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A Traditional British Christmas

A friend of mine from Belgium recently asked what a traditional British Christmas involves, because she'd bought plum pudding and crackers and wasn't too sure what to do next. 

I gave the whole thing some thought, and this was what I came up with...

Right, the traditional British Christmas starts on Christmas Eve when one person, usually the lucky lady of the house, gets to spend the day cleaning everything from top to bottom (because you can't relax in a grotty house), while indulging in liberal amounts of wine to make the job more bearable. Once that is done, the next few hours are spent peeling more sprouts than you will ever eat, and more than the typical family has consumed since the previous Christmas, and cutting little crosses in the bottom (even though all that actually does is make them soggy), preparing the other vegetables, swearing at anyone who dares to enter the kitchen, preparing stuffing, pigs in blankets and sausages, making cranberry sauce and cauliflower gratin and trying to figure out how eight saucepans are going to fit on four gas rings (further application of wine will help here), before shoving one's hand up a turkey's bottom.

More wine is usually required at this point.

The traditional Christmas Eve evening meal has historically consisted of the fabled dish "whatever you can get because I'm not bloody cooking it", though in latter days it has largely been superceded by whatever you can get the local takeaway to deliver on Christmas Eve, again served with copious quantities of wine.

Just before the Traditional Brit collapses into bed, she will usually remember that there is a pile of presents in the back of the wardrobe which will have to be wrapped, labelled and arranged under the tree. Only when this is done (it will take a while, but will be 'helped' by further consumption of wine) will T.B. collapse into bed in an exhausted heap, creeping into bedrooms to hang stockings on the end of beds without waking their occupants on the way.

For the T.B. with children, Christmas Day generally starts at around 2am. It should be noted that contrary to popular belief, the traditional December 25th greeting is not "F*ck off, you little b*st*rds, it's 2am, go back to sleep," but is in fact a cheerful "Merry Christmas!" Neither is it the appropriate response to the question, "has he been?" but is still a very common one. If the children can be encouraged to return to their rooms, the TB will attempt to get some sleep, but this may be hampered by the inappropriately noisy stocking fillers chosen in a moment of distraction.

Eventually, when the T.B. can take no more, the children will be unleashed in a screaming frenzy of tearing paper and excitement. They will respond inappropriately to all their carefully chosen gifts before playing with the boxes instead and declaring their undying gratitude to a fictional character while disregarding all the work that was put in by the long-suffering T.B., who has feigned surprise and delight at receiving yet another pair of slippers and a bottle of cheap and nasty perfume and taken about as much of the joys of Christmas morning as she can.

Not that T.B. will see any of this, because she will be back in the kitchen attempting to cook an unreasonably complex breakfast because it's a 'special' day. And while everyone else is eating that, she'll grab a slice of toast and start cooking lunch. Having sobered up, she will discover that 8 pans will just not fit on 4 rings and will probably collapse in a sobbing heap before reaching for another bottle of wine.

Several hours later, the meal will be ready for serving, although the carrots will have been put on too early and collapsed into mush while the sprouts somehow managed to get forgotten until the last minute and resemble nothing more than small, green bullets. Or vice versa. Just when the day can't get more enjoyable, T.B.'s Traditional British Bloke will wander into the kitchen, which until this point will have been run with almost military precision, and demand to carve the turkey. This is T.B.B.'s one job of the day, and he will cock it up, spending so much time fannying about with sharpening a knife that wasn't blunt to begin with and leaving the turkey looking like a special effect from Alien. By the time he finally steps away from the devastation, the vegetables will be cold, and any children will have been left unsupervised for long enough to have eaten an entire Cadbury's selection box and will be quietly vomiting into a plant pot.

At last the banquet will reach the table and the family will gather in stony silence as one auntie suddenly points out that she has become vegetarian, granddad complains that the roast potatoes are not a patch on the ones granny makes and a recently widowed distant relative who seems to have managed to foist himself on T.B. for the day starts crying because last year life was so much happier. Once everyone has eaten so much they can't possibly move, T.B. will bring out Christmas pudding and brandy butter. Everyone will feel compelled to eat it even though a) they are already more full than they've been since the previous Christmas, b) nobody actually likes it and c) it's on fire.

After lunch will be the traditional argument about watching the Queen's speech. Granddad will want to while everyone else will want to watch Attack of the Kill-o-Zap Robots from Space on the other side. Granddad will win. Then he will fall asleep and snore all the way through it, but any attempts to change channels will be met by swearing and the declaration, "I'm watching that!" so it's best to just put it on and be done with it. It only lasts a few minutes, and then you can switch over to the film.

Except then The Great Escape will come on and everyone will watch that instead. It's traditional. And it will give people ideas. T.B. can often be found at this point trying to tunnel her way out of the house with a teaspoon.

By the time The Great Escape finishes, the first cries of "I'm hungry" will start up, even though everyone has already eaten enough to stave off famine in some smaller African countries for several months and the children will have demolished at least another two selection boxes and the widowed distant relative will have consumed his own weight in dates. T.B. will therefore find herself confined to the kitchen again, this time making turkey sandwiches, searching out jars of mysterious pickled things that wouldn't normally enter the house and cutting out Christmas cake (which is something else nobody really likes) while seeking solace in a bottle of Bailey's that she found behind the pickled onions and red cabbage. This is not so bad though, because while she finds a quantum of alcoholic solace, everyone else is compelled to watch Moonraker, as it's the law that there will be a Bond film on, but it will be a crap one, and everyone will sit in front of it.

Just as Moonraker finishes, someone will remember that the crackers that were supposed to be pulled at lunch time are still in the cupboard. A quick debate as to whether they should be pulled now or put away for next Christmas will usually result in another argument over who pulls their cracker with whom, and then a large heap of discarded paper rubbish for T.B. to dispose of. After this, the assorted relatives will go their separate ways (unless T.B. has been gullible enough to invite them to stay for Boxing Day) and everyone will collapse into bed again, drunk, exhausted or both. 

7.12.08 19:39


Grumpy Old Wyvern

Today I have a bad back.  I also have a dodgy hip.  My knees aren't feeling brilliant either. 

Repainting ceilings puts me in a bad mood, which is a pain in the arse as at the moment, I have two to sort out before the estate agent comes tomorrow (and don't even get me started on estate agents, who suddenly tell you they want your money before they even put the house on the market,and didn't tell you anything about that until after you'd instructed them).  The last thing I feel like doing is running up and down a ladder with the lower half of my body feeling like it's on fire, but of course my Almost-Ex husband is too busy running around on his quest to become a laydee that he/she/it's about as much use as a bacon butty at a bar mitzvah.

Anyway, today I had to go to Marks and Spencer, another reason to be less-than-cheerful in itself, to pick up some Christmas presents (that's another reason).  One thing I am always happy to do is save money, and as well as the items I needed being part of their 3 for 2 range, it was 20% off day.  Which was nice.  Even nicer was that the items I wanted were all in stock.  Less good was the INCREDIBLY long queue for the tills, which was made worse by being unable to use the walking stick I've found myself reduced to using as my hands were somewhat full with six small plastic boats. 

Why is M&S always full of old people?  Everywhere I went I found the way blocked by tartan trolleys, blue rinse and Ralgex fumes.  And then they see a younger person using a walking stick and they look at you with an expression that says, "how dare you use that... it's not for you... we old people have a monopoly... nnnnnngg*".  I have been known to respond by asking them if they've never seen a cripple before if I'm in a bad enough mood.  I came dangerously close to it while in that interminable queue, especially when the assorted elderly people behind me kept prodding me in the back - which is very painful, in case I haven't mentioned that - with their basket of pointy things in boxes.

I escaped from M&S with my shopping, and most of my sanity, intact and went out into the mall in which it is a cornerstone (apparently).  Someone "cut me up" as I was about to get on the escalator and instead of doing the properly British thing and ignoring it, I swore at them rather a lot (though admittedly not very loudly).  I also found myself muttering that some gobby, peroxide-blonde, airheaded Chav was "sad" and got out fo the way as quickly as my stick would carry me.  I may be bad tempered, but I have a sense of self-preservation, and I really didn't fancy presenting myself at casualty to have her ridiculous plastic fingernails removed from any part of my anatomy.

But actually, I've noticed that recently I seem to have developed my very own form of Tourette's Syndrome in that whenever I pass something that outrages, annoys or otherwise pisses me off, a comment - often couched in terms that would make a Somali pirate blush (if he spoke English) - will be out of my mouth before I've had to opportunity to consider whether it would be better to remain silent.  Usually it would, but the world at large, it seems, must be subjected to my tirades, spat with as much venom as I can muster from my bitter, scowling lips.  No one is safe - old people, young people, teenagers, Chavs, estate agents, people walking too fast behind me, people walking to slowly in front of me, people who bang on about their 'rights', the HSE (who are determined to wring every last bit of fun out of life by eliminating all risk), people who wear hats in cars, people who manage to be really snarky but dress it up with a mask of politeness, people who think they're better than other people, and pretty much everyone else.

Mind you, I think I know what has happened.  I'm 35 years old now, and this means I have officially entered the Golden Years of Grumpiness.  From now until I retire, I am going to find the world an increasingly baffling and irritating place to be.  If there is ever another series of Grumpy Old Women, I'm their... er... woman, I suppose.  Not that they'd want an unknown grumpy, oh no, you need to be grumpy and famous to get on the telly (my tongue was in my cheek there - could you tell?  No, didn't think so!).  Even better, 2008 marks my first officially grumpy Christmas.

Oddly, this is the first thing that has made me really happy all day.

*That's as close an approximation of the noise the Old Gits on Harry Enfield and Chums made as I can come up with in type.
20.11.08 13:55

Top Gear Live - first impressions (report to follow)


Amazing.  Absolutely brilliant - the presenters were very entertaining, but what really blew me away was the precision driving team, driving up to six vehicles in tight formation, very quickly INDOORS without spinning off the stage and killing everyone to death.  And there was the Cool Wall.  And the audience drove the Resonably Priced Car (sort of).  Jeremy Clarkson really is that tall... and Richard Hammond really is that little... and James May really is that hairy.

If you were at Earl's Court, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  If you weren't, there are still a few tickets left for the Thursday evening (13th November) at Birmingham.  If this is your idea of fun, I strongly suggest you get there!

And I came to the conclusion that the Baby Jesus wants me to buy a Lotus Elise.  It will make sense.  There should be photos.

Meanwhile, I'm still recovering from the whole experience - not to mention two train journeys that were the work of Beelzebub.

4.11.08 01:37

Gee Whiz! Electric cars are sexy!

I've been thinking about electric cars and how, although they probably aren't the long-term solution, they are a solution that is here now and wondering whether they're all boring, ugly, slow and very easy to squash. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to determine everything about squashability as not all the interesting stuff going on out there has been crash tested yet, but here are some of the developments that are happening at the moment. I plan to add to this as the field develops further and I would be interested to hear what other bloggers think of the more environmentally friendly driving options.

We all know what the most familiar of the electric cars looks like...


Mmm... lovely.

Reva's G-Wiz, a 2+2 hatchback, stalks the streets of London, but is rarely seen outside the capital in the UK. People who live in central London won't be taking them outside of the city as the earliest models have a maximum range of 40 miles and the newest ones of 48 miles. Maximum speed is 40mph for the older models and up to 50mph for the newer ones. In all fairness to the plastic deathtraps, there have been a lot of improvements in the latest model, but the car still can't go very far or very fast and is definitely one for urban use only.

(Me, being slightly twisted in the head, now wants to try off-roading in one...)

Anyway, there are some pros to the G-Wiz - it's small, and it can fit into tiny spaces, it has zero emissions in use (63gm CO2/km from charging from conventional electric suppliers) and it is cheap to run (a full charge costs about 88p at peak rates at the moment). It isn't that cheap to buy, however, and at around £10,000 for the newest models, it is possible to buy a very decent 'proper' car, rather than a quadricycle, and not have to have a second vehicle for long distance travel.*

Of course, the Top Gear fans among us will have seen this, though...


The crash test makes sobering reading, especially the mention of the government response, which may ultimately force reconsideration of the rules on quadricycle safety. (Please note, though, that these tests were done using previous models. The G-Wiz i, which hits the road in October, apparently has been independently frontal impact crash tested at 25mph - just in case Reva's lawyers are looking).

So while it works and it's out there and running, while it might not be the most attractive option, it is certainly the best known one.

But what if you like the environmental appeal of the G-Wiz but don't want to feel a raging desire to wash your eyes out with bleach every time you open the garage door?

Wouldn't you rather have one of these?


This is not a quadricycle, but it is still 100% electric. It's the Tesla Roadster from America's Tesla Motors, which is starting to make its way into the public conciousness, and it's a proper electric car.

Sharing around 7% of its components with the Elise, it is built by Lotus on behalf of Tesla. Their philosophy couldn't be further removed from that of manufacturers of vehicles like the G-Wiz and a quote from their website that nicely sums up their approach is "Most electric vehicles operate under the assumption that driving is merely a necessary evil if you need to get someplace you can’t reach on foot or bike. The result has been cars that are designed, built, and marketed in ways that refuse to glorify driving."

And I think, in that simple paragraph, they sum up why people who love cars generally do not love the G-Wiz. Working in conjunction with Lotus, Tesla have created something that looks like a car, performs like a car and yes - will have to be able to meet the safety standards for a car (although as the car does not officially go on sale in Europe until next year I have no NCAP results yet). Admittedly it will be rather more expensive than the G-Wiz, at €99,000 (again, I don't yet have UK prices, and although that converts to approx £79,000 that doesn't take into account what our tax laws will do to it), and it seems that there are no plans to make a right hand drive version.

The two vehicles arent really comparable, as they are designed for different uses and different markets. However, what happens in the top end of any industry does eventually filter into the mainstream, and the Tesla Roadster doesn't represent what can be achieved in 5 or 10 years - it can be, and is being, done now.

But isn't it a bit galling for those of us in the UK that even though this car is being built here, it isn't available here yet?

Well, the Tesla Roadster will have some home-grown competition and holy moley it's a pretty thing.


If British cars are your thing but you want a greener option, the Lighting GT, by the Lightning Car Company, might be the way to go. It hasn't gone into full production yet, but after building a number of petrol-driven testbed models, and an electric prototype, the order book has been opened and all is looking good. Even better, the Lightning Car Company is that most British of institutions, a small-scale motor manufacturer that, like Bristol, is basically a couple of blokes and a shed. But even blokes in sheds need to pass safety testing requirements.

And talking of Bristol (as we weren't, but bear with me) the Lightning GT appears to have a similar design philosophy to the Bristol Fighter, especially around the rear end. The front reminds me of the current crop of Aston Martins (though without their "trout-pout" mouth) and the side view is even reminiscent of the Marcos GT of the 1960s.

And when we see electric vehicles make their way into endurance racing... don't be surprised if this is one of the first.

Until the first production models are delivered, it's always a bit of a concern that what might happen next. They are due in the early part of 2009, but with a price of £150,000 it's quite a big risk to take. But I hope they pull it off - the business of cars should be done by people who love them, and who want them to develop in a way that people can still enjoy driving when the oil runs out, men (and women) in sheds with a passion for what they're doing - not by environmentalists in offices trying to make us all feel guilty for needing to get from A-B. If a journey is necessary, it doesn't mean it has to be miserable... and if it can be done without environmental harm, where is the need to feel guilty?

More information on the G-Wiz - http://www.goingreen.co.uk
More information about Tesla - http://www.teslamotors.com/
More information about Lightning - http://www.lightningcarcompany.co.uk/home.php

Tech comparison

G-Wiz i (latest model):
0 – 60 n/a
Top Speed 50mph
Maximum range 48 miles
100 % charge time 8 hours
Recycling costs – awaiting more information from GoinGreen
Price £10,000

Tesla Roadster:
0 – 60 3.9 seconds
Top Speed electronically limited to 125mph
Maximum range 220 miles
100% charge time – varies according to method and power source, but 3.5 hours using Tesla high power connector.
Recycling costs included in purchase price (consumables – battery and tyres – fully recylable)
Price €99,000

Lightning GT
0 – 60 4 seconds
Top Speed 130+mph
Maximum range likely to be comparable with the Tesla Roadster
100% charge time - varies according to power source and connector, but probably comparable with the Tesla
Recycling costs – awaiting more information from Lightning Cars
Price £150,000 (£15,000 deposit – or 1.5 G-Wizzes – secures purchase)

28.8.08 20:07

My grandmother's ghost travels Virgin Crosscountry

A while back I wrote about my journey to Northwich for the Thundersprint.  However, one part of the journey that I have not written about until now has continued to haunt me for much of the last three months, so I think that the time is right to share it.

As the train left Bristol Temple Meads, I ran into the ghost of my maternal grandmother on the way to the buffet car (sorry, onboard shop).

No, I haven't gone completely barmy.  It's OK, nobody needs to call Ghostbusters and neither Derek Acorah nor John Edward need fear for their livelihoods.  I haven't become a medium (with an arse like mine, I'll be lucky to ever be anything other than an extra-large), and the only spirits I tend to commune with come in bottles.  And yet that morning, as I sallied forth in search of another cup of hot wet, large as life I found myself staring into my grandmother's face, or at least, something very much like it.

Before I go any further, I would just like to point out that what I am about to say should in no way to be taken to imply that the people of Bristol - or indeed any other community - have been getting up to anything inappropriate with their relatives, nor that I believe them to be inbred.  Absolutely not - I'm a Bristolian by birth and I have never had inappropriate relations with my relations - but I do think that certain populations have their own faces.

I first noticed this phenomenon about ten years ago.  I'd been sent on a training course in Bristol and as I took the short bus journey out of town to visit my grandfather, I realised that a lot of the faces around me were familiar, even though I didn't actually know any of my fellow passengers.  The jut of a jawline here, the crease of a brow there, there was something comforting about the sense of recognition these things ignited in me.  It was like seeing the faces of my childhood brought forward through time from my distant memory to that moment, even though if I'd seen any of them before, it would have been in passing, and they would have been children.

At the time I put it down to being overtired, but as I looked at the people boarding the train at Temple Meads a decade on, I was again struck by that odd sense of deja vu and I suddenly realised - Bristolians look like Bristolians.  Running into my late maternal grandmother's doppelganger as she selected a packet of cheese 'n' onion brought it home to me rather powerfully.

I think what may have happened in the past is that communities were relatively isolated and the genetic impact of that has been felt through the generations so that although nobody can necessarily pinpoint them as traits of a particular family, there are features that become common throughout a community until they are ubiquitous but so diluted that you only notice them when you haven't seen them for a while.  However, as we all become more mobile and our families become more widespread, and as we form relationships and raise children with people from communities outside the one from which we originate, these features will gradually become blurred and lost.

And actually to an extent, science bears this little whimsy of mine out.  These days you can chew on a cotton bud and a clever chap will extract your DNA from the cheek cells and saliva and tell you where you come from.  Our heritage is written in our genes, and they can even pinpoint what percentage of you comes from what part of the world.

But I realy don't need science to tell me that; 28 years after her death, I saw my grandmother's ghost on a train out of Bristol Temple Meads and as it took me to where I was going, it reminded me where I came from.



30.7.08 01:46

Biting the Bullitt...

Bullitt may not be the greatest movie ever made, but the chase, where Bullitt is pursued in his Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco by generally unpleasant types in a Dodge Charger set the bar for this kind of filming way back in 1968. 

There are many reasons why I think this sequence stands out, including the genuinely visceral quality of the driving (of the two Chargers and two Mustangs used, only one Mustang survived the shoot) and Lalo "Mission Impossible" Schifrin's decision not to score the action, but most of all, it's probably because the setup is believeable.

We're all too used to seeing chases in which a good guy (in something unlikely, like a Nissan Bluebird.. well, maybe not a Bluebird, but you know what I'm getting at) escapes from the villain (in a Ferrari F430 or similar) by perhaps suddenly discovering that in fact, they haven't run out of oomph because in the heat of the moment they've forgotten how many gears they've got... one more change and whoosh! They're gone in a squeal of rubber and a cloud of tyresmoke, leaving the bad guy to wonder where the his quarry has gone (and just how he's managed it in a Nissan Bluebird).  That may be a slightly exaggerated example, but I think we've all seen chases like that - but Bullitt is not one of them.  The Charger and the Mustang are evenly matched muscle cars with similar capabilities; if there was no script, it could have gone either way.

But anyway, I'm not here to wax lyrical about a couple of blokes tearing through San Francisco in 1968.  No... forty years later, I found myself trapped in a surreal Bullitt situation coming out of Sainsbury's carpark on the edge of Plymouth.

I would just like to point out before I go any further that I was a passenger on this little adventure and NOT behind the wheel.

So... Sainsbury's car park.  There are several lanes of traffic coming out of the car park, two of which filter into the lane we wanted, and as the layout was changed several months back, occasionally there is a little confusion as to who goes where.  We couldn't pull across to the leftmost lane, because there was already somebody in it, so we took the other one... only to be almost sideswiped by a 40-something chap in a Ford Galaxy.  We, by the way, were in a Citroen Xsara Picasso, also driven by a 40-something chap.

I think you can see where this is going.

Two MPVs, each driven by a middle-aged bloke with a testosterone-fuelled red mist descending... and the one in the Citroen suddenly turning into Steve McQueen.

Galaxy tried to push Picasso into the other lane - which was never going to happen with a Fiesta in the way - forcing Picasso to straddle two lanes.  Galaxy man then added insult to injury by yelling something about reading the road markings, which was a bit rich coming from someone who clearly couldn't.  Onto the main road, Galaxy forced himself through and hurled further insults as he overtook.

I was hoping that would be the last of it, but no, the road rage was kicking in now and Picasso couldn't let it lie.  Instead, he wove through several lanes of traffic and undertook Galaxy, who immediately did much the same thing. The big difference between real life and the cinema is that when they do these things on film, roads are closed and traffic is strictly controlled; when it's a Saturday evening and everyone's in a hurry to get home and watch Doctor Whoit's a different matter.  By this point, I was starting to feel rather unwell.

The cat and mouse game continued for a while, with Galaxy undertaking at one point to be greeted by "the finger" through my window.  I was not the person making this none-too-concilatory gesture, however; the driver had extended his arm across my body to insult the other silly sod.  I only hope the other driver recognised that he and "Steve McQueen" weren't the only people involved at this point and the sight of my pale and terrified face at the window of the Picasso may have helped calm him a little.  Regardless, Picasso wasn't going to take being undertaken, so again he put his foot down and this time decided to bring the whole sorry saga to a close by taking the first available turning off the main road and disappearing among the residential streets.  Calmed or not, Galaxy did not follow.

But I don't think I've ever been so worried in a car before.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe Picasso intended any harm, and he is normally a safe, sensible driver.  I don't doubt Galaxy is much the same under normal circumstances.  What worried me most, apart from the fear that one or other of them might run into another car, was that if it had gone on much longer it would have descended into kerbside pugilism.  But honestly, two cars of a similar type (though admittedly the Galaxy is much bigger), being driven by cheesed off, middle-aged blokes... if we hadn't turned off when we did, it could have gone on all day.

It probably wouldn't have made very good cinema, though...

20.5.08 01:08

Losing track of the Information Superhighway

This morning I am writing to you from my laptop on the 7.25 service from Plymouth to Manchester Piccadilly.  I’m on my way to Northwich for the annual Thundersprint motorcycle event and I’m having a few technology issues.
Yes, the laptop is a fantastic invention and all terribly useful, but in these days of the Information Superhighway, a computer is far more useful when connected to a modem.  The modem, the digital sliproad to t’Interweb, makes all the difference.  Being a bit of a gadget fiend, and also what the marketing people call an “early adopter”, I have recently obtained a mobile Internet dongle (what a wonderfully filthy sounding word) and determined to while away at least some of the lonely hours at the hands of Mr Branson’s Virgin being entertained by the Web of Deceit.
And the freedom to roam wirelessly is a deceit indeed. 
First of all, although the laptop is capable of operating for a couple of hours on battery power, that is only one third of my travel time.  As we have yet to realise Tesla’s dream of electricity being broadcast through the air, this means deflowering the Virgin’s socket with a plug and running the lead to the computer.  The lead was designed to reach easily across rooms without turning into a tripwire, waiting patiently for the unwary and forgetful user to fetch a cup of tea and a slice of Bakewell tart, or maybe a bottle of Spitfire, or a nice bottle of Chablis; something, at least, that would have been far more satisfying in the belly of said user than offered as a libation to the dining room carpet.
Unfortunately, that same length of cable, when shoved into a distance of less than three feet, proves to be just as adept at causing chaos.  I wanted a drink, so I rose   from my seat to visit the “onboard shop” (which seems to have turned into an ordinary buffet since I last rode a Virgin… I know, I really should stop with the innuendo), wrapped the cable around my ankle – unintentionally, I hasten to add – and only narrowly avoided landing face down in the lap of a Blackberry-bashing businessman.  I’m not sure how he would have felt about this, but he really wasn’t my type and the whole thing would have been even more acutely embarrassing than going a purler down the aisle.
Still, I did eventually make it to the shop and then found myself perusing the delights on offer and desperately seeking breakfast.  It was at this point that I realised just how oddly rail travel makes us behave.  I can think of no other circumstance in which I would be eating a cheeseburger at 8am, and one of my fellow travellers was already well equipped for the journey with several cans of Heineken. 
On the subject of cheeseburgers, when did it become necessary to serve them with caramelised onions and to tell me what kind of cow it was made from?  The railway burger may at least beat the classic curly sandwich and rock-hard pork pie of the British Rail days but it’s another example of the way in which everything has to be dressed up to be something more than it is.  If I want a cheeseburger, I want a cheeseburger, not an Aberdeen-Angus-and-caramelised-onion dining experience.  It’s 8am, for Christ’s sake, I’d rather have a bacon butty and hold the pretentious bull.
I then made another mistake.  Despite my fellow passenger’s stockpile of alcohol I’m more of the persuasion that a “cup that cheers but doth not intoxicate” is a far better option at this time of day.  That’ll be tea then.  That’s the theory anyway, but again, I can think of no other circumstance where my life was not threatened by its non-consumption that would cause me to drink something that unpleasant.  Still, it’s hot and it’s wet, which I suppose is quite promising for a Virgin (sorry... ).
Anyway, equipped with my Angus ‘n’ caramelised onion pretension in a bun and my cup of hot wet, I got back to my seat and tried to find my junction onto the Superhighway.  I got out my dongle (stop it... ), inserted it in the appropriate slot and clicked on the connection.  I’d been assured that the connection would be at least reasonably reliable in cities so I would be able to check my emails, read the news and maybe buy an Albanian before I got as far as Bristol, but the truth is that so far, mobile Internet is absolutely hopeless.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with the hardware; my dongle is perfectly capable, even as it flops over the edge of the table, of finding a signal and connecting me to my digital desires.  No, the problem is that as an early adopter, I am expected to pay a premium for a service that doesn’t quite work.  It will do in time, but at the moment the infrastructure just isn’t there.
I should have realised it was hoping for a bit much to be able to get a signal on a train heading towards Manchester.  I can’t even get a reliable signal in my house.  In the living room it’s fine, but in the dining room I’d have more luck with a ouija board.
Not to worry.  By the time next years’ Thundersprint comes around, it should all be a lot easier.  The mobile Internet infrastructure should be much more established and might even actually work.  However, these days the buzzword seems to be “integration” and I have a plan that successfully integrates all of my requirements for a journey while simultaneously removing any concern about unreliable connections.
I’m going to drive.
That way I won’t have to board a train at a stupid time in the morning, but can leave when I wake up.  I can take a road of my choosing and not have to change routes – and cars – twice during the journey.  When I want breakfast I can pull up at one of the numerous nameless roadside establishments where a large man in a greasy vest will serve me with a bacon butty with a dressing of blackened drippings and tea that comes from an enormous steel pot and is presented to me in something made from clay instead of cardboard.  If I choose to have a cheeseburger, it’s fair to say nobody will tell me what kind of cow it came from (indeed, sometimes it is doubtful if they’ve been near a cow at all) and it certainly won’t be served with caramelised anything.
And of course, as I’ll be driving, I won’t be trying to kill 6 hours on my laptop.  I’ll have swapped the Information Superhighway for the real thing.
9.5.08 15:49

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