My little traveller and my favourite book

Have you read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace?

The opening scene has Hal, one of the protagonists, attending an interview for admission to the University of Arizona. He remains silent for the most part while his uncle speaks for him. The panel become distrustful and frustrated and ask his uncle to leave.

At the start he remains silent. ‘I have been coached for this like a Don before a RICO hearing.* … I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear.’

The panel have documentation that describes Hal as a savant of some type, intelligent beyond his years and a proven, outstanding, tennis player. Yet he sits silent before them.

‘Look here, Mr. Incandenza, Hal, please just explain to me why we couldn’t be accused of using you, son. Why nobody could come and say to us, why, look here, University of Arizona, here you are using a boy for just his body, a boy so shy and withdrawn he won’t speak up for himself, a jock with doctored marks and a store-bought application.’

‘I cannot make myself understood’ is Hal’s last thought before beginning to speak and then he tells them everything they need to know.


“‘What in God’s name are those…, ‘ one Dean cries shrilly, ‘… those sounds?

Wallace then proceeds to describe the scene that takes place. I’ll let you read it if you choose to. There’s something so sublime about his writing that if I could recommend only one more book in my lifetime, then this would be it.

The slightly futuristic or just technologically alternative setting and the descriptions, stripped of sentimentality, provide a style reminiscent of Philip K. Dick. Only the words, the thoughts, the actions are left to provide proof of the human condition.

That sentence spoken by one Dean stayed with me for a while. When I was flying back from Athens to Bristol, especially, it resounded my head from the time I was on the plane until I arrived home. My tired 10 month old daughter, Mersina, who I had been carrying for nine hours, and who had been cooped up with me in our narrow plane seat, when she wasn’t in her baby carrier, happened to be the source.

She had managed the initial ride to the airport. We enjoyed a muffin and coffee at Starbucks before flying from Bristol to Amsterdam and going through one security check at each end of that journey. An additional three hours in the air to Athens were then followed by five days at my mum’s apartment.

Mersina met a cat. Mersina scared a cat. Mersina spent time with my mother, which was lovely. She met her great grandmother for the first time, which was wonderful. She had a mostly fun trip and even saw from which locations Elgin stole the marbles from the Parthenon. The Acropolis museum is spectacular, by the way, and I will write more about the actual trip itself on Ephemeral Baby and post some pictures.

The tough part however was the trip back home. Because of the time difference we didn’t get back until it was around 1.30am for her. She had begun screeching and screaming at infrequent but not too spaced apart moments on the three hour and 15 minute, fully packed, flight from Athens to Amsterdam. She punctuated the sounds by bursting into tears as the passengers all stood, once we landed, in a queue to exit the plane. The ones around us very sweetly tried to cheer her up by clapping and whistling and waving but to no avail.

She had some space to play with her toys from Amsterdam to Bristol so that wasn’t too bad but once in Bristol it all felt too long. She was hungry and tired and kept screaming while we waited for the bus and I couldn’t find my ticket. A fellow passenger asked why I was running back inside and I told her. She then explained to the bus driver and he let me on without one. Amazing. I ended up nursing her while we were on the bus and she was in her carrier strapped to my front.

Athens is not really that far away and we had a lovely time. However, at the very end of it all, before arriving back with wasabi cheese, Glenfiddich whisky for me and a comfortable and familiar bed for her, there were ‘those sounds’, as the Dean said. It was just those sounds.

*Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (18 U.S.C. § 1961)

Melbourne, all the memories ‘Eat Me’ didn’t write about

My lovely friend Martin came back from London recently and brought me a magazine with a feature on Melbourne. Now bear in mind that I haven’t been back ‘home’ since the Sydney Olympics and nostalgia doesn’t take long to hit.

The writer, Ruby Rockwell, spent seven days documenting her eating adventures in a lovely little article. I think I could have done a better job, so any editors out there, if you’re looking to commission a piece then feel free to get in touch:

The following is a list of only some of the things that I could add.

Melbourne Airport – I practically grew up there. My mother was station manager at an airline and my sister and I would spend our Saturdays or Sundays there. I once found a game of Frogger with unlimited credit and had the most amazing afternoon.

Lygon Street – Pizza by the metre and New Zealand waffle cone ice cream. On hot muggy nights, we would drive to Lygon Street and just get out and about.

Carlton – a particularly European area and I know we visited many family friends there but can’t remember if we stayed in a flat on top of someone’s shop for a while in between moving houses.

The alleyways in the city centre make up some of my favourite memories. Book stores, boutiques, jewelry stores, domed roofs and amazing tiles. Coffee shops and restaurants and windows with displays of lingerie.

Bourke St, Melbourne
By 小强@Melbourne

St Kilda with its Luna Park where I’ve been at least once and ridden on the roller coaster. I also went to a Simply Red concert with my sister just near there.

Queen Victoria Market is where my dad used to take us and we’d come away with a box of manderins and Spanish donuts. There were so many aisles and so much food

China town. Swanston Street. Westfield. Chadstones with my grandparents. Phillip Island to see the Penguins (not quite Melbourne obviously but still).

Myers, David Jones and the food hall for the fudge and random treats. Brunch on Keilor Road. Coffee at Pellegrinis.

Brunswick Street in Fitzroy became cool only after I left in 1993 but my sister showed me around and we went for a drink at a bar on a terrace. Smith Street has much the same feel to it, nothing to me, but plenty of cool for others. Vague familiarity with Clarendon Street in South Melbourne.

loving the light
By mugley

A quirky thing about Melbourne that could keep me entertained for days was the price of petrol. There is no (or at least there was no) blanket pricing schedule with slight variations. There were dramatic differences between service stations and days of the week. Petrol could be 70 cents a litre at one station and up to 90 or down to 50 cents in another.

Another Melbournian peculiarity is that pizza from local places has a layer of ham – not flat slices but small cut up bits. Bizarre.

Favourite memory of going to the independent Cinema Kino and watching Gas, Food, Lodging and then having lattes in small water glasses, as was the fashion, somewhere in the city with my sister. We also saw My Mother’s Castle.

Eat Me on Facebook and on Twitter.

Transported: To The Late Shift

Until last week, I have been generally pleased about my commute which is now just past its fourth year. The occasional mishap notwithstanding, the majority of the travel has been hassle free and on schedule. This last week however I discovered a whole new world of train travel which shocked me a little and made me miserable, a lot.

It was the later hours commuting. For various reasons I changed my working hours from 9 to 5 to 10 to 6 so my morning train was no longer the 0700, 0730 or 0800, but instead changed to the 0830 or 0900. My evening train was meant to be the 1825 or at the latest the 1852 which would get me back to Bristol by 1915 or perhaps 1940. All manageable I thought until I tried to follow this new timetable.

The first thing I discovered was that these hours between 8am and 9am are peak hours for most workers, let alone commuters. There was no hope of grabbing a quick coffee on the way to the station because the queue was out to the door. The wave of commuters I passed as I approached made my feel claustrophic as hundreds of them (as they seemed to me) headed to the city centre en masse. The trains had plenty of carriages but they were ridiculously full as the tickets had just hit their off-peak price which was sometimes as cheap as half the cost of the peak ones.

During the half-term I couldn’t even find a seat and perched in one of the bicycle little areas. So I gave up my coffee and the quiet and the silence. I became used to weaving in and out of crowds of people on the way to Temple Meads and avoiding bicycles through Queen Square. I thought it was probably not too bad.

The worst was yet to come. The evening trains from Cheltenham to Bristol became horrendous. I would arrive at the station at 1800 and the boards wouldn’t even bother with five or ten minute delays. On one day the 1825 was due at 1922 and on this last Monday it was due at 1855. It seemed that every time I showed up at the station I would have to wait nearly an hour and then inevitably the delay would increase as I sat in the waiting room. On Friday night I arrived home after nine o’clock and on the Monday that just passed I was back in time to wash the dishes for 2048.

I have now gone back to my normal hours and after the horror of 13 and 14 hour days I felt motivated enough to catch the 0627 and 0700 to work. The streets were empty, the lights were orange and the trains left on time, both in the morning and the evening.

Utter bliss.

bus stop at the station

Transported: When Not Waiting

In December 2009, I was running for the morning train through the dark and rainy streets of Bristol. The time was just before seven and the train doors were beginning to close as I sprinted towards the barriers. The guard used his pass to let me through the gate and then pointed towards the end of the train while the manager held the remaining open door for me.

The train left a few seconds late that morning because of the efforts at Bristol Temple Meads. I was so enthused by the wonderful treatment that my compliments were effusive on Twitter. The response from some was that at least the staff were nice this once. I realised, however, that there had been very few bad days overall. That was one magical event in a series of pretty ok travelling over four years.

The inside of the train is usually warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I tend to get a seat and occasionally have the privilege of having a table to myself. The waiting part is the worst because not only is it indeterminate but the standing around is done outside. Buses are more variable in their service probably due to traffic and other urban centre issues. Trains seem to be better at getting there.

This isn’t just anecdotal information; the annual public performance measures by the Office of Rail Regulation backs up my memories with data. A train is defined as being “on time” if it arrives within five minutes or ten minutes of the planned destination arrival time.

The service I use is now run by CrossCountry but was run by Virgin. In Quarter 2, the on time measures were 89.9% for 2008/09 and 91.8% for 2009/10. Compare that to Virgin whose on time statistics were 81.9% for 2008/09, a huge difference, especially for anyone waiting out in the cold. However even they have improved to around 90%.

When everything runs on time, and that includes my waking up, I can be home in Bristol by 6.30pm. Other times, of course, it’s not that easy.

I remember a winter three years ago when I was still reading my Terry Pratchett book at 8pm in the snow while waiting for the Virgin train which didn’t want to arrive. I went home through Newport once because the track to Bristol had to be closed off. There was snow and ice on the tracks that closed off the Severn Tunnel and made a morning’s journey much longer but provided some beautiful Welsh scenery and the slow journey behind a regional train that extended the 42 minutes into over 160. These tales of woe, however, are sparse and in between. In February 2009, the snow in England which shut down most work was mostly ignored by the trains although I was warned to avoid travelling by a colleague who arrived in Cheltenham and couldn’t get to work because the buses had been stopped. He paused for a coffee and then went back home.

The commute may not be as lovely a journey as those on the Orient Express but it’s usually a nice break from reality and punctuated by a cup of coffee and a good book.

on time

Transported: In The South West But Maybe Not For Long

Today is Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) day and it is dire news for commuters. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Mr Osborne asked the Department for Transport to prepare for cuts of anywhere between 25% and 40% to its annual budget of £15.9 billion” before today’s announcement. The Association of Train Operating Companies said that “money from train tickets pays for around half the cost of running the railways with the rest coming from the taxpayer.” The media have anticipated that the government plans to shift the costs to the passengers and we saw a lot of that in the details.

The current rate of increase for tickets is the Retail Price Index (RPI) plus one per cent which in September 2010 stands at 4.6% (down from 4.7% in August). This will increase to RPI + 3% for three years up to 2012. As we read in the CSR “some public transport fare increases will be unavoidable. This will include raising rail fares where necessary” (p.31).

The Channel 4 economics editor, Faisal Islam, wrote four days ago that the increases to rail faire could be 30 to 40% in four years. He seems to be right. The increase will not be put in place until 2012 and there is some wishful thinking about inflation falling but there is no guarantee of this.

The department of Transport will implement “overall resource savings of 21 per cent by 2014-15. … Bus subsidy will be reduced by 20 per cent and local government resource grants by 28 per cent” (p.46).

The number of people this would affect is a huge amount. An estimate of South West workers who travel by rail to work in 2008 suggests that the numbers are over 12,000. The number of bus travellers is twice that. For a glimpse of some bigger effects we need only look at travellers into the London, one of the major commuter routes from Bristol, with 510,000 people entering the city in that same year using bus or rail.

My own costs would increase by a huge amount. I currently commute by bus and train at a cost of around £5000 pre-tax. A 40% increase by the end of 2016 would mean a year-on-year pay cut as the costs increase to around £7000. That doesn’t make rail travel much of an affordable option.

inside a train

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