Righto, brace yourselves, this is going to get ranty.
Metaphorically I have donned the smoking jacket and cap, and am in the big Chesterfield armchair by the open fire here in the morning room at The Gables, I have a large shot of Port in the right hand, and the left is poised ready to thump away at the antimacassar to pound out the cadences of the poorly structured railings against modern life as they emanate from within the tattered spleen. In actuality, I am in the shed, and the only pounding going on is on the remote keypad of the Gabletron 3000 PC. However, spleenwise, I’m about as I explained, so here we go-
Above is a nice shot of a bus breezily making its way along a swift and uncluttered highway. An idyll of the Public Transport infrastructure, if ever there was. With this in mind, last Sunday I had a decision to make. The Sisters had organised a Sunday lunch with our mum at the Bide-A-Wee maximum security rest home down in Tunbridge Wells, where she currently resides. I love my folks, so this is pain and pleasure all in one homogenous slab, since the enduringly disturbing sight of my dear old Ma unable to speak in a wheelchair sat in a dining room full of the dear old Ma’s of others, in varying degrees of similarity, can be a tough pill to swallow. Especially when you have to conduct all the, er, jollity against the unique background nursing home aroma that is equal parts baking, carpet cleaner and Dettol. However, Ma has been poorly for long enough for me to know what to expect here. The decision, therefore, was whether to get there by operating The Volvo around the M25, hoping that the Archers Omnibus would counteract the usual hideousness around the M4 corridor, or whether to go on Public Transport, and lazily switch the brain off to the reassuring Clickety-Bonk of modern electric train travel whilst casually absorbing myself in this month’s issue of Airfix and Anorak monthly. As I had a late gig to do later on, I thought I’d go for the latter option, so as to save some important mental energy for the hurly-burly of standing in the usual torrent of my own creative magma at the job that night.
All went swimmingly from East St. Gables Park tube on the Met line down to Charing Cross. The sun was having a go at shining, there was a most absorbing article on offer about building better helicopters, and I can honestly say that under the spring blue sky, out of the train window Neasden has never looked lovelier. The rot began to set in at Charing Cross, though, and quickly. Upon emerging from the escalator onto the concourse, I was surprised to see that all the travel display screens were blank, and that worse still, Burger King was shut, denying me of the all important injection of Onion Rings at the mid-point of the journey. There were staff about, however, who informed me that the whole station was shut due to engineering works and that all services were going from nearby Cannon Street. At this point, the Gods Of Travel decided to deliver a further small blow to the Gentleman’s Area of their penitent pilgrim. Because I’d not allowed any slack time on the journey plan, my hubris was to be rewarded with lateness, glowering sisters, a cold roast dinner and egg on face. Back on the tube, and twenty minutes or so later I emerged from a different escalator onto a different concourse only to be advised that I’d been put on a bum steer and that I’d have to go over to London Bridge. It goes without saying that the sun had stopped shining, and that portentiously, horrid sideways drizzle had moved in. I’d not have been overly surprised that on finding out I’d have to wait a further forty minutes for the train to Tunbridge wells, a Greek chorus would have sprang out of one of the ex-waiting rooms which are now all boutique coffee shops flogging off caffeinated hot froth in quantities of a pint at a time singing “Eprepe na eixes parei to amaxi palio blaka”, which as we all know translates as “You should have taken the car, you silly arse”. I finally got to see Mum about forty minutes before it was time to start the journey home, so a short congealed roast dinner, which like Barbara Windsor, was probably all right in its day, and a peck on the cheek later I was being driven up to Sevenoaks station by Mum’s pal Tweedy Jan. We all thought that by avoiding the chaos of Sunday on the Tonbridge branch line, my journey home would be swift and comfy, especially as I’d clearly paid off whatever karmic overdraft it was that I’d run up on the journey down. I can even remember, over lunch, saying to the Sisters that as a small mercy, at least I’d not been subjected to a Replacement Bus Service.
Oh dear. As Tweedy Jan’s Vauxhall Nova cheerily departed the station concourse, I was once again treated to the return of the Acropolis tabernacle choir, a big sign (but not where you can see it from the outside) saying No Trains Today, and then, the three most terrifying words in all of public transport, the dreaded and aforementioned, “Replacement Bus Service”
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a Replacement Bus Service would replace the scheduled train with, well, a bus. You’d be wrong. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that because of the Passenger Charter, or whatever it’s called, that the rail company, whatever it’s called, would be bending over backwards to make amends for selling you a ticket for rail travel and then shutting the railway. You’d think at least you wouldn’t have to stand around in the hail for forty-five minutes with a load of discombobulated fellow “Customers” (urggggg) wandering around like a cast re-union party for the extras of Mad Max. You’d even think that given the fact that the bus in question was parked in the car park in front of you that you’d be allowed to go and sit in it to wait the thirty five minutes before it rattled off to Orpington rather than have fresh air and fun with the hail. You’d be wrong on all of these. Let’s transpose these coefficients to my line of work, just for a minute. I’ve taken a gig on, for me and, say, a ten-piece band. Just as the dance is about to start I announce to the audience that due to a manpower logistics issue, there will be no music today and that a replacement ping-pong service has been provided to provide entertainment. Not only would I never work again, but they’d have my head on a stick faster than you could say “Complaints can be made online”. Here however, we all stood, silently in the hail, being British. It says something that Hornby, dedicated to absolute accuracy in the noble field of model railways, have come out with this-
Clearly, the diehard enthusiast can spend Sundays in the attic, playroom or even on the kitchen table not running any trains at all, but watching the buses sit motionless in the station car park. Just like the Real Thing.
By the time I’d got onto the London train at Orpington, there was a real chance that I’d be late for my own gig, which Ironically was in Watford, only 2 and a half miles from the front door. So now there was a frissance of worry injected into the mix. It’s possible that this whole day was arranged by the gods of gigging to ensure that I’d spent the statutory seven hours travelling before I have to operate woodwind instruments, as is proscribed in The Great Order Of Things. However, I was now sat down on a real proper working train, and so out came the magazine, and at last, a bit of proper public transport r&r studying ways to enhance my small but beautiful collection of model helicopters back in the shed.
Once again, it was not to be. Now I know that we all have to breed, but, well, you know. Screaming kid in the seat in front, running, jumping and shouting toddler grating away in the aisle at my side. To heighten the glee, Tabatha From Uni got on at Petts Wood, and spent the entire journey into Victoria alternately screaming OMG or stringing sentences together consisting mainly of the word “like” into a small plastic rectangle she was holding near her ear. By now the patience was getting rather frayed and it is with great relief that the rest of the journey, on the great art installation known as London’s Underground went off without a hitch. I even made my gig on time, and had a curry with the chaps in the break, so it all came right in the end.
On the Friday before the Sunday Of Doom, a reunion had been arranged for anyone who had been in the Croydon Youth Orchestra in the early 1980’s. For me, this had been my first experience of playing music as a social phenomenon, and was probably one of the larger factors in me turning my back on going for pilot training in the Air Force, with its back-breaking physical regime, and considering a life in music, with all its perks as I saw them then, such as no back-breaking physical regime for a start. If there was ever an advert for the value of free music education, it’s possible that our little gathering could have been it. Only three or four of us have gone on to extract cash from the stave, but the fact of all that free tuition meant that for at least a couple of decades hundreds of people passed through a system which gave us all something to aspire to and be in. It gave us a social life away from drugs and violence, even though you could argue a case that a life of drugs and violence on the mean streets of Sanderstead in 1981 may have been unlikely anyway.
Music education is good for all sorts of stuff. Because of the nature of performance, it teaches the mind to focus on the present, and because of the absurd complexity of some of the instruments, it teaches the mind patience. Our conductor, Mr Kendall (He never, never, ever, had a first name) turned up to see us. He made the point that had he not had free French horn lessons in 1965, he’d never have made it out of Hull, and after a while taught all of us lot. Although the return on the direct spend can be hard for the bean counters to see, music education is worth its weight in gold, or at least brass. There are chaps I know who freely admit that they could have turned out as right bad ‘uns had they not been given trumpets, trombones, and strangely for one of them, a cello to work their energy out on. Less bad ‘uns means less crime and vandalism. Has anyone ever weighed up the cost of a cornet and a year’s tuition against replacing broken glass in bus shelters, or how much cheaper it would be to have a shit-hot kids’ brass band in the town hall instead of all the drug and knife-wound treatment at casualty? Just ranting.
On a more prosaic note, there were people there I’ve not seen for thirty years. Apart from a spot of baldness and a profusion of specs, they were all pretty much the same as they were back in the day. At the current rate, I’ll see them again when I’m 80. Mr. Kendall will be 103. Life goes faster than you think. This is the first Plog which I’ve not written all by myself. One sentence was written by my dear harp-playing chum Maria-Christina Popadopolou. Can you guess which one it is?