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The International Writers Magazine: I'm On The Train!

My Generation

When I travel, I like to do so quickly, quietly and comfortably. But these days I find that achieving this simple wish is becoming increasingly more difficult. I used to enjoy driving but now I try not to spend anymore time than necessary on our pot-holed, congested and hazardous roads. Air travel with its endless delays, is something I annually endure just to get away to a warmer climate or to visit family in Japan. As I have the sea legs of a new born foal, my one remaining travel pleasure is to opt for that most civilized and quintessentially British way of travelling - I take the train.

Train travel, I believe, should be quick, quiet and comfortable and I am sure that’s how it used to be when I was growing up during the 1950’s. But I find now that even this last bastion of a civilized way of travel is fast disappearing.

During the 1950’s train journeys really were a time for relaxation; maybe reading, dozing, playing travel board games or just simply gazing out of the window at the lines of telegraph wires waving hypnotically up and down. At train stations there were Porters on hand to help with heavy luggage and Station Masters were only too pleased to tell you, without the slightest hint of sarcasm, how long the next train would be…oh my, how things have changed!

On a recent journey to London I was dismayed at the number of my fellow travellers who talked loudly and continuously on their mobile phones for the whole of the journey. The utter banal mindlessness of their conversations was torture to listen to and I was annoyed with myself for forgetting my ear plugs - vitally important items and part of my travel essentials.

Honestly, I mean to say, sixty two and half miles of having to listen to a cacophony of - ‘I’m on the train’ (pause), ‘Hello! – Can you still hear me?’ (Longer pause). Then a louder, ‘Hello, I’m just going through a tunnel’, followed by even longer and slightly embarrassed silence before it started all over again was incredibly distracting.

To compound my misery, the barrage of verbal inanity was accompanied by the sickly reek of Burger Chain fast food that permeated all the carriages and hung around for best part of the journey and a combination of the two together sent my stress levels soaring.

Confronted by this assault on my inner peace and harmony, where relaxing was absolutely out of the question, the journey seemed to take twice as long. I was hugely relieved when the familiar landmark of Battersea Power Station, with rusting scaffolding climbing up one soot-caked chimney like poison ivy, came into view. It was relief to know that Victoria Station was now just across the river and my escape from what I can best describe as a slow and painful death through mobile phone abuse was close.

I would have liked to have been able to say that the mobile phones hooligans were all disaffected hooded youths, but sadly the worst offenders were those who most probably could have told you at the drop of a hat how to apply for a free bus pass and therefore, I think, really should have known better.

So what has changed? Have we actually lost some or all of that traditional British reserve and good manners that was renowned and envied throughout the world? Certainly since we began that long and often arduous journey from the grey austerity of the post war years to the ‘Must have it - even if I can’t afford it’ society of today, the scale and pace of social change has been relentless. If on the way we have forsaken our way of life and lost our good manners, I wonder if it has all been worth it.

This is a subject that I find myself thinking about more and more. During a recent discussion with friends about the same issue I recalled how the late Professor of Social History at East London University, Raph Samuel, had enthusiastically explained to me that the ‘good ole’ days’ that we talk of and yearn for were typically about fifty years from the present moment in time.

Now, I know that nostalgia can be a powerful emotion, perhaps even sufficiently powerful enough to enable us to forget the endless fog bound winters, the shortage of luxuries, the growing threat of nuclear annihilation and the harsh realities of life back then, but still, all in all - life was simpler then and life seemed to be far more enjoyable.

Although I did not at the time fully realise the profoundness of what Raph Samuel was suggesting, I can now see that his hypothesis was indeed an enlightened one. Having passed the half century mark a few years ago myself I too can now look back with growing fondness to a time when a swift cuff around the ear from a Policeman was an accepted form of punishment for wayward naughty boys, and incidentally, was far less severe than having your parents being informed by an irate Bobby on their doorstep that their son had been caught throwing stones at the school windows again.

Interestingly though, people at the time I am now harking back to may also have been thinking back to a time when life, in their eyes was better - this would have been sometime during the heyday of the gaily striped blazers and high-bustled frocks of Edwardian Britain.

In the light of this knowledge, small wonder then that the over fifties justifiably feel that the world that they once knew and were secure in seems to have changed for the worse and are experiencing a growing sense of loss and insecurity that descends upon them like one of those thick sulphurous London smogs.

The point here is, whether or not such a utopian time ever really existed doesn’t matter, as the plain fact is many of us baby boomers born after the Second World War believe that it actually once did exist and therefore we have in our minds an idealised image of a life that was somehow better, more enjoyable and dare I say it….safer.

Oddly enough, the nearest I have experienced to anything similar to this is ideal is in Japan, where the parks and public places have yet to be taken over by lager louts or tattooed unmarried mothers whose only form of exercise appears to be screaming obscenities at their hyperactive offspring.

In Japanese parks, families can still enjoy just sitting around chatting, picnicking, playing ball games or just simply strolling peacefully along the avenues of cherry trees during the time of the year when the magnificent display of cherry blossom heralds the end of the long winter and the coming of spring.

Japanese trains are a joy to travel on. They are punctual to the second, cleaner than some of our A & E hospitals and the traditional etiquette of consideration towards other travellers is strictly observed by all age groups. When my granddaughter was young, and we would take her on a train journey her shoes would always be removed before she was allowed to stand on the seats. If someone was foolish enough to use their mobile phone on the train the immediate disapproving looks from other passengers would soon end their calls for them.

I have found this kind of unwritten, but nevertheless powerful social etiquette code in a few other diverse places. For example, many years ago I used to regularly travel overnight from Havana to Santiago by train and although toilet paper was something you had to provide yourself, I found that there was a great sense of consideration between passengers and staff that was never more evident than when after the lights were dimmed at around 10.30 pm, sleeper couchettes would be tilted back and a quietness would descend upon the carriage broken only by a occasional snore or the reassuring sound of the guard quietly moving between the carriages checking that all was in order.

I can’t help feeling that some degree of personal and collective responsibility for the situation we now find ourselves in, must lie within the ranks of us baby boomers, for we were the first generation for many years that did not have to fight a major war; we were the generation that wore flowers in our hair; we rebelled against our fathers, we tuned in, turned on and dropped out in our thousands, we staged mass sit-ins, we experimented with mind bending drugs, we hung posters of Che Guevara on our bedroom walls and even chanted, ‘Ho –Ho – Ho - Chi-Min’, along the streets of London during the height of the Vietnam war.

It is sobering to think that the sum total of our rage against the machine and our exhortation for revolution may have initiated a process, whereby the society that had sheltered and nurtured us was progressively and irrevocably dismantled. The desperate situation that the UK now finds itself in begs a question and it is one that the baby boomer generation should consider. We should ask ourselves whether the social, political and economic woes we are experiencing, is the effect of our misguided youth, and that we, my generation, were the cause.

© Daly October 2008

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