Tuesday, 15 January 2008

You're never too old

14st 12lb; 2.0 alcohol units; 1,480; South-East Iceland.

During my not particularly illustrious career as a City PR man, I twice defeated takeover bids before they even started. On one occasion I just put out a press release exposing the machinations of a company which was using a bizarre network of mainly Panamian trusts to build up a strategic share stake in one of my clients. The would-be acquirer had grown like Topsy by snapping up businesses from entrepreneurs, to whom it had issued shed loads of its own equity. These major shareholders were horrified at the prospect of their management now attempting to buy my client, which was about three times the size of the “fast growing” intended bidder. So they killed the idea stone dead. I was frightfully proud of myself until my colleagues said, “You ****ing idiot, if you’d let the bid go ahead we could have racked up hundreds of thousands in fees defending it.” Oh, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that.

On another occasion I simply encouraged a city editor to meet the man who had another of my clients in his sights. The resulting character assassination, sorry profile, under the headline, “Is this Britain’s most shambolic corporate raider?” did the job nicely. I’ve been inordinately fond of the word “shambolic” ever since, but reserve it for very special occasions. Like my first trip to London today with the new East Coast rail franchisee, National Express.

I hadn’t had high hopes since I read a column in The Journal a couple of weeks ago, by a Mr Angry who suggested that National Express had gone one better than satnav with a new technology called DID’NAV. Because whatever you wanted on his train, they DID’NAV it. No seat reservations on a packed post-Christmas service, guaranteeing a round of heated argy-bargy after every station stop. No trolley service because of “staff shortages”. And – the pièce de resistance ­– no hot drinks from the buffet. Not for the usual reason of a broken boiler, but because they didn’t have any little paper carrier bags in which to place the cups. And you weren’t allowed to take one away in your hand for Elfin Safety reasons; you might spill it and scald yourself or, God forbid, someone else.

Stripped of its old-fashioned GNER paraphernalia, my train looks frankly seedy. And, what’s more, it’s got no seat reservations. This begins to look less like a cock-up and more like a settled policy. We soon learn that the corporate motto of National Express must be “never apologize, never explain” as their absence is never mentioned, despite the massive amounts of ill-will that are generated as people clamber aboard and find that the seats they have gone to the trouble of booking are occupied by someone else. But it gradually dawns on me why they haven’t put the usual reservation slips out: they can’t, because they’ve sold each seat more than once. I am twice confronted by people brandishing bits of paper demonstrating that they have indeed reserved the very seat I have also booked, on this train today.

In the old days, you had to pay about £300 for a first class return from Newcastle to London, but at least you got half a carriage to yourself. After they overpaid for the renewal of their franchise, GNER introduced a pricing strategy designed to sell every seat. National Express have committed themselves to paying even more, so I suppose selling every seat more than once is the next logical development. I expect they got the idea from airlines overbooking. When Gordon has got his airport-style security installed at every mainline station, at least some of us may be able to make a nice little earner out of turning up and being bribed not to travel to ease overcrowding.

At Durham, I’m joined at my table by three teenagers. One male is wearing a lot of hair gel, a vacant expression and an “18 Today” badge; a rather more boisterous and perhaps slightly older male is seated to my left, while opposite me I have a dyed blonde female wearing a huge Tiffany & Co silver pendant in the shape of a heart, and more slap than I have seen on the face of any human being since the demise of Dame Barbara Cartland. It has to be kept topped up every few miles – particularly the lip gloss. Between Durham and Darlington, though, we are treated to the powerful aroma of nail varnish as she enthusiastically applies a fresh coat of black gloss to her fingernails (I suppose her toes would have been a bit hard to reach). In fairness, this is actually considerably less offensive than the smell of stale alcohol which surrounds them when she stops. They keep that topped up, too, starting on a bottle of Pinot Grigio once the sun tops the yard-arm at 9.30 a.m., which is a bit early even for me.

Not that they offer me a glass. In fact, they don’t impinge at all, really, as I sit there with Handel playing on my headphones, tapping away on my laptop. Until we get to Alexandra Palace, where I open an e-mail from my wine merchant offering Cloudy Bay Sauvignon. “Hey,” says the lad to my left, “That’s really good stuff. You want to have some of that.” Leading me to realize, belatedly, that he must have been looking at my computer screen all the way from Durham. My bank statements, penis enlarger and Viagra ads, credit card details while ordering the same, full and frank accounts of the people I am travelling with …

And there was I, thinking I was too old ever to be embarrassed.

As I am whisked away from King’s Cross in my chauffeur-driven limousine, it occurs to me that it might all be a dastardly plot by the outgoing GNER management team.

“What can we do to leg these bastards over? I know, we’ll cancel the order for those little paper bags you need in the buffet car.”

“And put an axe through the printers that churn out the seat reservations.”

“Even better – we’ll sell all the seats more than once before we do that!”

Well done, chaps, it’s working a treat. Never in the history of public transport can so many people have become so nostalgic so quickly as they are doing for GNER. I’ve even heard people muttering about their fond memories of British Rail, and who would ever have predicted that?

1 comment:

big fish said...

Sweet & funny and impossible to put down... Here you have it I'm beginning to speak with innuendos too! Keep working, Beata