of the sexes in the UK, commuting style, is not always so harmless. Many years ago I was on the tube on my way to work, having been up very late the night before before and feeling rather groggy. But I was just too late to get a seat, and was wearily strap-hanging, along with one girl beside me. I’m not sure exactly what happened next; maybe in my ennervated state I was swaying a little more than usual, and just touched her. Either way, I certainly wasn’t aware of any contact, until she suddenly turned and startled me by screaming ‘GET OFF ME!’

The rows of seated commuters jerked their heads up and stared – a goggle-eyed jury who had me instantly tried and convicted. I don’t know what the sentence would have been; luckily we were just reaching a station – not mine – but I didn’t wait to find out. I retreated hurriedly and ignominiously.

Gately’s book tells me that currently only 16.4% of commuting in the UK is by public transport. But, aside from over-packed carriages and incidents like the above, I prefer the relaxed thoughtfulness of train travel to the constant vigilance needed for driving. Many of my blog entries have been written on the train, and right now I’ve got a bit of extra time to finish this piece: I’ve just been told by the driver that there are overhead line problems at Biggleswade, and we are going to be stuck in our present position for some time.

Train window


This gives me a moment or two to reflect, tablet in hand, about why the train seems such a good place to write. It’s something to do with the suspension from regular living that a train provides – a sort of unconnected limbo that’s not anchored to any of the places which are associated in your routine with things to be done, or duties to be performed. We can add to that the gently stimulating backdrop of the landscape sliding past, giving a privileged, god-like perspective; and the fact that your attention is not demanded for any task at all, as it is for driving. The British aversion to talking to strangers on the train also helps.

So what am I going to do without this aid to creativity? I can imagine that, clutching my Senior Railcard in one hand (I’ll be needing the discount) and my tablet in the other, I may find myself on lovely, half empty midday trains headed nowhere in particular, with no other distractions, and certainly not erotic ones. Goodbye regular, bidden commuting; hello aimless, pleasurable wandering.

In Transit

Commuting days until retirement: 230

Among what would probably nowadays be called the commuting community − if it weren’t so hard to say, that is − things have changed over the years. In my previous incarnation as a commuter, before I spent a period working from home (something like 20 years ago) the range of train-bound activities was different. Most newspaper readers struggled with big broadsheets, trying vainly to avoid irritating their neighbours by obscuring their vision or tickling their ears as they turned the pages. Now they will either skim through a free tabloid (for London commuters like me there’s the Metro in the morning or the Standard on the way home) or skip nimbly through the contents of a morning daily on their tablet. If any were using mobile phones they could only at that time have been either texting or talking on them. The rumbling of the train was punctuated by the raucous piping of that horrible Nokia tune, or some other crude electronic noise. Reading on my journey now, I’m often startled by a sudden explosion of pop music, a brass band, a morning chorus of twittering birds or a concussion of breaking glass. It takes a few moments of perplexity before you come to and realise it’s just another ring tone.

Laptop computers in those earlier times were still sufficiently rare that one man I worked with avoided using one on the train because he was afraid everyone would think he was showing off. In the intervening years they multiplied rapidly for a while, only to have their entertainment functions largely replaced by tablets and smartphones. Of course there are still the laptop diehards, mostly using the train as an extension of the office. A discreet glimpse over one of their shoulders usually shows them to be working on a financial spreadsheet, or bent over some programming code. Such dedication! It may not save me from being a dull boy, but I do take care to keep my commuting time free of work − of that sort of work, anyway.

Many of course just lose themselves in music on their noise-cancelling headphones. There’s one man on my train every day, in both directions, whom I have never actually seen without a large pair of headphones on − and that includes his walk to and from the station. I often wonder whether they have been surgically implanted. And a whole new range of activities has sprung up that were not possible formerly, the most popular of all being just to play with your smartphone. That’s what I’m doing now, in writing this, if it counts as playing, which it probably does. From where I’m sitting now, on the morning train, just at my end of the carriage I can count four Metros, one Kindle, one book, one laptop, two phone-fiddlers (including me) and one handheld game console, right next to me. The iPads seem unusually rare today − although I have just spotted one up the other end of the carriage. That leaves two deep in conversation, one asleep, and two looking out of the window − earnest students of misty early morning fields, grazing cows, builders yards and back gardens ranging from the fanatically neat to the chaotically neglected.

And so the rows of heads comprising this very twenty-first century aggregation of social chit-chat, dreams, electronic jitterbugging and imaginary digital worlds sway in synchrony with the jolting of the train as it rattles towards the capital. In the meantime I am realising that this piece, intended as an introduction to a review of some of my recent fiction reading on the train, has outgrown its purpose and will have to be a post on its own. The reviewing will be coming next.

Memento Mori

Commuting days until retirement: 477

After my stay in what is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, here’s some beauty of a less conventional kind. I glimpsed it out of the train window, and it stayed in my thoughts, and maybe dreams, for a few days afterwards. Since it’s right by a station I was able to return and photograph it.

broken shed
At this point I wondered whether I should simply leave it there for you to enjoy (or not), but since writing is what this blog is really about, I’m going to go ahead and write about it.

What this perfectly exemplifies for me is all those abandoned and forgotten enclaves of wilderness that are constantly close to us, especially in an urban environment. Many of them seem to be created by the presence of railway lines, which carve out little squares and triangles of unusable, inaccessible land which grow weeds and irresistibly attract plastic bottles, tin cans and all the detritus of the surrounding activity. Activity that’s hard to escape from if you need to earn a living, serving a multiplicity of ephemeral but urgent needs. (I’m sounding like an Church of England sermon.)  I wanted to say that forgotten outposts like this pictured one, by contrast, lie outside the frantic zone, and just are. This example is just by the main line where hundreds of thousands of commuters pass daily with their laptops, iPads, dry cleaned suits and power hair styles. Some of them, like me, must give it their attention as they stare out of the window.

I like the way that it immediately changes the perspective that my mind is locked into much of the time. The effect is like one of those stark portraits of an elderly person on the fringes of life, usually from a third world setting, that you often see in the work of a professional photographer. You are struck by the deep wrinkles, the inscrutable expression and the steady gaze. Here it’s the thoroughly wrecked appearance, as well as the utter unregarded dereliction, that invokes some obscure emotional response. Dirt and decay. How did it come to suffer not only broken windows and a holed roof, but also a total structural dislocation, as if picked up and thrown down by a giant hand? It seems to mock the vertical regularity of the flats visible behind it.

It has itself been regular, designed artefact, originally formed out of the surrounding chaos only to be irresistibly drawn back into it – and I think that’s the morbid attraction of a sight like this. For the purposeful, dressed and coiffured commuters who pass by daily it’s a reminder of the disorder and death on the fringes of their assiduously chased aspirations. I’m reminded of the famously death-averse (and dead) poet Philip Larkin, and his poem titled with a jaunty irony Next Please. He characterises our hopes and ambitions:

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

But concludes

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence.

Too much to read into a picture of an old shed? If I have made anyone unnecessarily gloomy I apologise. Perhaps blogs should carry warnings, like films or TV programmes: This post contains thoughts that some readers may find depressing. But I like a good wallow.

More commuter’s tales

Commuting days until retirement: 503

This morning’s train journey had something of a surreal air about it, and the oddities started at the ticket office. This was the day when I surrender my monthly arm and leg in exchange for a season ticket. There was one passenger ahead of me, already at the window, and it was clear from his tone of voice that all was not well.

‘But I need it to claim the expenses!’
‘Well look, I’ve done you a photocopy. ‘
‘But they don’t accept photocopies! I have to have the ticket!’
‘I can’t do that. It’s railway property.’
‘I only need my ticket!’
‘You don’t buy a ticket. You buy the journey.’

This last point proffered with smug satisfaction, as an argument clincher.

ticketsAnd after only a few more exchanges, to my surprise, the passenger gave up. I wouldn’t have. And the clerk in this office had always seemed quite affable – I hadn’t put him down as a jobsworth. I thought of the vast majority of tickets I have ever bought, which have ended up in the bin at home. Will the railway send the bailiffs round one day, to enforce a mass repossession of these cherished items? The sheer Orwellian absurdity is difficult to believe. If the clerk had just given back the ticket, would he have ended up hanging by the wrists in some fearful house of correction for errant railway employees? I can just imagine it, under one of the dingier railway arches near the back end of Waterloo, where screams are heard on dark foggy nights.

‘Now once again. Who do the tickets belong to?’
(Yelp of pain)
‘Yes, that’s right – they belong to us.’

I had to catch the later train – the earlier one would have been before the ticket office opened. So a few minutes later I was on it, standing room only. Once we were under way there was a beep and a throat clearing – the driver had something to say. Drivers on the PA system vary in my commuting experience, from completely taciturn (a blessing if you’re reading) to chronic verbal diarrhoea. This one was well to the latter end of the scale.

I have an announcement, particularly for those who have joined the train at the last two stops.’ (Pause for effect.) ‘The state of the train is not at all what it should be today. It’s filthy. I can only apologise for the state of it. Last night we had late night revellers using it as a pigsty. Frankly I’m embarrassed to be driving this train. It’s a mess.

At this point, passengers are nervously catching each other’s eyes, in the British manner, not sure whether they dare to embark on a shared joke. They don’t quite manage it, not in my carriage, anyway. I look around, and it doesn’t look that much different from usual. I catch sight of one beer can under a seat, but that’s all. Meanwhile the driver is getting into his stride.

And this morning we had a cleaner off sick. So that’s why the train is in this state. It’s not good enough. It’s a shambles. You don’t deserve to be subjected to this.

It seems as if our main function is to be witnesses to this man’s grief.

The only crumb of comfort I can offer you is that I will be making representations at the highest levels about this. It’s unforgivable and something must be done.

Well, I hope for his sake that these higher echelons will have a sympathetic ear for him. But I rather suspect that they’ll be too busy counting their precious bits of cardboard.

Believe it or not

Commuting days until retirement: 513

We commuters have our darker evenings, when everything goes wrong (why always evenings, when we’re on the way home, and not when we’re headed to work?) but there seem to have been remarkably few of those for a while. Until today.

Well, it wasn’t that bad – only an hour’s worth of delay. Seeing that my usual fast train was going to be very late I had made a snap decision and got on the non-delayed slow one. Mistake. We ended up stuck interminably in a station half-way, while everything, including the slow/fast one, overtook us.

But of course if you’re a reader there’s an up side to this. And I now have on my Kindle the Will Storr that I mentioned last Sunday, and was attempting to read that. I say attempting to – a couple of seats from me was a bishop, purple and splendid, and having a magisterial speaking voice to go with it. Clearly he was used to projecting his words around cathedrals, and so our railway carriage had very little chance. He was talking to his wife, who sat opposite him. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the decibels must be an occupational hazard if you’re the wife of a bishop. (Or the husband of a bishop, if we ever have any of those.) The subject matter, on the other hand, was not at all episcopal, but quite mundane, even though rendered beautifully and sonorously – perfect, in fact, for undermining the concentration.

And so that is how my exploration of why we believe what we believe was disrupted by a booming bishop.

Reading on the train – and weightier matters

Commuting days until retirement: 523

If you have to sit on a train for any amount of time (an hour or so each day in my case) there is the decision as to how to spend it. From observation, here is a list of the most common ways, in rough order of popularity:

  1. Fiddle with your smartphone
  2. Read the Metro or Standard (free newspapers) – or do Sudoku on the puzzles page
  3. Look out of the window.
  4. Stare straight ahead, avoiding of course any eye contact with the people opposite you
  5. Read something, or play a game, on your tablet computer
  6. Read a book or e-reader
  7. (If male) take a friend with you and talk incessantly about football

Well, I go for 6, and seem to get more reading in on commuting days than other ones. (You can probably tell that you wouldn’t find me involved in 7). And that gives me an opening into what I’ve been reading recently – a book on Alan Turing, published at the time of his recent centenary. And there’s also a link with something that’s currently topical.


If you don’t know about Alan Turing, here’s a brief description: born in 1912, he quickly showed himself to be a mathematician and thinker of genius, becoming a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge at the age of 22. He’s famous in the first place for his pre-war paper On Computable Numbers which not only offered one solution to a long-standing problem in mathematics, but also laid for the first time down the basic theory of operation of the modern computer. This of was of course before his work on code-breaking at Bletchley, where in complete secrecy at the time, not revealed until the 1970s, he played a central role in saving Britain from being starved into submission by Hitler’s U-boats. After the war he continued to work on embryonic computers. Another famous paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he speculated on the ability of machines to ‘think’, and proposed the much-discussed Turing Test, appeared in 1950.

He was homosexual, and in 1952 rather artlessly reported to the police a theft from his house by an overnight partner. The police immediately became more interested in the possibility of what was then the crime of “gross indecency” than the burglary. He was subsequently prosecuted, and sentenced to be chemically castrated by taking an oestrogen substitute, as an alternative to prison. In 1954 he was found dead, having half-eaten an apple contaminated with cyanide, a chemical that he had been using in experiments. The inquest verdict was one of suicide, and this is widely believed to be correct. However it’s also thought that he carefully devised the means of his suicide so that his death could be believed – especially by his mother – to have been an accident.

And the interest of the book I have been reading is that it mostly consists of a biography of him written in the late 1950s by his mother, which has long been out of print. And she does indeed strongly defend the accident theory, and manages never once to refer to his homosexuality. She would of course have known about it, having attended the inquest, and almost certainly knew earlier – but of course at the time she wrote it would have been especially bad form to have mentioned, after anyone’s death (let alone one’s own son), what would have been thought of as a shameful secret.

His personality


Alan Turing in 1934

What does emerge very strongly from her account is his exceptionally attractive personality. This is not just her own assessment, but supported by letters from friends and colleagues who wrote to her after his death. Many acts of generosity are recorded, and it is noted by many how he would take great pains to help the understanding of those less talented than himself, without any sense of talking down to them. He could be eccentric, unpredictable and often scatty – but entirely without side or pretension. I particularly like a story relating to the OBE awarded to him for his war work. (It doesn’t seem much of a recognition, given the magnitude of the achievement – people have been knighted for far less – but I suppose that had something to do with the secrecy.)  He was certainly proud of the award, but friends noticed that when, in the course of his many practical experiments, he opened a tin full of bolts, screws and metal components, there was the OBE medal, knocking about among them.

In the second part of the book is a shorter account by his older brother John, apparently written some time in the 1980s. This repeats much of the material in his mother’s account, but is viewed through the very different lens of John’s personality – not such an attractive one, you feel. He does indeed acknowledge his brother’s genius as well as his human qualities, but we are very soon aware of a curmudgeonly streak being on display. He announces at the start that in his mother’s work

a false note has been struck somewhere: could Alan have been quite that paragon of virtue that my mother describes? Yet, if an elder brother ventures to suggest the contrary, it can easily be suggested that he is jealous and sour. This is a risk I must accept. My only concern is to put the record straight, however hazardous the enterprise.

Well, pomposity appears to be another quality we can ascribe to John. But re-reading his account I am finding it difficult to see that Alan’s supposed faults are really anything more than unconventional behaviour seen from the standpoint of a rather stiffly conventional onlooker. Examples are his habit of turning up at the houses of friends or family, with short notice, at unsocial hours, or writing many more letters to professional colleagues than to his family. Irritating, perhaps, but hardly heinous. ”Worst of all”, he laments later, “was the unsightly condition of his hands, with every finger picked raw in a dozen places… I felt sicker and sicker until I devised a special system to prevent me from looking at them at all.”

His mother’s failure to mention the homosexuality he puts down to “Edwardian reticence” – but continues, unconscious of any irony, “I am trying to make this memoir as truthful as I can, so I will not go to the length of pretending that I like homosexuals.” (I suppose we can excuse prejudice on the part of someone born in 1908). He mentions the testimony of Alan to a psychiatrist, passed to John after Alan’s death, that Alan “loathed” his mother. I’m not sure what to make of this – I imagine that, as psychiatric testimony is likely to be, it could have been very ambivalent. But I suspect that John Turing did not do subtlety.

Gay marriage

I’m writing this at the beginning of a week in which there will be a vote on gay marriage in the House of Commons. It’s tempting to wonder how Alan Turing’s life might have differed in such an age as ours.  Well, it would have been longer, but otherwise there’s probably no meaningful answer. His personality was formed as a highly intelligent gay man in a society which he knew couldn’t cope with the notion of anyone being gay.

The same malady, in an attenuated form, still exists today. It’s among straight people that controversy mostly flares when it comes to the question of gay marriage. Individual gay couples (like anyone else) may be either keen on marriage, or not bothered about it. But for many straight people, the gay version “undermines the institution of marriage, which should be between a man and a woman.”

This is piffle. To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you feel, as many do, that marriage is a valuable institution, you can hardly be upbeat about its state today, when a big proportion of those marrying eventually divorce, and others feel they can dispense with it altogether. How can the inclusion of many gay people who are anxious to marry do anything but strengthen it?


So would Alan Turing have wanted to marry? An even more meaningless question, I think. In fact, he was at one time engaged, in the conventional sense, to Joan Clarke, who was a fellow codebreaker at Bletchley and no mean mathematician herself, by all accounts. John Turing met her on visits home and evidently thought little of her – an “unpromising female” whom he compared unfavourably with his own girl friends. In his account, she was “safe” (i.e. unattractive), and he prides himself on his ability, which Alan lacks, to deal with women who are not “safe”. It becomes fairly clear that his real problem was an inability to cope with an intellectual woman: he does speak explicitly of his distaste for Alan’s lack of small talk, and keenness on intellectual debate.

Turing Memorial in Manchester

Turing Memorial in Manchester

According to Andrew Hodges’ biography (recommended – see below) Alan warned Joan, a little disingenuously, that he had “homosexual tendencies”, but found that this did not discourage her. Eventually, he ended the engagement altogether, evidently feeling that it could not work in the long run. The relationship had lasted through the summer of 1941, fuelled by many shared enthusiasms, and was not the cursory and “farcical affair” which Alan’s brother attempts to portray. One imagines Alan caught between his own nature and the crushing conventions of his society, unsure of how far he could compromise.

If we have made progress since then, I think it has to do with the dawning realisation that the goodness in human nature doesn’t need a monolithic structure of social dogma to ratify it – it will flower anyway, whether conventional or not. Alan Turing was a good man who lived outside that structure, and paid a penalty for doing so. Unlike his older brother, he was ahead of his time, in more ways than one.

The book I read was :
Turing, Sara, Alan M. Turing: Centenary Edition. Cambridge University Press 2012

An excellent biography:
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma.  First pub. 1984, Vintage Paperback 2012

Andrew Hodges maintains a Turing website at http://www.turing.org.uk

If you can it’s well worth seeing the stage play by Hugh Whitemore, Breaking the Code, which has also been produced for BBC TV – and is now, I have discovered, on YouTube.