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23 January 2019

I really did it. I told two people in the Quiet Coach to stop talking

When you get into the noisy coach, though, your expectations are different. You resign yourself to pandemonium.

By Nicholas Lezard

And so back to Scotland, and the MacHovel. The train journey is punishing. I have not yet worked out how to book a seat on the homeward journey of an open return, so what I do is pile into the seat I can get nearest the buffet. There’s no point trying for a seat in the Middle Class Coach – sorry, the Quiet Coach – as they get booked up early.

Also, they’re not that quiet. On the way down there was a couple a few years older who kept up a stream of conversation that made me unable to complete the page of the book I was trying to read all the way from Leuchars to Newcastle. In the end I did what no British person has done ever, and asked them if they wouldn’t mind being quiet, this being, you see, the Quiet Coach, not the Letting Everyone Know In Astonishing Detail What You’re Having Or Not Having For Dinner Coach. (This had been their sole topic of conversation, and they were beginning to repeat themselves.)

They were from Yorkshire, so they put up quite a fight, but I won in the end, and from Newcastle to York they glared at me, which made me feel like I was in one of Alan Bennett’s nastier plays. And, as David Mitchell almost asked Robert Webb in their classic sketch as two SS officers: am I the baddy?

I suppose part of the problem is the expectation: when you assume that people will be quiet, the tiniest noise is an outrage. The Yorkshire couple hadn’t been talking loudly – this was the burden of their counter-protest to me – but just as the drop of water landing on your head becomes intolerable after a few hours, so had the soft murmur of their talk about salads. (It wasn’t even as if they were going to be having anything interesting for dinner. That was another part of the problem.)

When you get into the noisy coach, though, your expectations are different. You resign yourself to pandemonium. As I usually make the return journey in a state of extreme exhaustion due to stress-related insomnia, I’m not too fussed, and ever since that journey I wrote about where it was standing room only until Newcastle, and I got rained on even though the window was shut, I am simply grateful for a seat.

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And lo, in the seat in front of me is a family of three small children and one mother, and wow, I have to admit the children really put their backs into it, especially the daughter, all the way from King’s Cross to Dundee. Seriously, they were not silent for a period longer than three seconds, and although the mother tried to calm them down by saying “shh” every five minutes or so, she may as well have been saying “cat got your tongue?” every time instead.

This time, I couldn’t say anything; I was in the Mad Max coach, after all, where normal rules of civilised society have broken down, and sometimes people who really should know better even put their shod feet on the seats opposite them. Also, being sole parent to three small children with strong opinions and a desire to express them without cease can’t be easy, and wouldn’t be made any easier by a middle-aged man asking them to shut up.

And oh, the train journey is long. This being the post-New Year scheduling, for some reason it takes seven hours rather than six. At one point, the train pulls into Cambridge, which is normally not on the route, and we pause for a bit. I look up at the footbridge on which I would walk, the heels of my Loakes reverberating around the structure, on the way to, or from, the house of the woman once referred to in this column as the Woman I Love. The train seems to have stopped there deliberately, as if for my benefit. “Remember this? Eh? Eh?” it seems to be saying, and for a while the noise of the children in the next seats fades into the background.

“Yes, I get it,” I reply, and eventually the train, having made its point, although what that point is I am not entirely sure, starts again and moves across the fens in the gathering twilight.

These journeys are killing me. Seven hours on a train is no joke, and you can’t even tilt your chair back a tiny bit, like in an aeroplane. An aeroplane! Just think how far you could go in seven hours in one of those! And the booze is, if you choose the right airline, free!

I wonder if there is a better way of getting to and from London. The route from the MacHovel takes me past Dundee airport, although “airport” suggests a scale far greater than the football pitch-sized airstrip I can see. For a while I fantasise about taking flying lessons and piloting myself down in a little Cessna.

Then I remember I barely have enough cash to pay the taxi driver, and another dream dies. But I must go back to London again. I have compelling reasons, and miss my children. 

This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?