It’s six o’clock and you’ve fought your way on to a train at a major London terminus. The carriage is rammed – heavily pregnant women, the stricken and the young stand in the corridors like it’s A&E – and everywhere people are diving into takeaways. The pungent egg and cress sandwich from Pret is bursting at the seams next to you; on the other side of the table there’s a lout blasting music from his phone speaker and eating the smelliest katsu curry money can buy. A pasty is crumbling down the front of a businessman going to fat on the far side of the aisle; another tubby businessman belches peanuts and is moving on to his third gin and slimline tonic; and a Big Mac and fries is disappearing into the space between a pair of headphones opposite and will repeat all the way to Chester.
Amid the coughing, the incessant phone-ringing and the bovine moaning of the standing you realise that were Dante alive today he would add another concentric circle of hell labelled ‘West Coast Main Line’. But frankly it’s the same story on whatever intercity service you choose at this time of night. And the worst part? Chances are that – if your stomach has survived the assault on the senses – you’re hungry too. But who wants to eat in such an intimate fashion, being gawped at like a zoo animal and surrounded by slurping sound of sloppy mastication?
Yet it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, when gloves came in proper sizes rather than simply small, medium and gorilla, there were these things called restaurant cars on trains. You’ll have seen them in the old films; there were tables, tablecloths, waiters and cutlery. There was also, I imagine, civility.
And then there wasn’t.