Up North

So here we are on the train. First time to Manchester in 4 years and I get to go on one of these new fangled virgin trains. For the first time in a long time, I have time on my hands and a train full of happy punters to observe, dissect and generally have a pop at. Full marks to Mr. Branson with his 13amp sockets and tilting cups of coffee. Having purchased a copy of t’independnt at Euston (free bottle of Buxton water inc!) grabbed a couple of newspapers on the way in from Chelmo and been raped for a cup of coffee at Ritazza, I have switched on the iPod, silenced the phone, (I know how to keep one of those little blighters in line) I am ready to face my day.

So what is there for an ex-con scribe on the new trains? Had I travelled next week I would have enjoyed the privilege of a further reduction in the journey time. “Sub 2 hours” I am reliably informed. Oh, well, maybe I should have rung the club and got Sir A to move the fixture. Oh, did I forget to say? Yes, I am another southern Manc making an all too rare pilgrimage to the TOD. Aalborg are up tonight though by the time I get this onto the blog site, that will all be academic.

Just passed Watford J. making good progress now. It must seem hard to imagine how much of a pipe dream this was but a few months ago when I sat in my room watching United dispatch Chelski in the Champions League Final, but it’s true. So, the train is full. I am cocooned, ears gently stimulated by the smooth tones of Darren Hayes. Couldn’t resist the opp to listen once more to our selections from the Engagement Party playlist. Yet another recent invention, which almost passed me by. I had the iPod at for a few special months back in 2006 before the “battery failed”. Happy days? What do you think?

It looks like the display section of PC World in here. For me, the thought of a “PC World” fills me with dread, being an old unreconstructed Luddite, yet I embrace technology with a never sated hunger.

Many of my fellow travellers are Hassidic Jews. There seems to be a big group of them travelling together. I wonder what they do for Chanukah? Lots of laughter and crazy partying behind closed doors no doubt.

Just gone over Bridego Bridge. Gives me the goose bumps every time. All those years ago, yet it is still steeped in mystery. I take a moment to compare it with my own situation. Where did all the money go? Certainly there are those very much in the news today whose lives would have been manifestly different without a large injection of cash…. As with my case, they know where the money is. It’s just not going to be chased up, that’s all.

So, opposite me is a chap seemingly attached to his military green parka thingy? A day’s growth. (OMG, we’re in Milton Keynes. Think I had better put the lyrics on here to my song, ‘I wanna live in Milton Keynes’) A chap bearing a striking resemblance to our leader, Kevin Pieterson, has just got off. Thank God I know the real one is out in Chennai. Well, in in Chennai, with luck. If you see what I mean….. A million more people have just got in. They don’t look like United fans. Yet what do United fans look like? Do I look like one? People are often surprised when I declare my passion for football and how much it has ruled my life for so long. I gave up justifying my love of the world’s greatest football club years ago. Just read the orange handbook, love. I mean… Arsenal? Chelsea? Please. Give me strength.

An older couple is sitting next to me. They seem happy and he keeps touching her. Love is a truly wondrous thing, yet it must never be abused. One of the Hassidim has stood up. He has the most incredible beard. Jet-black and seems to be telling everyone else how it is. Do we all seek some kind of structure, the like of which is second nature to them? We scoff at tradition, yet what is it that so many of us lack in the West?

My God but this train really does tilt! I feel suitably tilted. Also suitably titled. I was asked years ago why I felt able to call myself Lord Wharam. I bought the title, said I. same as everyone else in this country. I am as much a Lord as anyone else. Just look at the name on my driving licence if you feel the need.

We are mostly very industrious on this train, though how many people are really on Facebook I have no idea. I took the plunge on a return journey home in August though don’t seem to have made that much use of it. I dovetail it in with Friends Reunited and have managed to get back in touch with quite a few of the old crowd from Royal Holloway. It’s tragic to lose touch and when nostalgia kicks in one’s 40s, it’s often too late. Repent at leisure we may, but then the moment is gone. If I could give one good piece of advice; stay in touch.

We are becoming a terribly overweight nation. The large numbers of people shoehorned into these ever-decreasing train seats shocks me. They’re going to have to introduce a fat carriage soon. Or perhaps they could just put them in cattle trucks. (They’ll be letters about that one!)

We’ve just overtaken another tilting train. What can this mean? I guess we’re somewhere north of Birmingham now and slowing down to boot. Serried ranks of council houses line the track, succeeded by Barratt boxes. Then a canal marina so I guess we’re by the Grand Union. Or something. Then sheep. Lots of them. There’s a strangeness in the air you feel too well.

Leaving London to the south always feels like an adventure. The return to the land of my fathers fills me with a longing for times past and acts unperformed. Emotions crash over me in waves. Am I happy? Am I sad? No. Just the usual combination of expectation and unfulfilment. (Yes, I am going to keep that made up word. I rather like it).

Goatee Beard is on the ‘phone again. (He joined us at Milton Keynes. Can’t bring myself to call it MK. I bet it’s full of people who use their initials. Busy arranging meetings in Rowley Regis and Nuneaton, I am certain of it). Does anyone actually come from there? Then again, does anyone actually come from Surrey? I lived there for 20 years and never met one person who did.

There is a strange yellowy orange ball in the sky, which has itself turned an unfamiliar blue. It is casting a golden glow over the Trent Valley landscape, which is not entirely un-fetching. We have slowed to a walking pace, which shows the heavy silver frost, which carpets the ground. The canal is frozen in places, providing some small amusement to the birds. Smoke plumes from the canal barges moored jauntily along the bank.

Someone’s just farted which has rather interrupted the mood. Bit of a lingerer, so I am going to have to suspend fantasy in favour of fart-assy. in our air-conditioned Branson-mobile, there is no escape. So I listen to Bobby Womack singing ‘110th Street’ is my only respite. More than enough.

The ‘at-seat’ snack service has just come through, bringing with it a welcome blast of fresh-ish air. A street of 100 conservatories leaves me to the left. We are a nation of convertible cars and glass topped garden rooms. That must make us the world’s greatest optimists. Small, shuttered red brick terraces look down over the tracks. There is not a soul about in Stoke. Perhaps they’re all in jail for carousel fraud. After all, it is the home of it. How on earth did that happen, I wonder?

Well, 5 minutes has passed by and we’re still at the red light. Come to think of it, the row of terraces does have a rather familiar feel to it. Yes, this is definitely the red light district…..

As I look down, I realise that I should have ironed my shirt this morning. Maybe that explains the rather disapproving look I keep getting from across the corridor. Yes, I will nickname her, ‘The One With The Face’. On the move again now. There seems to be a level crossing so perhaps that was the delay. Gates permanently in the down position. Depressed gates? What? Has Microsoft’s share price dipped again?

My free Buxton water is staring at me more and more, the closer we get to its source. As the sunlight streams through the sparkling Virgin window, it shines bright on the bottle. Nice.

A factory sits next to the railway. Jones & Shufflebottom. Excellent. Are names like that disappearing? On the side of it, reads ‘Jones & Shuffs’. What can this mean? Has the word bottom just become ‘s’? How sad. I feel like changing my name to Shufflebottom just to show solidarity with the shuffling ancestors. As we pull into Stoke station it appears that we are on time so the 10minutes we spent in the red light district was obviously a sop to the new timetable. I am sure this train used to stop at Stafford but maybe a lot more’s changed since I was last up this way.

When I arrive in Manchester, I am to go to the hotel then make my way to the restaurant to skivvy for Brian in the kitchen. I used to hate cooking but that was before jail. Now I love it and look forward to seeing how he does a fillet of beef, or whatever Mancunian culinary delight we are about to experience. I mustn’t complain about Virgin really. Seventeen quid each way for this isn’t too bad. You’d pay more than that to go from Chelmo to Liverpool Street before the watershed. God knows how much the walk up and pay fare is. Way beyond my means these days, for sure.

On our way again now. Someone has a very annoying ringtone on here. (Spellcheck doesn’t recognise ‘ringtone’. how quaint. Kidsgrove. Now that still sends a chill down one’s spine).

The girl across the way has begun the make-up ritual as a 14-year-old male member of the Hassidic party comes down the carriage. He has all the deportment of any 14 year old, complete with bum fluff and bored expression. The small kids are interested in everything and I see the mother is doing her best to keep them herded. You’d be better off trying to do it with cats…..

Are these trains narrower than the old ones? I am used to the pre-tilting  stock, which we now enjoy on the line to Norwich. Sad that they are going to remove the restaurant car service. One of the best, I am told though it is a long time since I enjoyed silver service on a train. Perhaps a nostalgia trip up to Norwich before it becomes a part of railway history. I am sure the new improved seat service will be just as good…….

Goatee is still on the ‘phone. Wouldn’t like his bill, that’s for sure, though judging by the amount of bling strewn across his fingers, he’s not too worried. Stripy Top is immersed in her book now, having dispensed with the IT before Stoke. Maybe they didn’t realise that if you bring your charger, you can tap away to your heart’s content on here without let or hindrance. So far I have resisted all temptation to visit either the buffet or the loo, so the journey must be very comfortable. Do they still call it the buffet? Probably not. Consigned to an era of Brief Encounter and the 1970s. Probably.

It’s now just gone midday so won’t be long before we’re there. A moon-faced ging has just walked down the carriage. Small gene pool there, I would imagine. One of those faces you only ever see north of Watford. Comforting and safe. Northern. Meat pies and cobbled streets. There is a blunt honesty I love about the people up here yet I am always relieved to return to the anonymity and indifference of the smoke. Where do I come from? I have no idea any more, yet I feel more than ever that I know where I am going.

It was very satisfying to spend the journey alone. Alone yet surrounded by strangers who now feel oddly familiar. Cheadle comes and goes. It’ll always be ‘Salon Kitty’ to me, along with washing lines and cream sherry. And onto Stockport, where my father grew up in a working class pub during the depression, it’s no wonder he could never abide Coronation Street! He lived it first hand. The older couple is getting out now. He’s been craning his neck for most of the journey to see what I have been writing!

Goatee’s back on the blower again. Stripy Top is now black coat and there is a general restless mess as we near the end of our journey. Thelwell Girl is chatting nineteen to the dozen to a colleague about opening a new office.  Let’s hope it’s somewhere near a gym!

We’re nearly at Piccadilly now so best I switch this thing off and join the rest of the credit crunchers. Till later….

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