The Legend of Benny the Railwayman

Should you ever make it to furtherest point on the South West Trains mainline you’ll find yourself at Weymouth. It’s a nice enough seaside town with it’s olde worlde charm and twenty first century problems. In summer it heaves with flocks of sunseekers, disembarking from trains on the three platforms that bring them in from far Continue reading “The Legend of Benny the Railwayman”

Disruption

Kids television in the 70s and 80s was a mixed bag of shows, ranging from the iconic to the utterly diabolical. It probably still is, but I haven’t been paying much attention for the last few decades. I had a few favourite shows back in my childhood. Grange Hill, the Magic Roundabout, Rent a ghost, and, of course, Paddington. Any child that doesn’t like Paddington should probably have a careful eye kept on them. They’re weird. But perhaps Continue reading “Disruption”

The Steam Train

The technology might be centuries old. The engines might be hopelessly outdated and unreliable. But there are still plenty of steam powered trains in the UK. Dozens of heritage railways keep the old chuggers chugging. And plenty of people are still enthralled at the concept of burning coal in a boiler to produce sufficient power to propel a lump of metal down a track. Enthralled enough to come out in their dozens to watch one come by.

A steam train came through my station the other day. The photo below may deceive you. Or it may not, depending on your powers of observation. It’s going backwards, not forwards. It had broken down earlier. The paying passengers had to endure the ignominy of being towed by a more modern diesel locomotive, which is out of shot. It didn’t matter to the train spotters though. Of which, it seems, I am now one. Oh, the shame…

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Seek And Ye Shall Find

My first proper job was in the newspaper trade. Distribution, to be precise. I was thirteen years old and armed with a BMX bike, ready to drop the daily rag of choice through assorted letter boxes on my route. I was an excellent paperboy, even if I do say so myself. Some of my colleagues rode their bikes from door to door. Others walked. I did it differently to everyone else. My bike just held me up, so I ran. I had the longest route, but was always first back to the shop. I used to run everywhere, not just on my paper round. I ran to school, I ran round friends houses. I was a decent cross country runner. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I learned to walk until I was about 18 and a couple of years into a smoking habit. Fortunately, I have never had a problem with body odour. Just as well, as I spent most of my youth soaked in sweat.

I had a couple of other jobs before leaving school. I worked at a flashy restaurant on Saturday evenings called Natalia’s, taking customers coats and serving baskets of bread. I was, I admit, useless. I could never quite match the customer to their coats when they wanted to leave. I only just about managed the bread bit. It lasted just a few weeks. I also worked at a Wimpy, just a stones throw from Natalia’s. The pay was £1 per hour, terrible even back then. It could be argued that this is the only job I have ever been fired from. The owner didn’t speak perfect English, and appeared to misunderstand me when I called up one Saturday afternoon, before the start of my shift, to inform him I was not coming in again.

Sometime towards the end of the 80’s, now aged 16, I decided I’d had enough education thank you very much* and I entered the full time work place with WH Cullens, a posh convenience store. I spent a few years working at various branches around London. Northwood, Balham and Gloucester Road in South Kensington.  I spent the majority of my time with a manual pricing gun, re-ticketing the stock on a daily basis in a desperate attempt to keep up with inflation. I have fond memories of my time there. After Cullens, I embarked on the shortest job of my career to date at Mrs Ts Kosher Delicatessen. Four hours into my new role, I discovered that bacon and brie baguettes were taboo and that this place was not, therefore, for me.

Next stop, the Royal Mail. I landed myself a reasonably good job for someone who had not one qualification to put on anon existent resume. I was a postman, and I was very happy. Until my first shift started.  I imagined that if I’d been a good paperboy, I’d make a good postman. Alas, I was not only a few years into my smoking habit by now, but I’d also discovered alcohol. Late nights out boozing do not mix with 4.30 am starts. At all. I gave it a good go though. I’d diligently pop the envelopes for number one into the property marked number one. Then I did numbers three, five, seven etc. And then I’d be stood at the end of the road, with no more houses to visit, still with envelopes for numbers fifty-three, fifty-five and fifty-seven. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I got to the end of a street only to find it was the wrong street. And then there was the episode with the dead rat in my cycle basket.

It all came to a crunching end one day when, having exited a lock-in just an hour before my shift, I was simply unable to read the addresses on the envelopes as I was sorting them. I pretended I could read them and just popped them into slots at my sorting desk at random, hoping nobody would notice the state I was in. Having done that, it occurred to me that I now had to deliver this jumbled up bundle of mail. I accepted that being a postman was, at this stage in my life, not for me.

I slipped out the door when no one was looking, caught a bus home and went to bed. Never to darken the Royal Mail’s door again. Much to the relief of everyone on my round. I was an absurdly bad postman. I also found it a bit freaky to be delivering letters from one of my best school friends to his mum’s house. The letters originated from a prison on the Isle of Wight, where he was serving a life sentence for double murder.

Job number seven lasted longer than the kosher deli. Marginally. I had arrived in Dorset, and set about to find the first bit of work I could. Strawberry picking. I kept up a good pace, but it’s harder work than it looks. I earned almost enough to cover the bus fare. Almost. I didn’t go back for a second day. Instead, I found a temporary job in a shiny, newly built Sainsburys supermarket, filling shelves.

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These days, I pay to go strawberry picking. It’s surprisingly expensive given that I’m doing the labour.

After which, I went to a local tea and coffee factory, packing tea bags into boxes and coffee into jars. Let me tell you how this works. It is one hell of a dusty environment, and it gets in every exposed orifice. Mostly you mouth and nose.  The only paper available to blow your nose on is the paper feeding into the machine to make teabags. The only place to dispose of retrieved bogeys is in the coffee jars. Ok, it’s not the only place, but it was the preferred dumping ground for a fair number of my minimal** wage colleagues. Something to think about when you next brew up….

That lasted three months. That’s all anybody lasted at that place. You go on a three month temp contract, at the end of which the company has to either employ you permanently or find a reason to let you go. I worked hard and was given a perm contract***, but then I foolishly asked for a day off to enrol on a part-time college course. They questioned my commitment and my time with them ended with the expiry of my temp contract. The decision was a mutual one.

I was back in work within days, at the local Texaco service station. The year was 1996. I remained employed with Texaco for just a couple of months short of ten years. There were two breaks. The first in 1999 for about a month, when I made an ill fated attempt to kick start a career with the Royal Air Force. It may have lasted less than a month, but I still like to include it on my CV. Just without mentioning the start and finish dates. Then in 2003 I took off to Mexico for several months, before returning for another year and a half. At the end of which I took off to Mexico. Again.

This, I guess, brings me up to date with this blog. Which recorded the six years I spent teaching English. I’d like to think I was an ok English teacher. A little lazy at times, I know. I winged it a bit in the early days. But I think most of my students saw a noticeable improvement in their language skills. I think****. Which is the point. I guess.

I departed Mexico and returned to the UK. Shall we include the three weeks I did at one of my old Texaco petrol stations upon landing back in Blighty? Might as well. It lasted longer than the kosher deli and strawberry picking put together. But it was just a stop gap, until I got a proper job. Which was as an inbound sales advisor at one of Bournemouth’s many home insurance firms. Where I’ve been for the last four years and a few months, although I got a role in Quality Assurance some time ago. Manning the phones is soul destroying stuff, it really is. What else can I say about my time here? Nothing, yet. I am still an employee, after all. It’s always bad form to bad mouth an employer who is still paying your wages.

But I never wanted to be in insurance. What do I want? I want a career that pays a salary that’s above the average UK salary. I want a career with decent travel benefits. I want a final salary pension. I want the opportunity to progress. Despite my haphazard and slightly delinquent start to working life, I generally work hard. And I’d like to think I’m smarter than the average Joe. Progression is important. I also want to wear a company uniform. It’s just easier, and I can claim tax back for cleaning it myself.

I’ve known for some time where I’ll get all of that. I’ve been trying to get myself in through the door, all to no avail. I’d hoped third time would be lucky when I went for an interview last September. It wasn’t, although I got to meet Steve Cotton on the trip up to London. Happily, fourth time was the lucky one for me. I have my job. I start in just over a week. I’d like to think it’s a job for life, but one should never count on such a thing these days. Where am I off to now? I have gotten myself a job on the trains. From paperboy through to train worker, via retailing, postman, oil company, education. Not, though, with London Underground, the recipients of my first three applications*****. But a proper train company. Which, as you should all know, is every British schoolboys dream.

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On my way to the interview.

*In hindsight, probably not the best decision. But hey ho. ** These were the days before there was a minimum wage. And no, I didn’t blow on the tea paper. Nor dump in the coffee jars. *** Seriously, it was like I’d pulled a Golden Ticket from a Wonka chocolate bar. **** Do I still have any old students reading my blog? You can be the judge of my teaching skills… ***** I kept trying to jump on the ladder a few rungs higher up than perhaps I should have.

The Ghost Train

Back in 2003, when I was having fun backpacking through Mexico, I took a train ride. Not many Mexicans, other than metro systems, will ever take a train ride in Mexico. There used to be quite a few lines, and the train is a big symbol of the Revolution.

But all but two of the passenger lines have closed down, unless someone can think of a third. I’ve excluded the Suburbano, although that is technically a passenger rail system. It feels more like a fancy extension of the metro though.

There’s the Tequila Express, a tourist favourite, from Guadalajara to Amatitan. And the Chepe Train, which runs from the Pacific Coast at Los Mochis, through the Copper Canyon and on to Chihuahua. This was the train ride I took. And the train that featured in one of Televisa’s Bicentenario series of video.

I stayed in Los Mochis for all of ten hours, yet in that short period of time it became my least favourite place in all of Mexico. Hot, sweaty, dirty and my hotel room was infested with cockroaches, and had a non functioning air conditioning system. I slept for all of one hour. Maybe if I’d spent longer in the city, at a nicer hotel, I’d have a more favourable impression. Then again, maybe not.

So I was pretty weary when I got to the train station for the start of my epic 13 hour journey on the Chepe Train to Creel, in the heart of the Copper Canyon. But the most spectacular electrical storm  in the still pitch black sky that entertained us while waiting to board helped wake me up a little.

I can’t recommend the train ride enough though. Adjectives, comparatives and superlatives fail to do the ride justice. Whenever I am asked about my favourite places in Mexico, the Copper Canyon is near the top of the list, and the train ride plays a big part in putting it there. The photo below is one I took with my old nikon Coolpix 880 when the locomotive made a stop at Divisadero.

Not all that long ago, once at Chihuahua, you could change trains and take a ride all the way down to Veracruz. That ended in the very late 90’s I believe. Shame. I like rail travel. It’s more comfortable than air travel, more convenient for domestic journeys and it’s easier to appreciate the scenery.

An expensive high speed passenger rail service was proposed a few years back, with the idea of linking up Mexico City and Guadalajara, with a 2 hour journey time between them, and then adding Monterrey and other cities to the network. It hasn’t happened so far, and I severely doubt it will happen at all.

The cost at the time was quoted at 250 billion pesos (22-ish billion dollars) which would have put a strain on the public purse even then, pre economic crisis. It’s safe to say the cost will have risen since then, the final cost will exceed the quote as is normal in massive projects like this, and government income from oil revenues aren’t going upwards at the moment. And are unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

So we are left with those two lines and memories of days gone by. And the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, with season four being the one of interest. Rick Stein managed to do the whole Los Mochis to Veracruz trip, and the programme can still be found on the Pirate Bay if you can’t find it on video or DVD. I couldn’t, having quickly checked Amazon US and UK. I can though share with you an audio programme that recreates that journey.