Planes, Trains & Automobiles - part 2
14 August 2023 | The Game Commences
"So I'll precis their argument for you in the next, unedifying episode of Planes, Trains & Automobiles."
No I won't. On reflection, I'll give you Moussa's explanation instead, which is twice as comprehensible as mine, three times as interesting, a quarter as verbose, and one-tenth as pretentious. All this despite its having been translated through three languages and two interpreters, and with the added bonuses of being in plain, short words, and the whole thing being totally uncontaminated by equations.
(Now, who do we know who could benefit from that sort of approach? -Liz)
• SNCF runs everything on computer.
• Computers do lots of sums very quickly.
• So they can schedule connections and point switches down to very small time slots.
• Which makes everything faster and more profitable.
• So, of course, they do it. In spades.
Which makes the whole system highly unstable and very sensitive to error. The slightest delay ripples through the network, magnifying as it does so. If the 2442 is delayed by 15 minutes this morning, then by 6:30 this evening the rail traffic in Antwerp and Frankfurt will be in meltdown. [This is hardly surprising. Building lag into a system improves reliability and resilience, but it costs time, and time is money. Given capitalism's obsession with the short-term bottom line, it becomes almost inevitable that lag is kept to the absolute minimum].
All of this has consequences. Captains of industry miss meetings and company rescue packages fail, putting people out of work. Pilots miss their slots, spreading the chaos into the aviation sector. Lovers' long-awaited assignations remain unconsummated, and patients remain un-operated upon. All because a couple of dickhead tourists couldn't find voiture huit.
"So," they concluded, "much as we sympathise with your predicament, we can't have you risking a total collapse of European civilisation, so get your arses and those bloody hippos on the train and sort things out while you're on your way."
With that, we were unceremoniously bundled into the gangway connection next to the dining car, with our luggage casually tossed in as an afterthought by a couple of Olympic shot-putters who happened to be going to Paris. We looked around and took stock. We were obviously in the railway equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs crossed with an outside privy. And before you start, yes, I do remember outside privies, and yes, we did have one when I were a kid. We also had an Anderson shelter out back, and that was more spacious than the oubliette that was currently home to us and our luggage. It did, however, have a luggage rack, albeit full, and a jump seat, which Liz commandeered and guarded the luggage, while I set off on a search & occupy mission on voiture 08.
Technologically, the TGV is a masterpiece. In terms of ergonomics and human psychology, however, it has certain shortcomings. Chief amongst these is that it's very disorientating. The whole train is a repeating pattern; walking along it is like trying to navigate your way through a Matrix-like universe based on those magic eye pictures that were so popular in the late '90s. As you pass through the connector into the next carriage, time does a backward jump, and you find yourself back at the beginning. I half expected to find myself waking up again and again to the strains of 'I got you, Babe.'
Just to keep things interesting, there is a second, alternative, universe, which unexpectedly floods your senses when you drift into a first-class carriage. French first-class carriages are a surreal amalgam of a mausoleum, a Quaker meeting and the reading room of the British Library. The first thing you notice on passing through the door into a first-class carriage is the wall of silence that hits you smack in the face. No beeps, no 'KERCHANG!'s, no infuriating 105dB, tinny ringtones. No self-important, bellowed instructions to Iris in accounts, no homicide-inducing, 125 bpm technoshit leaking from cheap headphones.
Just silence, but silence so thick you can almost hear it. If you strain your ears to the point of rupture, you might, occasionally, just pick out a soft rustle as a page is turned, or (rarely) a slightly overenthusiastic pencil-scratching as The Wrong Word is tetchily obliterated. Even these are de trop and are invariably met with looks of disapproval and the occasional 'Sh' which in turn is met with looks of approbation from the purists.
The inhabitants of these lofty cultural oases are operating on a higher intellectual plane than we mere mortals. The gentleman in seat 43 is translating Proust into Albanian, and sits primly, head back, eyes closed, fingers steepled, pince-nez poised just-so, as he wrestles with whether 'kujtesa' or 'kujtim' would best translate 'mémoire' in this particular context.
The lady in seat 34 is reading Derrida's 'The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Phenomenology' in the original gibberish, while in 27 a rather attractive woman with a somewhat prominent Adam's apple is writing a pamphlet entitled 'Cis, trans & binary - How the scientific patriarchy appropriates LGBTQIA2S+ cultural iconography.'
Needless to say, the arrival of a twat British tourist in grubby, creased shorts, sandals, tea-stained T shirt, and a hat that just cried out for a couple of ironic, post-modernist corks, did not put the refined, sensitive, congregation at their ease. Neither did my pathetic attempts to blend in, nodding to alternate sides, doling out Bonjours left, right and centre, interspersed with the odd "Je cherche la voiture huit. Savez-vous par hasard où il se trouve ? only to be met with a blank wall of impeccably polite good manners, which managed to be simultaneously deeply insulting.
Talking of blank walls, that's what confronted me on leaving my final first-class trial by ordeal. Access to the last three carriages was closed off. Voiture Huit remained an unsubstantiated legend. I returned Lizwards, re-running my gauntlet of humiliation by politesse in reverse.
On my way, I passed through another oubliette, uncannily similar to our current accommodation. Closer examination revealed a number of subtle differences. There were two jump seats instead of one, the luggage rack had a modicum of free space, and the smell from the toilets wasn't quite as pervasive. I determined to upgrade and transfer ourselves and our hippos to this luxury accommodation.
You remember that old logic puzzle about transferring a fox, a chicken, and a bag of seed across a river in a small boat? We faced a similar conundrum. The aisles on a TGV are narrow, far too narrow for us to transfer the whole four-piece suite of luggage in one go, so Liz promoted me from 'Scout' to 'Point' and poked me off to deliver Daddy hippo to his new home.
Many train afficionados recommend aisle seats, arguing that they are less claustrophobic, give more convenient access to toilets and restaurant car, are generally roomier, and enable leg stretching by putting at least one foot into the aisle. Overall, they reckon, aisle seats give a more convenient and comfortable ride.
Not if we're on board, they don't. Not if some idiot Rosbif drags a fifty-kilo weight down the aisle, crushing legs and ankles like some modern-day Torquemada. I ended up with a kneecap count to match Shankill's finest. For carriage after carriage, I wrestled the recalcitrant bastard from one end of the train to the other, leaving a trail of destruction in my wake - spilt coffee, knocked off glasses, streaks of misapplied lipstick, expensive coiffures disarranged beyond recognition, and even more expensive suits dishevelled and disfigured with dust and grime.
My arrival at cubbyhole number two presented another problem. The luggage bay had space for both Mummy and Daddy hippo, but said space was at just over head height. There was a time when I could have lifted 55 kilos to head height with ease, but those days are gone. I was just about to concede defeat when Moussa came in. He took one look at me, sighed, and shook his head. With one smooth movement, he leant forward, flipped the case on its side, swung it onto his back, slid it up to his shoulders, stood up, and slotted it into the bay. He picked up his broom, grinned and touched his cap in a casual salute, à la John Wayne, then turned and was gone.
"Who was that man in the dayglo tabard? Oh Broom Man! How can we ever thank you?"
I made my way back to Liz. This, of course, involved retracing my steps through the scenes of my previous carnage. This, actually, was quite fun. As soon as I appeared in the doorway, waves of bristling indignation propagated down the carriage. Looks of refined disapproval, and studied ostracisation, were practiced internally. I, meanwhile, chose to have no truck with this vindictive Gallic cold-shouldering. I strolled through each carriage in turn, cheerfully Bonjouring all and sundry. That got them. They were put in an impossible position; trying to reconcile the burning desire to punish and humiliate this coarse, ill-mannered, undignified, shameless lout of a Brit on the one side, and on the other the response that generations of programming and indoctrination had burnt into their brains; one of the founding principles of French social intercourse: A 'Bonjour', once given, must never be left unreturned.
They tried; I'll give them that. They squirmed and writhed with internal tensions, but the programming won out in the end. Dangling, skewered, on my deadly "Bonjour, Messieu's - 'dames" they struck their colours, held their noses, and mumbled "Bonjour M'sieu", adding a defiant "Pah!" by way of consolation.
I got back to base camp and reported back to GHQ. She decided on a full-scale operation, committing our entire manpower on a blitzkrieg assault, with the objective of delivering all three remaining payloads in one surprise attack. We gathered up our charges, took a deep breath, and went in with a roar.
You should have seen their faces. All decorum went to the wall, and the air was thick with Gallic alarm calls:
Mon Dieu - maintenant il y a deux des bâtards !
Merde! Trois valises aussi !
Sauve qui peut !
We took advantage of the French disarray and made a final push, just closing the door behind us as they started to regroup. We looked around our prize. Our case was still in the rack, but the space beside it had been filled. Mummy Hippo would have to stay on the floor.
Right under a notice saying "It is forbidden to leave luggage obstructing the emergency exits."
To the average Frenchman, notices such as this are mere background noise. They impinge upon his consciousness about as much as a parliamentary code of conduct does upon a cabinet minister. Were he, inexplicably, to actually read it, he would consider it advisory at best, and even then only applicable to lesser mortals such as notaires publiques and the mayors of provincial towns. To meek little authority-respecting souls such as us, however, it read:
YES, YOU, YOU INSIGNIFICANT LITTLE SQUIRT!
PAY ATTENTION - THIS IS SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY SPEAKING.
DON'T YOU EVEN THINK OF LEAVING THAT BAG ON THE FLOOR.
IF YOU DO, THEN THE MAN WILL COME AND TELL YOU OFF IN FRONT OF LOADS OF SNIGGERING FRENCH PEOPLE.
THEN YOU'LL PROBABLY WET YOURSELF, AND THEY'LL LAUGH EVEN MORE."
Just as the French have had the dangling Bonjour drummed out of them in childhood, so I have had a dread of The Man drummed into me.
"Bobby! Stop doing that or The Man will come and tell you off!"
She was very good at delegating, my mum. Any man would do to don the mantle of The Man. She even managed to bludgeon our milkman, Harry, one of the mildest of men, into giving me an extended bollocking for some misdemeanour that I didn't even remember committing.
I hadn't the foggiest idea who The Man was, where He came from or even if He was alone or one of many with different jurisdictions. All I knew was that He scared the living shit out of me, and still does. I looked around desperately, but there was nowhere to put the case, or me. I was now fated to spend the remaining three hours of the journey in a state of nervous terror, convinced that every passing Frenchman was an informer for the SNCF Stasi. My real terror, though, was the appearance of someone in a uniform - any uniform. People in uniform scare the bejezus out of me. I equate them all with the Waffen SS. The only people who scare me more than tall blonde men in uniform are people out of uniform, especially if they are short, overweight, softly spoken, chain-smoke and wear rimless glasses with lenses like the bottoms of wine bottles. These, I equate with the Gestapo. I blame all those boys' comics and magazines that I devoured voraciously in the 1950s.
At which point, Moussa came in.
Go on - you know the routine by now: