Saturday 18 July 2009

The stench of death and the frighteningly obese

14st 10lb, 3.0 units. The top item of news on the BBC’s eight o’clock bulletin this morning was the death of an American television presenter called Walter Cronkite. I had barely heard of him, and I consider myself better than averagely well informed after 40 years of reading a broadsheet newspaper from cover to cover every day, and also taking a keen interest in broadcast news. This suggested a distinct scraping of barrels to me.

Perhaps detecting a very slow news day in his care home in Brighton, First World War veteran Henry Allingham, also the world’s oldest man at 113, obligingly turned up his toes halfway through the bulletin, allowing the BBC to lead with something rather more interesting for the rest of the morning. Apparently this leaves only one surviving British veteran of the First World War. I just hope that it is not that guy who joined the Royal Navy about half an hour before the Armistice was signed, as this would make rather a mockery of the State funeral for the last survivor that was being mooted by Gordon Brown a year or two ago, in yet another desperate, flailing but pleasingly unavailing search for popularity.

Unable to face driving all the way from Northumberland to Chester at a steady 40mph so that Mrs H could keep up with me in my second car, I had arranged to go back by train and drive it across myself. This is necessary so that I can trade it in against the new, baby-friendly car I am buying for my wife. I accordingly took a taxi to Chester station and forked out an eye-watering £78.70 on a standard class single to Manchester and a first class single from there to Newcastle, though luckily the actual cash outlay was only £2.70. The rest was covered by the stash of travel vouchers I had accumulated in compensation from Virgin Trains for previous cock-ups.

The journey passed pleasantly enough, to be honest, as I had a large pile of reading to catch up on. Though I did experience a profound sense of déjà-vu on boarding the Transpennine Express in Manchester, since whenever I use one of these trains I seem destined to come under the scrutiny of a comically obese young American female who wanders around the first class compartment staring at all the seat numbers, as though in search of a reservation voucher that is not there, before finally working out that she is supposed to be in scratter class and mercifully clearing off. This left me as the only occupant of the first class section apart from a quiet, normal-looking, middle-aged bloke accompanied by a woman so vast that she looked as though she could have eaten the fat American for breakfast. She talked continuously in a loud, Northern, working class monotone that would have got anyone who tried to use it in a play or TV production swiftly despatched to a language coach on the grounds of its inherent implausibility. Surely no-one can really make a noise like this and pretend that it is speech?

She also stank, as I discovered when she wobbled past me to go to the lavatory.

Dear God, is there anything worse than morbidly obese humans who are too enormous to fit into a bath or shower? We had one next to us a few years ago when I took three friends to see On The Town at the Coliseum, and the combination of his unbearable stench and incessant fidgeting forced the member of the party who was sitting nearest to him to announce at the interval that he would pass on the second half of the show as he could stand no more. This seemed desperately unfair, so I asked the management if we could move elsewhere. We could not, as it was a Saturday night and a sell-out, but they did find us one seat so that the person worst affected could move to a different part of the theatre. And when we got back, the fat stinker (an American, as it happened) spotted the empty seat and moved to heave his implausibly vast buttocks into it, prompting a concerted shout of “No!!!” from us all. His chins started wobbling and he whinged “But I can’t sit on my own! I won’t be comfortable!” To which I replied, accurately but cruelly, “We don’t want you to be comfortable. We just want you to bugger off!”

So he sat in his original seat through most of the second half. In tears, I was told. And then he left before the end.

Did I feel guilty?

Not for one nanosecond.

Though I am becoming a bit worried that obsessively banging on about the obesity of others may be a rather transparent attempt to distract attention from the fact that I myself remain obstinately some two stone overweight.

I had to fork out another £4.10 for the final stage of my journey to Morpeth, so by the time I reached my destination I had spent £86.80 (including the initial taxi), had been travelling for 5.5 hours, and still had a 35 minute drive to get home. All this to cover a total distance of just 220 miles. The economics and timings stack up rather better for the train if one is travelling from either Alnmouth or Chester to London. But anyone who chooses to travel cross-country by train in Britain has to be a truly dedicated rail nerd, extremely rich, utterly desperate or a strange combination of the above.

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