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8 May 2023

A train to Oxford means either a broken heart or the middle class at its most benign

By Nicholas Lezard

On the train to Oxford, and my heart is full of misgiving. I have only been to Oxford twice in the past five years, and each time my heart was broken. The first time was by a Latvian translator, although in her defence she didn’t know she was breaking it. I had failed to let her know I had fallen in love with her, in case she laughed at me and broke my heart. The second time was last year, when I had one of those we-know-each-other-on-a-social-media-platform-and-have-lots-of-friends-in-common drinks, which went considerably better than expected, only for her to come to her senses the next morning. That one hurt but I can’t say I blame her.

Also, I don’t particularly want to be on this train. I had been invited at very short notice to interview an author on stage at Blackwell’s (Michael Molcher – the book is I Am the Law: How Judge Dredd Predicted Our Future, and jolly good it is too) and I said, “My usual fee for this is such-and-such but that’s when it’s happening round the corner, not a four-hour journey door to door.” The author got back to me saying that Blackwell’s had only sold 14 tickets so let’s forget it, and I did a massive sigh of relief because there have been days when I am too lazy to go to the shops to buy alcohol, let alone go to Oxford.

[See also: A breakage means I might soon be drinking wine from a jam jar, like an effing hipster]

Then, that evening, a flood of sentiment washed over me and I wrote back saying sod it, let’s do it, and if it helps I’ll halve my fee. People’s characters can change radically when they drink on an empty stomach; I become nice. And also foolish.

So I found myself going to Marylebone to catch a Chiltern Railways train to Oxford. In my day, trains to Oxford went from Paddington, but Marylebone is nearer and is also a darling station. It was where the opening scenes of A Hard Day’s Night were shot and there used to be an excellent cheese stall.

But when I board the train I begin to feel uneasy. Not because of the train itself. Thameslink trains, which are my usual train these days, are ugly beyond belief – they’re like dentists’ surgeries on wheels – and their seats are extremely sub-par. They even have the nerve to call one section “First Class” when the only difference is an inadequate table in front of the seats. My Chiltern train, in comparison, is like first class in itself; the seats are luxurious divans compared to Thameslink’s instruments of torture. But there’s something a bit off.

After a while I begin to work out what it is. I am surrounded by normal people. It may only be the 16.18, but everyone around me is dressed for the office. I have fallen among commuters. Look at them! They are all smart! Many of them are still working! A woman in the aisle is speaking into her phone, doing Important Business. I can tell it is Important because she is very sharply dressed and is conducting herself in a civilised manner. When people talk business on Thameslink they shout and I have to move to another carriage. I wonder how much more than me she earns. I estimate five times as much, at least. At Bicester Village the announcements are suddenly trilingual: Arabic and Mandarin as well as English. Why? (I find out later: wealthy shoppers get out here to buy Gucci.)

I am met, slightly rattled, at the station by my interviewee, and we walk through freezing rain to the King’s Arms and have a couple. And the evening goes splendidly; there are few, if any, book reviewers who know more about Judge Dredd than me. Afterwards I spend almost my entire fee in the pub and Mr Molcher and his wife put me in their spare room, where I sleep like a log.

On the train back the vibe is completely different. There is a rather scary young man in a polo-neck working away but he is joined by an old chap in a Guards’ tie and they start chatting amiably for the whole journey. A woman, I’d guess in her mid-seventies, wearing natty coffee-coloured leather trousers, sits opposite me and takes out her knitting. Another woman asks someone if they could move so she can sit next to her husband. The passenger obliges. “Oh, how absolutely angelic of you,” she says. It’s extremely middle-class, but very benignly so. I think to myself: what a strange but lovely people the English can be.

As we pull into Marylebone, Knitting Woman picks up her bag and I see it bears, in large capital letters, the slogan “I KNIT SO I DON’T KILL”. I laugh out loud, involuntarily.

“I like your bag,” I say. She looks at me earnestly.

“It’s perfectly true,” she says.

I fall a bit in love with her.

[See also: A fancy dinner at the home of cricket is the stuff of dreams ­– and nightmares]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?