Thursday 2 July 2009

The sad demise of a national treasure

14st 9½lb, 7.0 units. So, farewell then, National Express East Coast and Mollie Sugden. I heard Lord Adonis intoning the death sentence on the much-unloved train operator on the Today programme yesterday morning, and reacted much as I had done to the long-awaited news of the demise of Sir Edward Heath; with a loud whoop of “Yes!” as I punched the air. Heath’s timing was rather better, though, as I recall, since that announcement came at a time of day when it seemed appropriate to crack open a magnum of Pol Roger and devote the rest of the afternoon and evening to unrestrained celebrations. Even I did not feel tempted to start drinking fizz before 8 a.m. Though I have always greatly admired the spirit of the Northern industrialist who, many years ago, boarded the early-morning Tees-Tyne Pullman at Darlington, and plonked himself down opposite me at my table for two. In those days, and I think it must have been under the aegis of dear old British Rail, the menu featured something called “The Champagne Breakfast”, which the captain of industry duly (and rather surprisingly) ordered. But when the steward approached with the champagne part of the deal, he was briskly waved away. “I don’t drink HALF bottles,” the slim man in the regrettably brown suit informed him decisively. And went on to consume a full bottle of champagne with his sausage, bacon, egg and black pudding, before getting off at King’s Cross looking like a man fortified for a hard day’s work. Or maybe just a very long and leisurely lunch. Respect, as Ali G liked to say.

I don’t think they did “The Champagne Breakfast” in the GNER years, let alone those of National Express. The epitaph on the latter will surely be “They did not clean the toilets”, since I have heard more complaints about that than anything else since they took over, including the greatly increased difficulty of finding cut-price tickets on the website, and the abolition of the traditional restaurant cars. Even before GNER lost the franchise as a result of bidding far too much to retain it, I was conscious that I was experiencing perhaps the very last hurrah of traditional, gracious train travel. Alighting from one of those elegant blue trains at Alnmouth on a summer Friday evening after having eaten a proper three course meal in a silver service restaurant car with a tablecloth, decent china plates, monogrammed cutlery and real glasses – all while hurtling through Lincolnshire at 125mph – is a memory that will stay with me forever. I am only sorry that my son will have to rely on my descriptions of it, rather than being able to experience it for himself.

It seemed incredible even at the time it was happening that GNER should have been replaced by an organization which had had the opportunity to study the reasons for the outgoing operator’s downfall, yet was stupid enough to bid even more than they had done for the privilege of sticking their horrid grey logo on the side of the nastily repainted trains. At least they will be missed by precisely no-one. I think it says everything that for most of the last year I have been able to choose whether to travel to London by National Express from my home in the North East, or by Virgin from my home in Chester. And have invariably chosen the latter, even though my views on the man I (and his own City advisers) know as The Bearded Git are scarcely printable even in the fairly relaxed context of a blog.

As for Mollie Sugden, what can I say except that she gave me far more pleasure than Michael Jackson ever did? And to raise the interesting question of how on earth she managed to escape the attention of the talent scouts for Last of the Summer Wine, who seem to have roped in every other geriatric “comic” actor and actress in the country. Perhaps she turned it down because she could not face pretending that she did not know Truly in the days when he was Captain Peacock.

I cracked a joke about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy (particularly when it rained, and her pussy could be relied upon to be dripping) at every single all-party meeting I attended at one of our leading merchant banks during an exceptionally long and hard-fought takeover battle during the late 1990s, just so that I could admire the seemly blush which this always brought to the cheeks of a young and pretty member of the legal team. Eventually one of the directors of the bank took me to one side and told me at some length about his company’s code of conduct on sexual harassment, which made this sort of behaviour completely unacceptable. At which I pointed out that it might indeed be completely unacceptable among the bank’s employees, but I would be interested to know exactly how the code came to apply to mere visitors like myself. I heard no more on the subject. R.I.P.

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