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13 February 2019

Refused a whisky on the train, I was shown the brutal unfairness of disaster capitalism

“I can’t sell you any whisky.” “But I’ve just seen a trolley full of the stuff.” “That,” she says, “is for the first-class passengers.”

By Nicholas Lezard

It is getting to the end of my journey back to Scotland. I go to the buffet car. Being north of the border now, I find myself craving a whisky. Why not? I have been abstemious all the way. Maybe I will have a little fizzy water with it. Maybe just a splash, maybe quite a lot. Who knows? The possibilities are endless.

“I’m sorry,” says the woman behind the counter. “I can’t sell you any.”

I presume she does not mean the fizzy water. Also, her tone does not indicate sorrow.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t sell you any whisky.”

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“But I’ve just seen a trolley full of the stuff.”

“That,” she says, “is for the first-class passengers.”

A dim memory of a loudspeaker announcement surfaces. Something about complimentary service in first class.

“You mean, you hand out the stuff for free to first-class passengers but standard-class passengers aren’t allowed any?”

“That is correct.”

“Does that strike you as fair?”

The expression on her face does not suggest that she is regularly burdened by qualms about natural justice. I try another tack.

“What if” – winning, conspiratorial smile – “we say that a first-class passenger ordered a whisky, and then decided to send it back here?”

The curtest and wannest of smiles – so curt and wan it may have been a spasm of pain – passes across her face. Briefly, insanely, I contemplated going into the first-class carriage and actually asking someone if they could order a free whisky and then hand it to me. The thought experiment ended with me getting Tasered and thrown off the train at Kirkcaldy.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the world of the London North Eastern Railway. I remember, as a child, playing with Hornby train sets, the LNER engines green, their coaches cream and claret, if I recall correctly. When the trains were privatised, an idea that I considered insane, I knew I was not going to be confusing the modern commercial reality with pre-1947 nostalgia, but even I never thought it was going to be this bad. This “eff-you” to the ordinary passenger – sorry, customer – seems to sum up, from an interesting direction, everything that is wrong with disaster capitalism. To those who have shall be given; the rest of us will have to make do with a pre-mixed can of Jack Daniel’s and generic coke. And woe forbid the staff member who shows a little initiative and compassion. LNER: I’m going to be tweeting about this. And then you’ll be sorry.

Anger, said John Lydon, is an energy, and although I have been back in Scotland for a week, the memory of this outrage has been keeping me warm for quite some time – which, given the circumstances, is quite handy. In fact it’s been even grimmer than usual; one night I was sitting in the living room at about 3am – I would have gone to bed earlier but I thought if I stayed up late enough my breath would stop steaming – when I heard a pop and then the sound of running water, coming from a place where water should not run. And sure enough, there in the room where the washing machine sits uselessly, was a spouting pipe, a plastic thingummy on the floor beneath it.

I tried fixing it back while the water was still gushing, and as I did so I felt like I was in Das Boot. It was certainly dark enough, cold enough and wet enough to suggest the interior of a submarine. In Arctic waters.

Eventually I gave up, shut off the water at the mains and contemplated the rest of the evening and the following morning. An airlock already meant that there was no hot water; so, in a way, the loss of cold water seemed strangely fitting, as if it had come out in sympathy. I had a half bottle of Lucozade and some orange juice in the fridge that was probably still OK. I suppose I could have drunk the water from the cistern but the last time I did that was at an illegal rave in King’s Cross in 1990 and I was not keen on repeating the experience. I suppose I could have had the thick end of a bottle of fizzy Highland Spring had LNER’s policy been more enlightened.

There are times when I wonder how much more of this I can take. I know there are many who are considerably worse off than me, but few of my peers, if any, have to suffer water shut-offs and freezing temperatures indoors (I recently amused myself, if that is the word, by blowing smoke-rings in the kitchen without having to smoke a cigarette to form them).

As it happens, I do know how much more of this I have to endure. I leave the MacHovel on the same day the UK leaves the EU. And after that I, like the UK, have no clue as to what will happen next. 

This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam