Train travel featured heavily in my life last year, particularly First Great Western and the Bristol-London line. I was maintaining work and dalliances (about which I shall remain mysterious) in both cities, and found myself on that line almost constantly, to the extent that I considered buying a seat and having ‘Miss York’ engraved on it. Not only did all these journeys provide fabulous writing and reading time – no, I certainly did not fritter away the hours on Twitter; not all of them, anyway – but I could also indulge my dreamy notions of classically elegant train travel, self-consciously perfecting my ‘look’ with every trip. Leather suitcase; check! Long beige trench coat; check! Newspaper, gin and tonic in the station bar, clouds of perfume; check, check, check! Hat box and headscarf…? Sadly not; I never could find the courage to go quite that far. The image, though, was as time-honoured as I could achieve against the harshly modern settings of London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads stations, replete, as they are these days, with Krispy Kremes, Burger Kings and Bagel Factories.
I tried my best to uphold a traditional aspect at all times during my journeys, hoping modern life would puncture it as little as possible, refraining from excessive BlackBerry usage, certainly never making a phonecall, avoiding eating, keeping quiet, gently turning and folding the pages of my broadsheet, offering a polite smile whenever a fellow passenger caught my eye. For most of my journeys I booked a seat in the Quiet Carriage. Even within the QC, though, I found it desperately hard to keep the modern world out. Because, of course, the announcements are wilfully egalitarian; the same messages ring out in the QC as they do all the way down in Coach D, where there are television screens on the back of the seats. And these announcements, with their upsettingly modern – and when I say ‘modern’, I naturally mean ‘incorrect’ – grammar and diction, smashed my fantasy to smithereens.
“Welcome on board the 10.30 to Bristol Temple Meads. We would be grateful if customers joining us could take a few moments to read the safety information within the booklets adjacent to your seats.” The ugly, twangy voice rang in my ears. Glossing over the tiresome oddity of being termed a ‘customer’ instead of a ‘passenger’, I found that it was the preposition ‘adjacent to’ that caught my attention. How peculiar, I thought, looking to my right and left, wondering where this safety information booklet had been stashed; was it in some sort of pouch beside or adjoining my seat, as the preposition would suggest? No; nothing there but the plastic arm of the seat. I looked ahead; and there was the leaflet, in a pocket attached to the back of the seat in front. And I’m ashamed to let you know that, as I pondered the idiocy that had led to such a patent misuse of a preposition and such a convoluted announcement, I let out an audible derisive snigger – in the QC! I assure you I stifled it as quickly as I could by burying my head in my newspaper.
The Bristol-London line stops at only a few stations along the way, so it’s quite a peaceful ride, all told, chugging along through Reading, Didcot Parkway and Bath, but with each station stop come the inevitable unnecessary announcements, just in case we ‘customers’ get too settled into a book or a doze – how dare we? – and forget to alight. “We will shortly be arriving into Didcot Parkway.” Looking up sleepily from my BlackBerry – I mean, book – the voice resounded in my mind, and I began searching the faces of fellow passengers, hoping that I could silently share a moment of good-humoured bewilderment with them. Arriving into? When on earth did we start arriving into places? There are only two prepositions that would be correct in this context, and ‘into’ is definitely not one of them. It’s correct to arrive in Didcot Parkway (the place), or at Didcot Parkway (the train station) – Lord knows, I wouldn’t want anything to do with Didcot Parkway; stick with me for the sake of argument – but the announcement had attempted to refer to both place and station at once, plumping wildly, in monstrous error, for ‘into’.
I’ll veer from the sleepy First Great Western tracks for a moment and plunge back into London to point my critical gaze at the London Underground, which has, bafflingly, started telling us about trains arriving alongside platforms. I was standing at Earl’s Court station one noontime not many weeks ago, waiting for a train over to High Street Kensington for lunch with a pianist friend of mine, and listened with horror as the announcer butchered this preposition, making an utter pig’s ear of a simple message. What’s wrong with trains arriving at platforms? Do station staff worry that we groundlings might misunderstand and not know where our train is physically going to be? That we’ll think the train might actually drive onto the concrete platform and run us all over? I’m ordinarily such a fan of pedantry, as you well know, but telling us that the train will be alongside the platform? Well, that’s pedantry gone mad!
And it goes on. “Please don’t leave bags in the train or on the station.” Oh, my giddy aunt! Have we not, for many decades, been getting on trains and standing in stations perfectly happily, without a moment’s confusion? Who deemed it necessary to flip these prepositions around? When pondering examples of language abusage such as this one, I like to picture the hideously 21st-century ‘brainstorming’ meeting at which someone piped up with a po-faced suggestion about how to ‘improve communications’ for customers. And I like to imagine myself sitting in that meeting, throwing peanuts at that person, and doodling mildly offensive comments about them on my notepad.
So, I tried my best, in all my journeying – as in all my endeavours – last year, to have as classic, as elegant, as Arbuturian an experience as possible. Sadly, one can have the chicest of trench coats, the most fabulous of leather travel cases, and all the hat boxes available to humanity, and one can cut the most stylish of dashes while walking along the concourse toward the carriages, but one cannot change the backdrop of unsightly commerce, nor the soundtrack of indecent prepositions.
Oh, Maddie, I admire your forbearance. Of course, one’s own excruciatingly appropriate attire and correct use of the English language is always a comfort. I would expect all of this nonsense on trains here in America, but you’ve dashed my visions of train travel in (or is that now ‘alongside’?)Britain. And why are Krispy Kremes, Burger Kings, Bagel Factories and other American blights on the landscape being allowed to detract from British train travel? Oh, my giddy aunt!
Maddie! You are a writer after my own heart – not just because of your superb pedantry but because you have used both the word ‘dalliance’ and the phrase ‘oh my giddy aunt’ in the same article!