From war zones to the perils of Old Street

It's a shame that we never get to read headlines such as: "Essentially decent sort does his best, me

It is humbling and alarming to be reminded of the degree to which the media can shape the perceptions of even those of us who should know better. Leaving the pub to which the launch party for my new book has repaired, a couple of my friends get into a brisk exchange of views with an obstreperous fellow patron. No big deal, and we all walk away - my friends mostly being, like myself, runners and sulkers rather than standers and fighters. However, as we wait for a taxi on the footpath, a burly compadre of our antagonist emerges from the pub and strides purposefully towards us. To my shame, my first thought is of the morrow's hand-wringing editorials, reflecting on the cruel irony that someone who has just published a travel memoir substantially concerned with war zones should be shanked to death on Holland Park Avenue.

"I'm so sorry," says our pursuer, extending a hand. "She's awful when she's drunk. Please don't think anything of it." While I have some understanding of what's news and what isn't, it's still a shame that we never get to read headlines such as: "Essentially decent sort does his best, means no harm to anyone" - which is to say, stories about most people, in most places.

Keeping the peace

In theory, I should regard "quiet carriages" on trains as something approximating to heaven. I love travelling by train, which is fortunate, as my present book-thrashing yomp around these islands involves quite a lot of it. I also believe that anyone who subjects fellow passengers to mobiles, headphones or anything else louder than the rustling of pages should be bundled overboard into trackside hedgerows by squads of semi-rehabilitated violent criminals as part of their community service sentences. I would embrace quiet carriages as a reasonable compromise with this ideal, were it not for the intolerable strain they place on the nerves. The no-phones rule is enforced only by signs, rather than by fines or arbitrary defenestration. And because people who use phones within earshot of others are by definition irredeemably self-absorbed, antisocial cretins, the actually quiet quiet-carriage passenger suffers perpetual anxiety that the peace he has found will imminently be shattered by some braying halfwit. Which is actually worse, for some reason, than being in a regular carriage and resigned to a soundtrack of inane wittering.

For this and other reasons, my internal commentary returns repeatedly to a line from Clockwise: "It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope."

A capital vendetta

It's always hard to resist a personal vendetta. On this occasion, so terrific is my fury, so utterly pointless my vexation, that the temptation barely needed to ask nicely. I am at present, in the estimation of the London train operating company First Capital Connect, a miscreant. At the end of a recent journey from Old Street to Hornsey, I find myself greeted by a ticket inspector with a bodyguard of four police community support officers. I am informed that my Oyster card is invalid north of Finsbury Park, and that I owe a penalty fare. I refuse to cough up, as I've made no effort to evade payment - I've swiped my card at Old Street, where no posters inform of the limitations of the card. My name is taken (the inspector refuses to disclose his), my rights are read to me, and I am informed that retribution will be delivered by post.

I write to First Capital Connect, making two suggestions. One, that the civilised course would have been to gently alert me to my honest error, apologise for the lack of information at Old Street, and bid me good evening. Two, that they redeploy some of the resources they're expending harassing their customers on working towards a joined-up London transport network.

Just one consequence of this compulsively meddling, shockingly illiberal, mercifully waning government will be the lingering empowerment felt by all such jobsworths at the expense of common sense, and common courtesy.

Andrew Mueller's "I Wouldn't Start From Here" is published by Portobello Books (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop