The view from the train
I went to London on the train the other day. It was my day off.
I like trains. I like the sense that I am being carried, that someone else is doing the driving for a change. You can relax on a train. You can look out of the window at the world going by. Even the world looks relaxed somehow. It looks serene, unperturbed, just going about its daily business as it drifts by through the window like a moving picture. It’s like you are looking at the world from a new angle, uncluttered by the debris of modern life.
Just think of the difference between the view from a train and the view on the motorway. There are usually several lanes between you and the world on the motorway. Even if you drive on the inside lane, there’s the hard shoulder and a wire fence in the way. It’s like that fence is dividing you from the world. Not that you have time to look. You are too busy looking at the traffic, too busy worrying what the other drivers might be up to. One slip and you could be dead.
Now think about the train. It’s true that there’s a verge and a fence, but you don’t feel cut off in the same way. The verge is full of trees and plants and wildlife. You feel as if you are a part of the landscape. The world has grown up to accommodate the train. The towns and cities you pass through have nestled themselves around the lines, absorbing them, incorporating them, so that the railway has become an expression of the town’s character. Can you say the same about by-passes and out-of-town shopping malls I wonder?
If transport had never evolved beyond the train, I would not be unhappy. On a train, you don’t take the journey, the journey takes you.
I like other forms of transport too. I like bikes, I like buses. I can imagine a world in which all of these forms of transport are spliced together to form one, unified, effective, cheap, safe and reliable transport system, and I would never have to suffer the stress of motorway driving again.
But, then again, I’m old fashioned. Sometimes I like to remember the world I grew up in, a world that actually worked, as opposed to the one we have now, which seems to stumble on from one mad crisis to the next, regardless of its apparent modernity.
It’s not that I’m against change. I like change.
I remember the first time I discovered predictive text on my mobile phone.
It was my son who showed it to me. He showed me how to use it, patiently taking me through the process: how to read the keyboard, how to change the words, how to find the address, how to send it off. My son became my teacher, and that was a revelation in itself. He’s been teaching me ever since. We sent a text to his mother, who was in Turkey at the time. And within a minute I’d got a reply. I fell in love with my mobile phone in that instant. What an incredible facility to possess, to contact anyone anywhere in the world, and to get an immediate reply.
I love computers, and the internet, and websites and Google Earth and digital cameras and have a huge hankering after a Tablet one day. They look like the embodiment of contemporary magic to me.
But for every innovation which enhances the world, there are a dozen more which make no sense whatsoever.
As I was saying, I was travelling up to London on the train, and I needed to go to the toilet.
I don’t know what the toilets on trains are like in your part of the world, but in my part of the world they are these huge imposing oval shaped rooms taking up about a quarter of the carriage. They fill up so much space that there’s hardly any room for seats nearby. Not that you would want to sit nearby, as they smell. And instead of door handles they have a button. The button flashes when the toilet is empty, but goes out when the toilet is occupied. Or maybe it’s the other way round: maybe it flashes when the toilet is occupied and goes out when it’s empty. It’s hard to remember. You press the button and the door swings open. You press one of the buttons inside the toilet and the door swings shut. Well I say “swings”, but that makes it sound smooth. It is anything but smooth. Rather, the door cranks its way open, juddering as it does so, making a sort of grinding noise along the way.
And on this occasion the door cranked and juddered open to reveal a woman with her child in there. The child was having a pee, his legs pressed up against the toilet, while the woman was behind, holding his rucksack and steadying him against the movement of the train. The two of them looked at me uncomfortably. It was an awkward moment.
“Sorry,” the woman said. “We forgot to lock the door.”
See, this is the kind of innovation that makes no sense whatsoever. Instead of a catch there is a series of buttons. There’s a button for opening the door, and a button for closing the door, and a button for locking the door – there’s even a button for flushing the toilet – and it’s an easy thing to think that having closed the door you have also locked the door. And when you do lock the door a remote woman’s voice echoes around the space. “The door is now locked,” she says. She doesn’t tell you that the door is unlocked, only that it is locked. Why would I want a woman in the toilet with me telling me that the door is locked? What’s wrong with a catch? In the old days you closed the door, and you put down the catch. It was obvious when the door was locked and when it was not.
Ten years ago, these toilets were considered very modern. These days they are the height of decrepitude. What happens when they break down? They are always breaking down. The toilet is incorporated into the carriage and is full of complex electronics. When it breaks down the whole of the carriage is put out of commission. It takes an electronic engineer to fix it. It probably has to be hauled off to a workshop. Compare this to the old days. What used to happen when the catch broke? You got someone with a screwdriver to come and fix it.
The reason the new toilets take up so much space is so that the oval shaped door can slide neatly along the oval shaped wall, allowing the automatic mechanism to open the door for you, rather than you having to open it yourself. Get that? It’s so you don’t have to open the door yourself.
Who thought of that? Who thought it would be a good idea to have doors which open themselves?
They are everywhere: doors which open themselves. They are in every supermarket and every bank. Every building society, every corporate building. Every shopping mall. You come to a door and instead of opening it you either have to press a button or you have to wait for it to open itself.
Are we so enervated as a species that we can no longer open doors? Are we so weak that the process of pulling or pushing a door to get it open takes up too much energy and thought?
We always managed to get doors open in the past. What has changed? Maybe the process is too intellectually challenging for our feeble brains to cope with? Would we stop, puzzled, at the threshold of every door wondering what to do without the aid of the automatic mechanism to help make the decision for us?
It’s like someone somewhere has decided that we need to have an army of invisible butlers everywhere we go, opening and closing doors for us.
We can’t afford to have real butlers but we can at least have a mechanical butler everywhere we go, opening and closing the doors.
I suppose doors which open themselves could be quite useful if you were weighed down with heavy bags, or you were pushing a pushchair or someone in a wheel chair. That must apply to a certain percentage of the population for a certain percentage of the time. But we had a method for dealing with people in this kind of predicament in the past, before we had doors which opened themselves. It was called politeness. Someone else would open the door for you. This had the advantage that you got to talk to someone in the process, something which, as yet, you can’t do with an automatic door.
There is also something called a power-assisted door. This is the most confusing kind of door of all. It looks like an ordinary door, but it’s not an ordinary door. It’s not quite an automatic door either. It’s like a combination of the two.
There’s one of these in my building society. It first appeared there over ten years ago now, and I’ve still not got used to it.
There’s a variety of ways to make it open. There’s a button on the window. If you touch the window the door will open. Also if you begin opening the door in the ordinary way, it will continue opening by itself. It will suddenly leap from your hand and yank itself open. This is very disconcerting. It’s like someone has suddenly pulled the door away from you. For a time people would fall through the door rather than stepping through it. They would stumble through the door wondering what just happened.
The puzzling thing about all of this is who decided to make the world this way? Who decided we needed doors which open themselves? I don’t remember being asked about this, do you? I don’t remember there being a referendum on the matter. I mean: I can imagine a million more useful things I would like to have than doors which open themselves. I’d like cheaper fares on the trains. I’d like a transport system which works. I’d like trains that run on time and a bus to meet my train. I’d like less plastic in the world. I’d like programmes on the TV I wanted to watch. I’d like films with plots and characters and a few less explosions. I’d like banks which didn’t rip you off. I’d like shorter queues in the post office. I’d like less junk mail through my door. I’d like a publicly owned Royal Mail. I’d like more independent shops on my High Street. I’d like the corporations off my back. I’d like lower utility bills. I’d like solar panels on my roof. I’d like the waste water from my bath to water the garden. I’d like newspapers with news in them instead of celebrity gossip and propaganda. I’d like a government I could trust.
But please, oh please, let me open doors by myself.