Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
20 June 2018

The peace of the quiet carriage was interrupted only by Mister Sunburn’s galling sniffles

“You sound awfully ill,” I say solicitously, doing my best to provide a hint. I give up, and decide to drink myself to death. 

By Nicholas Lezard

And so to Scotland again. I write this on the train. I do not normally like writing on any kind of public transport, unless it is an emergency. But as my laptop refuses to let me connect to Virgin Trains’ wifi, and today is Filing Day, I might as well get cracking. The best bit of the journey is over: the view of the sands as we hurtle north after Berwick. Other good bits, earlier and later: the view of Durham cathedral, Edinburgh Waverley (how wonderful to have a station named after a novel!) And, of course, the destination itself, but that’s not for an hour and a half or so. (I am also very fond of Leuchars, but that is because of the name, which strikes me as even more Scottish than Inverkeithing, also on the way. I have never got off at Leuchars, but golly, what a name.)

Meanwhile I contemplate my fellow passengers in the quiet carriage: the sunburnt young man with an unusually irritating sniffle who put his feet on the seats; the woman who reminds me of P—, who is in a relationship with a weirdo who happens to be a minor celebrity, when she could have been in one with me; the woman with the peroxide hair who found my quarter bottle of Virgin plonk when it rolled down the aisle as the train took a sharp curve. I am forever in her debt.

SNIFF, goes the young man, liquidly. There are gurgles in that sniff; listen carefully, and you can hear the mucus, beating like surf against the membranes.

I am dying for a cigarette.

There is also a dog. I am not sure about dogs on trains but this one is extremely well-behaved. It is certainly making less noise than my typing. As to whether my typing is more irritating than Mr Sunburn’s sniffle, that is not for me to decide. I like to think my typing indicates a mind at flow, whereas his sniffles, a nose mindlessly at flow. It could be a lot worse. In the next carriage down are two of the worst-behaved children I have ever seen, one of whom is either called Romaine, after the lettuce, or Remain, after the vote.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.


Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Anyway, I am going back to Bamff, where the beavers roam, and where pick-up trucks are not an affectation. Once again, I have had enough of London. I went to a party in That London last week and I realised that there were more people there that I wanted to avoid than meet, and I wanted to meet quite a few people. To be fair, the people I wanted to avoid also wanted to avoid me at least as badly. I also have to avoid distractions, and I realise if you are going to rebuild a career then it helps to have a body of work to present to people. A couple of weeks should do it. It doesn’t have to be too big a body. But I have learned that I can do a lot in two weeks.

Also, I missed the countryside too much.


I have a dim memory of something like this happening before, but on a plane. A man with a hipster beard and extravagant, tattooed biceps. Even at some years’ remove, Mr Biceps’ sniffing makes my current neighbour’s look amateur, a piccolo to his entire wind section.

I ask the stewardess for a napkin, and then offer it to my neighbour, who turns it down.

“You sound awfully ill,” I say solicitously, doing my best to provide a hint. I give up, and decide to drink myself to death. Maybe everything else since has been my death reverie. It would explain a lot.

And yet what was that I said earlier about the best bit of the journey being over? Am I nuts? We are coming up to Kirkcaldy, and the views of the sea and the Firth have been amazing. In about 30 minutes or so (we’re stuck behind a slow train) we are going to be going over the Tay Bridge itself, and there are few more thrilling views from a train than that. You feel as though you are flying over the water, while at the same time being mindful of the disaster immortalised by William McGonagall.

KSNURRFKLE, says Mr Sunburn as we pull into Kirkcaldy, and with that, he leaves. Will I miss him? I doubt it. The sniffing I can forgive, for we have all been there, but putting even one foot on the seat is a deal-breaker for me.

Will I remember him, I wonder? Well of course, now I will, having written about him. That’s what writing is for. No one forgets the Tay Bridge Disaster, because it was fixed in the mind in legendarily bad verse. Which will be remembered for a very long time, if I may quote the bard himself.

Lord, how we giggled, as schoolboys, when presented with that work. And yet who has the last laugh? McGonagall, that’s who. Exegi monumentum aere perennius, he could have said, after Horace, if that’s how it goes, and I don’t even have the internet to check up on it. There are worse legacies, alas. 

This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis