Ode to GUT, or The Death of a Talkboard


On Friday 25 February 2011 at 17:30 the Guardian Unlimited switched off Guardian Unlimited Talk with no warning to its users. This was a talkboard which had been in existence for more than ten years. Real life friendships had formed on the board. Couples had met and married there – there are children who might not exist were it not for GUT so in its own way, it has changed the course of history. It certainly changed my life, as there are many people I would never have met elsewhere, who have become firm friends.

 GU ran the boards as a free service for all those years even though at times it must have felt as if they had created some sort of ungrateful monster child with a hyperactive but utterly misguided intelligence. Few are in any doubt about their right to switch it off and indeed rumours had been going around for about five years that the end was nigh. What is in question is their reason for giving no notice.

There is an email in circulation written on behalf of the Guardian’s editors that explains that they had to turn it off and, even worse, for mysterious reasons, they are not allowed to tell us why. Well golly gosh and crivens, call Enid Blighton, scratch my back and pour me a gin. This is a most excellent reason and one I shall use forthwith whenever I do anything thoughtless, bordering on spiteful, that really pisses people off. I shall call it the God excuse – I move in mysterious ways and cannot tell you why. I shall also, in future, be scheduling all upsetting and life-changing events to occur at 17:30 on the last Friday of the month, so I can ignore the problem and go to the pub. At the moment these things seem to happen at around 09:15 on  a Wednesday leaving me actually having to deal with the issue and pick up the pieces, which seems hopelessly unfair and pointless.

 This is my own personal take on the wonders of GUT. It is not meant to be comprehensive and I will inevitably miss much out, for which I can only apologise.

 So who were GUers? Well they were the only ones likely to understand why I get a Muppets’ earworm every time someone mentions the capital of Bahrain – Manama n man a mannana. They were perhaps more likely than most not to be appalled by this behaviour but there were no guarantees as to which way they might jump. They  could argue for days (or it may have been months, I gave up) about the relative merits of tinned vs dried chickpeas. They could give expert guidance on everything from the structure and formation of PCTs, to the best laptop to buy, via a debate about God and the true meaning of existence, interspersed with a spat about who would win in a fight, a caveman or an astronaut.

 There was nothing so petty or trivial that GUers couldn’t argue about it, often in unexpected ways. When one poster innocently remarked that a mars bar and a packet of crisps were not perhaps the best breakfast one could think of, an almighty battle ensued about the effects that particular breakfasts, and lifestyle choices, might have on the planet. I think, though my memory may be playing tricks on me, that throwing crisp packets away may have been deemed an environmental sin so appalling that it was at least as bad as raping the planet.

Signs that you might have spent a little too much time on GUT.

 You divided your life into ‘here’ and ‘irl’, where ‘irl’ meant ‘in real life’ and had become a place you didn’t frequent all that often. Or at all if you could avoid it by getting Sainsbury’s to deliver.

On the occasions when you did venture out you found yourself telling irl friends about something a ‘friend’ said when in fact you’d never met the person and hadn’t got a clue who they actually were or what their name was. Or whether they were male or female. And in fact since the case of Penny Lane you had ceased to care one way or the other since any character could be operated by anybody.

You found yourself swearing a lot, in very inventive ways, using nouns as verbs, and briefly wondered why real people didn’t seem to find this all that funny.

You had to stop yourself from writing ‘fewer ffs’ on signs at the checkouts.

Everything you ever wrote became a list of increasingly bizarre acronyms understood by only around 300 people but that didn’t matter.

Your still, inner voice referred to you by your GU user name not your real one.

Whatever they might disagree on, almost all GUers were united in their ability to work smarter rather than harder – it’s how they tended to be able to work and post on GUT. Experts in operations management, they knew there was no point in negotiating your way around half a dozen menus when all you actually had to do was right click once. The majority (probably, perhaps, maybe, please don’t shout at me) were never more irritated than when confronted by someone visibly wasting their time and everyone else’s by waiting until they were at the front of the queue for the cashpoint machine before fumbling around in their pockets for their wallet. Many of them were fundamentally bored and underused at work and probably should have been given more to do and a promotion to keep them off the internet. But GU provided a sanctuary of like-minded souls who understood that the rest of the world were a bit weird and frustrating and shouldn’t be doing that like that because it was so hideously inefficient. Whereas being efficient meant there was more time available to do stuff that you might actually want to do.

I started off on the cycling thread, back in the days when there were links with the main online site, and I needed some cyclists to chat to. It was 2004 and I had recently moved from Cambridge to Exeter. Cambridge had been full of cyclists. I would arrive in the office having been carved up by some idiot who had no idea of the possible function of indicator lights and within minutes could find half a dozen people who would know exactly why I was fuming. Exeter had fewer cyclists, though more have taken up Jesus’s own transport since. This meant that if (fair point, ‘when’) I started to fume about a driver, I was met with a blank stare followed by ‘well you don’t stop at traffic lights’. True, this more or less encapsulates the majority of GUT cycling threads, but I had found a spiritual home where I could join in with other cyclists.

Over the years, various of the cyclists have become real life friends. All of them have been a part of my life for better or worse. But the wonderful thing about GUT and where it differed from other cycling forums, was the fact that I could chat to so many different people. Some were MTB specialists. Others road raced. Many would go out with their local CTC and ride 70 miles in a weekend. Some of us just used a bike as transport, others for pleasure. Some of us rode 70 miles in a week, some of us perhaps thought there was no need to go giddy and might have clocked that up in a month. Of Sundays. But we were united by the fact that we all knew a smidsy when we saw one

Then there was Late Flowering Love, started by halfnelson some time back in 1952. (Have we found halfnelson, is he in the life raft? Or has he sunk, like many a soggy sockpuppet?) Basically, halfnelson asked if anyone had any experience of love “flowering” later in life (probably not if you use language that twee).

It was variously pointed out, in some cases several times, that:

32 (Nelson’s alleged age at the time) is not late, ffs; Nelson should move out of his parents’ home; Nelson should stay at home, it’s normal for 32-year old men to live at home. In Italy; Nelson should pay for sex. If nelson does pay for sex, it will entirely scupper any chance he ever has of getting it for free.

Also mentioned: better shoes; amateur dramatics; housework; mortgages; caring for the elderly; a dead boa constrictor; narrow-minded, prejudiced class bias; sex in alleyways; Shirley Bassey; speed dating; seediness; setting up megaduck with halfnelson; buying a Travelodge; weightwatchers; Timothy; sharks and Hitler obsessions; salsa; Australians, Catholics and the Irish; nannies; the best way to do laundry; the sad story of the alley blow job, the man with disabilities and the bastard thugs; eating crisps on public transport; Scandinavian tongue and groove; a man who eats badgers for tea and yet is married; vagina dentata; pheasants and helmets; baboons and bonobos;  

(Some of that may have appeared on GUT before which I think might technically mean GU owns the copyright, but since they switched it off, do the rules apply anymore? No, I think not. I wrote it, it’s mine, cock off if you disagree).

LFL then became, briefly, one of GU’s favourite soap operas as ChampagneRocker met and obsessed over a beautiful Colombian cleaner. Unfortunately he failed to remove his mittens for long enough to get her phone number. Once this act had finally been achieved and she went round to his house for cake (I don’t think that was a euphemism), it turned out that sometimes, the stunningly beautiful are terminally boring and obsessed with busses. A character known as DonkeyDerbyDay may or may not have been dithering about whether or not to ask out a ShyGuy but enough about me, err, that. Someone at this stage remarked that it was like watching pandas mate and the panda label stuck, along with many, many recipes for bamboo.

And who can forget the Silly Question thread, though many of us may have splashed around so much mind bleach that we were in danger of unconsenting interplanetary sex one more time. Leftie asked a seemingly simple, if slightly silly, question: Can I swim with a tampon in? And the slightly more baffling corollary: how do I deal with the pain?

What followed might have been innocuous (if you don’t mind discussing ladybits, and GUT never minded a good discussion of ladybits. Or, now I think of it, any discussion of ladybits). The thread could have ended round about post 10, after it had been explained that yes, you can swim with a tampon in, though if you’re not used to using them it might help to practise putting them in beforehand and that no, they don’t hurt. You can feel them if you don’t put them in far enough but there are very few nerve endings in there so you can’t feel them so long as you push them up far enough.

There also followed some handy extra hints to these basics:

Cut your fingernails; The merits of applicator versus non-applicator; Widthways expansion (strangely not as fun and exciting as it sounds, especially on the way out); Rollerskating, horseriding and surfing (white jeans obligatory for the first). And that really should have been that, although there was a presage of things to come round about post 3 when someone <cough, Blueshadow, cough> commented that:

They soak up all the water and expand to the size of a small cushion, you will need a doctor’s latex-gloved hand or a sink plunger to get the bugger out.

And this as much as anything set the tone for what was to follow. There was talk of belts and towels: mooncups; towels vs tampons; ecology and wings; the European Sanitary Towel Mountain (sadly, no more details were developed, despite vague thoughts about what the mountaineers might look like); the hazards of unintended Brazilians; what to do with that little piece of string (pee on it, mainly). At some point around here the conversation turned to a comparison of various sexual practices (GUers were blunter than I have just been) versus using a finger to insert a tampon, a conversation which the majority of the cast and onlookers thought they would never have.

Then there was a discussion about the length of time you can leave a cotton mouse up your chuff and the practicalities of posting after dieing of Toxic Shock. We had sleeping in your knickers; whether or not you can smell someone who uses towels; the pain of vaginismus; comic sans on mooncups; medium size eggs and whether you can fit them up your toots; washable towels; diva cups and women’s football teams. And Lazlo’s favourite saucepan. Who can forget the favourite Polish saucepan in which his ex used to boil her mooncup. I think it was enamel and had a royal crest – the saucepan, not the mooncup. Or the ex. Please somebody tell me that Lazlo is on one of the life rafts and not adrift on the ethernet somewhere with only the ghost of a saucepan for company. This is GUT, we do not leave people behind (well we probably do leave some of them, but not Lazlo).

Talk was a village. It was my internet home. And the Guardian moderators erased it with the flick of a switch. You only find out the true character of your lover when they split up with you. So here’s hoping that, like someone who dumps his girlfriend by phone and then asks ‘can we still be friends’, the moderators realise that the coward’s way out is not always the easy path it first appeared to be.

The depressing effects of train travel, part 2

So, having finally got my tickets, including my one-hundred-and-five-pound travel anytime return, I set off for Exeter station on a rather chilly Friday lunchtime. The train was due in at 13:25 and it was more or less on time. It was already quite busy and I was glad I had a booked seat. Except when I got to my booked seat there was someone sitting on it. Someone I recognised as having got on the train at Exeter. Now I know people don’t always use their reservations but if that is the case then at least give them a chance to get on the train before nicking their place. Don’t wedge yourself into their seat and then barricade yourself in with your suitcase on the also-reserved seat next to you. It’s a busy train so there’s no reason your suitcase should get a seat all to itself unless you’ve paid for it. Also, I’m the kind of out and out meanie who just asks people to move.

So I get to sit down. This is good. The train is on time and I have a seat, booked all the way to Darlington. Yay. The person with the reserved seat next to mine gets on. It turns out she has a rather charming dog with her, and I like dogs. It’s a Jack Russell Terrier crossed with an Italian greyhound. I have no idea who thought of crossing those two breeds, but the result looks like a rather middle-class lurcher.

I have a nice chat with the dog owner and the journey seems to be going fine, though the train is crowded and some people have given up even trying to find a seat. Usually that’s me, standing in the aisles and I’m glad that for once I was organised and booked in advance, even if it did mean a lot of shouting at the Trainline. Then something odd happens. We’re not far out of Bristol Temple Meads when the intercom is switched on and we hear someone counting ‘one, two, three …. [you can guess this bit, he seemed to be able to count OK] twenty-nine, thirty’. The counting was quite amusing, the emergency stop at the end of it less so. Yep, in my bid to get to Darlington from Exeter I had made it all the way to the far outskirts of Bristol before the train hit the buffers, almost literally.

The train manager made an announcement. Apparently the train doors were faulty. Rumours went down the train faster than you can say ‘Twitter’ that they had in fact been opening whilst we had been moving, which is I suppose one way to make the train a bit less crowded. We were instructed to STAY AWAY FROM THE DOORS AWAY FROM THEM ON PAIN OF PAINFUL THINGS NOT NEAR THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM. The train manager didn’t sound terribly happy in all honesty, plus she seemed to be hampered by a lack of staff intercom and had to make announcements to staff by the main intercom, so we heard all the various and mixed instructions to staff to STAY ON THE TRAIN, STAY, NO OFF, NO STAY. NO, NOT THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM (I may have exaggerated a little but she really didn’t sound very happy).

We limped into Bristol Parkway with desperate instructions about the DOORS THE DOORS NOT THE oh you’ve heard it already, you get the idea. But to be honest, on my epic voyage from the south west of England across this great and good land all the way to the soggy wastes of the north east, I had been hoping to get a little further than Somerset before encountering my first major problem. Still, they managed to get us safely out of THE DOORS at the station and then took the abandoned and disgraced train off to the naughty step (possibly, I was past caring). Passengers continuing up the west coast were told to get on the 15:10 train, those of us heading north east were told to get on the 15:40 train, meaning I was going to be at least an hour late. Other trains were being cancelled and 2 of the 4 trains due in whilst I was waiting were substantially delayed. It seemed the railways were not having a good day. I managed to get hold of a customer service person, who was brave enough to be out on the platform although he ran away shortly after talking to me (and I didn’t even shout). I just asked nicely if the 15:40 stopped at Darlington, which it did. Of course where else it was going to stop, what THE DOORS THE DOORS would be up to and whether or not it would have to perform any emergency stops en route were a mystery to both of us.

The 15:40 turned up more or less on time, and was packed. It seemed pointless even trying to get a seat so I stood in the vestibule which is a posh word for the bit between the carriages that smells of toilet. I was suspiciously near THE DOORS which made me distinctly nervous, so I clung on to the hand rail. Because if THE DOORS had spontaneously opened at 100 mph that would have been really helpful and would have stopped me from being sucked out of the vestibule. (It’s possible I watch too many disaster movies involving aeroplanes and people running around in string vests, or maybe it’s Dr Who). At Gloucester I more or less gave up all hope of finding a seat (I’m tempted to start calling it A SEAT, I’m not as young as I used to be and was getting a bit desperate). Also, I was carrying three bottles of wine with me and was wondering if anybody nearby had a bottle opener. I was wondering how many of the bottles would make it to the party in Darlington virgo intacta. In fact I was wondering if they would become valuable emergency supplies whilst stuck in a tunnel somewhere with ravening hordes and strict instructions not to go near THE DOORS or THE SEATS. I may have been catastrophising at this point but frankly it felt all too real.

At Cheltenham Spa I and the lady with the middle-class lurcher made a bid for seats, like two pensioners at a jumble sale, in the nanosecond between the old crowds getting off and the new crowds getting on, we dove towards our intended targets. Miraculously we both got seats, although I ended up sitting next to perhaps the quietest young man I have ever encountered. I contemplated talking to him as it would clearly have scared the pants off him but I wasn’t quite feeling mean, or drunk, enough. Even the train manager was fed up and announced over the intercom ‘Welcome to the sardine express’. He had a point. Friday is busy anyway, but a Friday train with an extra 50% of passengers is just smelly hell on wheels, and not just in the vestibules. By this point I was wondering if it was possible to open a bottle of wine using only a metal nail file.

The train stayed busy until Leeds. It was also becoming slightly delayed since it was picking up all those people waiting for it and the people waiting for the previous failed DOORS train. Now I tend to get hungry when not fed frequently. It’s important to feed me little and often or I get very grumpy. Expecting to get into Darlington around 7, so a little before I normally have dinner, I had taken with me a satsuma, an apple, a Tunnock’s tea cake and a bar of galaxy. It seemed that these were not going to be sufficient for my journey to the north. In fact most of them had been scoffed well before Sheffield leaving me with only an ever decreasing bar of galaxy and the wine. Unfortunately by this stage I had remembered that at least one bottle was screw top, meaning that the threat level to the wine had risen to Defcon 5. Somehow I desisted but I’m not quite sure how. Eventually, an hour and five minutes after I expected to, I made it into Darlington.

The return some 36 hours later proved almost as odd. The train from Darlington to Manchester left on time and almost arrived on time, and was somewhat uneventful. The Manchester to Birmingham New Street train was packed, but I had a reserved seat and the train ran on time so there weren’t any real issues.

Then I got to Birmingham and found out that the connecting train was delayed. It was supposed to be the 18:12 to Plymouth but it’s newly expected time was 18:30. I needed a pee and decided that given the delay there was plenty of time for a toilet break. Except that the toilets were 30p which was a bit of a shock. I was hoping that for 30p I would get a clean toilet and a reasonably pleasant environment but no, apparently that costs a lot more. Now I don’t know about you but when I see a sign saying what price something costs, I move away from the entrance and find the money and then go back to the entrance, thus avoiding blocking the entrance whilst fumbling for money. So I go back to the turnstyles in front of the loos, 30 pieces of silver in hand, and by this point I really need to pee. So someone walks in front of me, sees the sign, stops in front of the turnstyles thereby completely blocking the entrance, shuffles around in her bag, eventually drags out a purse and then starts shuffling around in the purse. Frankly this is introducing a rate-limiting factor into the equation that anyone needing a pee really doesn’t need. I suspect this woman is a relative of those people who get on a bus and look surprised when asked for a fair, and then start shuffling around in their bags. Or people at supermarket tills who haven’t quite grasped that yes, food costs money and that you kind of speed things up if you are prepared for this fact. In order not to wet myself I just barge past, shove my pre-prepared change into the turnstyle slot and sail on through. That, love, is how you do it. She looked shocked by my rudeness but to be honest I think it’s rude to stand in someone’s way, so what can you do about it.

The toilets weren’t worth 30p but I do at least feel better. The Plymouth train is supposed to leave from platform 11. I don’t know how designers have managed it but Birmingham New Street is without doubt the most murky and subterranean station I have ever used. It always feels somehow deeply wrong, like something out of an H.G Wells novel it gives me that sensation of being in some kind of parallel dream state that’s just off to one side of reality. It’s doing this right now, because the 18:12, due to leave platform 11 at 18:30, was apparently going to occupy the same space-time continuum as the 18:30 to Cardiff, also leaving platform 11. So rather than go down the steps to the platform I loiter around on the bridge, staring at the little screen with all the information, because I strongly suspect that a platform change is in order and I cannot be arsed to go down the stairs only to have to run back up them. True I am divested of wine-carrying duties but I still can’t be arsed with all this unnecessary movement especially since I’m feeling the after effects of carrying quite a lot of the wine internally. Plus it’s possible that I am being haunted by a peach vodka concoction that I’d rather not think about but I’m sure my body has quite enough to do without hauling itself down a load of unnecessary steps and then back up them in pursuit of a mystery train.

Whilst I wait, I can’t help but notice the number of warnings. At Bristol Parkway someone had scribbled ‘STAFF use only’ on the platform telephones in black marker pen, as if ravening hordes of hungry passengers, thwarted in their attempts to go north, had taken to using the phones to order pizza. Then there are the repeated warnings about NOT smoking you horrible lot, no never smoke. NEVER on pain of THE DOORS deactivating. There’s a load of stuff about not leaving your luggage unattended. I’m in Birmingham for fuck’s sake. My luggage is jammed between my legs and it’s staying there. I treat any big city as if at any moment any of your possessions are liable to evolve legs of their own and run away. I’m frequently reminded that I am on CCTV for my own SAFETY IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD IT’S ONLY BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU REALLY THAT WE DON’T TRUST YOU AND ARE CONTINUALLY FILMING YOU YOU SHIFTY LITTLE OIK. Then someone announces that I must not (this might not have been a personal announcement, it’s just by this stage it felt like it) rollerblade or cycle or skateboard on the station. Why? Why would I do this? Now you’re just putting ideas in my head. It would be cool to see if my bike, the 18:12 to Plymouth and the 18:30 to Cardiff could all occupy the same point on platform 11. And finally I’m told I must not assault station staff. This is unlikely. If I’m going to assault anyone, trust me it will be a senior manager, since they’re more likely to be the nasty little pissweasel who is responsible for the ills of this world. In fact there’s a lot more I would do to senior managers but won’t say, in case the police have a twitteresque moment and decide I’m the next Paul Chambers. Suffice it to say it would involve the DOORS OF DOOM, a 100mph train and no handrail.

Anyway. It seems that most of the other passengers have also worked out that two trains cannot occupy the same platform at the same time, no matter what the little screens say so we’re all loitering on the bridge. Now I become suspicious. What if we’re not all loitering for the same train? What if it’s all a plan and the 18:12 left on time from another platform, leaving me up here staring at the little screen which is telling me massive pork pies and every other passenger somehow got the right information and is now winging their way towards Plymouth? Admittedly this is a little unlikely, but it is just possible. Then I start to wonder about myself. Is this paranoia? Is it another odd form of catastrophising? Is it a healthy sign of an active imagination? Or just good old-fashioned going bonkers?

I ask a fellow loiterer if she is waiting for the Plymouth train. She is and she even seems to regard me as more or less sane, which is a good sign especially since I’m still not quite sure if I’m in a parallel universe and wherever I actually am, I still doubt it’s the kind of universe that can accommodate two trains in the same space-time spot. Also, by this point it is 18:32, the 18:12 is due in at 18:32 although the platform information has now been removed, and the Cardiff train is pulling out of the station. Then the platform information comes back. We are going from platform 11, the train is on it’s way, we’re off!

I’m glad to see the back of Birmingham New Street as it has always left me with that unsettled feeling that I have wandered into a future dystopia or perhaps an episode of Dark Angel. We eventually make it as far as Cheltenham Spa where officially we are the 18:52 although it is 19:34 and we are still here. Apparently the train in front has “technical difficulties”. Nobody mentions THE DOORS THE DOORS THE DOORS OF DOOM but there’s still enough paranoia in my system to make me think they let the train off the naughty step too early and it’s sitting somewhere between Gloucester and Cheltenham, a great big malign influence, flapping its doors in the dark and by this time I have no Galaxy, no wine, and only a hazy memory of something peach-flavoured which is small comfort when you’re lost in a parallel universe and are having problems with time travel. And travel. The ordinary travel seems to be an issue.

Still, I eventually make it into Exeter, some 40 minutes later than I expected. So far I’ve nearly lost a ticket; shouted a lot; shouted a bit more; got a really expensive ticket for free for no good reason other than that the Trainline’s systems are frankly rather pants; encountered THE BELLOWING DOORS OF DOOM DOOM I TELL YOU WE’RE ALL DOOMED DOOMED TO EXIT BY THE DOORS THE DOORS ‘ladies and gentlemen we will shortly be arriving at Birmingham New Street please be sure to take all your personal possessions and belongings with you’ (why, what else would I do with them? throw them on the tracks? stuff them up the silent young man’s nose? What, what do you think I will do with my possessions, eh, eh?); lost almost two hours of my life to the railway system’s delays; paid ten pence per minute to be told it’s not my problem (it is your problem and I will shout until you acknowledge this fact); paid 30p for a pee (how can one pee cost 30 pee, that’s just wrong); experienced paranoid delusions but heck it’s Birmingham, it’s about as exciting as it gets in Birmingham; met a middle-class lurcher and eaten too much chocolate. Still, as far as I can remember through a sort of fuzzy peach-induced haze (seriously it was the peach more than the vodka, I swear fruit’s not good for you) it was a good party, and in the end that’s what counts.

The depressing effects of train travel

Last weekend I took part in a challenging adventure. My mission was to get from Exeter to Darlington and back again via Manchester, by train, three journeys, without asking Bill Gates to loan me the requisite cash.

I cheated and started back in November, during the first snowy period of the winter. No, it’s not that I thought the answer would be to walk up there and decided I had better start there and then, although hacking the horse up there might have been a good alternative. That’s how far in advance I had to book to get cheaper tickets. I tried buying via National Rail but their system wasn’t working for some reason – probably all those people logging on trying to get information about cancellations due to the weather. When I emailed them to ask what their problem was they replied that they had no problem, it’s just that shit happens (I have paraphrased that). So I turned to the Trainline.com. I got nice cheap tickets from them but because the post was running as successfully as the trains they advised me to collect the tickets from a machine rather than have them posted to me. This seemed like a good idea so I arranged it so that I could pick all the tickets up from my nearest station, well before I was actually travelling, just in case anything went wrong. Although, what could possibly go wrong?

So two weeks beforehand I trundled down to my local station, a 20 minute walk away, with my debit card and booking references. I put the card in the ticket machine. It spat it back it back out and asked for the booking reference which I duly tapped in. The machine spat out several bits of paper – a seat reservation, a ticket, and a receipt. I put the card back in the machine, it spat it back out. I tapped in the booking reference. The machine spat out a seat reservation, a ticket and a receipt. Round three, the trip from Manchester to Exeter, was the last ticket. I put my debit card in the machine, it spat it back out. It spat out several bits of paper. It had not asked for a booking reference but I had the three bits of card I needed and by then there were impatient people breathing down my neck waiting to use the machine.

When I got home I checked all the bits of paper. It seemed unnecessary but since I have had depression I have catastrophised i.e. in any given situation I assume the worst will happen. So it seemed like a good idea to check all the tickets. When I looked at the last set I realised that I had the receipt, two seat reservations (Manchester to Birmingham and then Birmingham to Exeter) but no actual ticket. I tried to tell myself not to catastrophise and talked myself into thinking it would all be alright. The problem must have been the lack of booking reference, I would go back, tap in the booking reference and all would be right, I would get the ticket I had paid for. And, fortunately, I was sorting all this out now and hadn’t actually got on a train without a valid ticket.

So I trotted back down the train station, another 45 minute round trip. I went to the machine, I put in my debit card, it spat it back out and asked for a reference. I typed in the reference for the Manchester- Exeter leg. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing again. I looked around. I had paid The Trainline for the ticket, but who was responsible in this case? Because of course there was no-one from The Trainline at the station. But I approached someone there anyway and explained the problem to him. He checked my debit card and reference number but couldn’t get it to give him any tickets. He checked to see if any tickets had been handed in. They hadn’t. He shrugged. He couldn’t really do anything because my contract was not with his company but with a supplier.

So I went home and found The Trainline’s phone number. I obediently pressed options 1, 4 and whatever it was for ‘You bastarding bastards haven’t given me my bastard ticket. Bastards’. Eventually I got through to an actual live person. An actual person but one with a very strong Indian accent and English was obviously not his first language. At this point I realised that I was uncomfortably close to the limits of my own liberalism. I do not know where The Trainline’s call centres are located. I do not know where this person lives. I have no problem with anyone of any nationality whatsoever having any job, anywhere. I do have a problem with not being able to understand call centre staff and with them not being able to understand me since it should be a prerequisite of the job.

I talked him through the problem. He seemed concerned. He checked my booking number. So far, so good. Then we hit a wall. ‘The tickets have been issued’ he said. ‘They haven’t’ I said, what with me not having got them in my sticky paws, what with the machine not having given them to me. ‘I will talk to my manager’ he said and disappeared for several minutes, at 10p a minute on my phone bill. I considered asking him to phone me back. He returned and said he was trying to sort things out. At this point I made the mistake of saying that I had asked someone at the station for help and they had checked for the tickets but they weren’t there. ‘This is VERY important’ the call op said, ‘what was his name?’ I was stumped by this. It wasn’t that bloody important and I don’t check people’s names. I know that current research blah blah blah indicates that customers prefer to blah blah blah be given a name but frankly I prefer to have good service and a ticket. I only notice someone’s name if the service is bad. I gave the call op details of the time and date of this encounter and told him the place the member of station staff had been sitting. Given that he would have had to be logged on to a computer system, this information made him identifiable to anyone who wanted to find him.

Except according to Mr Call Op it didn’t and it was really important that I remember this person’s name and he told me I must try to think harder and remember it. Except I couldn’t remember it for the simple reason that I didn’t have a bloody clue what it was in the first place. He might as well have told me to think harder about Fermat’s theorem. I don’t know what it is, beyond the fact that it just might be ‘John’ and no amount of thinking harder, at 10p per minute on my fucking phone bill, is going to make me remember it. I’m not big on being patronised, especially at my own expense. We went round and round like this for a while with Mr Call Op periodically disappearing to talk to his manager and returning to admonish me for not knowing the name of station staff and saying that, since the ticket had been issued, it wasn’t his problem. After some shouting that it was his problem since I had a contract with The Trainline for a ticket and no ticket, I put the phone down.

The problem with depression is that you tend to think that in any given situation the worst thing will happen. This behaviour was just confirming it. As far as The Trainline were concerned they had issued the ticket and were not going to do anything about it, end of story. This left me with the choice of either not travelling at all or of paying another 100 pounds for a ticket. I don’t have one hundred pounds.

I took a deep breath and phoned again, this time pushing slightly different buttons in the hope of getting someone less patronising about my ability to remember names. I got through to someone whose first language was English, which seemed like a step in the right direction. He explained that there was often a problem with the ticket machines – they would issue tickets but the tickets would jam in the machine rather than be given out. The machines were the responsibility of station staff who should, if a ticket were not issued, help the traveller. Once this was explained Mr Call Op #1’s behaviour became more understandable although why he had been unable to explain the situation is beyond me. People tend to respond better if you explain things to them rather than patronise them and think they don’t need an explanation but should take your word for it.

But then we went back to square one ‘The tickets have been issued so there’s nothing I can do’ said Mr Call Op #2. So I shouted. This may be a bit of a theme. I shouted quite a lot. I shouted about the fact that I had paid for a ticket and had no ticket and needed a ticket. I shouted about never using The Trainline and never recommending them to anyone. I considered shouting about privatisation and the fact that at least when it was British Rail you didn’t have to go all round the houses blaming different companies. Instead I shouted about the fact that I didn’t care whose responsibility the machines were, it was The Trainline’s responsibility to get me my ticket. I managed the whole shouting malarkey without swearing, except once, under my breath, which is quite impressive by my standards.

Mr Call Op #2 went to talk to his manager (or possibly just to have a lie down and a break from the shouting) at 10p per minute at my expense. He came back. He signed me up as a business customer and ordered me another ticket at the Trainline’s expense for £105. I thanked him for sorting this out. I went down to the station AGAIN. Third trip but this time I got the ticket.

But the whole thing is farcical and redolent of all the things that are wrong with private enterprise. With a fractured system, there will always be someone else to blame. In this case the ticket supplier blames the station staff and the station staff blame the supplier leaving the customer wondering what to do. Which is when the shouting started.

So I have some suggestions for the Trainline and how they might make their systems run more smoothly, starting with the least technical solution first.

1. Stick a sign on the machines explaining that they are the responsibility of station staff and that tickets often jam in them. Explain that if tickets do not appear, it is the responsibility of station staff to find the tickets.

2. When customers are asked to choose how to receive their tickets, have a pop-up that explains the above.

3. Alter your system so that tickets can be reissued. Those fixed tickets are issued with a seat reservation and neither ticket nor reservation can be used without the other. I can understand not wanting to just give out tickets to any customer who claims not to have received a ticket your systems show has been issued, since they could just be blagging a free ticket. So reissue the same ticket, registered to the same seat. It costs you next to nothing and it means that they can’t blag a freebie. It also means they don’t have to shout, repeatedly, at 10p per minute just to get a ticket. Make sure this doesn’t mean you can sell the same ticket twice, just that in the event of customer complaint an identical ticket can be released again. We can fly to the moon and back. This can’t be impossible.

In the meantime I won’t be booking through The Trainline again. Sure they sorted the problem out but it shouldn’t have been a problem, I shouldn’t have had to shout, and I would rather the simple process of booking a ticket didn’t confirm the worst of my depressive beliefs.

Next week, the fun continues as I make it all the way to Bristol before the train breaks down…