Sunday, December 17, 2000

So what if British trains are slow?

So what if British trains are slow? They are only catching up with the rest of the world

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 17 December 2000

I do hope that there are some foreign tourists enjoying Britain's slow trains at the moment. Retired Americans, say, or mellow Australian backpackers. People who stay relaxed while looking out of windows at stationary British landscapes.

This is not to wish harm to foreign tourists. It is just to say that these are the only people who might actually be enjoying the experience of, say, spending entire nights on trains travelling between London and Nottingham (as opposed to the locals, most of whom probably want to string themselves up from the nearest broken signals).

Swedes, I hope, are already cracking jokes with Spaniards about funny British trains (maybe they will re-run the one about the man asking if he has the right platform for today's train. The guard replies: "No sir. This is yesterday's train. Today's train comes tomorrow") Commuters will not laugh, but if you are a Swede or a Spaniard, there is at least a chance that you will board your British train smiling contentedly at the ancient truth that timetables are not the only thing in life.

We are always reading in guidebooks, after all, about the pleasure of catching trains "just for the experience of it". How about the famous "toy train" to Darjeeling in India, for example, which takes an entire day to trundle up a miniature-gauge railway, along a route that can be covered in no time at all by bus? Everyone agrees (except, presumably, for local commuters) that the train is the only way to do it - because of the funny clanking noises and the sheer nostalgia the ride evokes.

Then there was the excellent direct train that, until recently, still ran between Athens and Istanbul. The only reason for getting on this train was the time it took: between one and two days (not precise enough for you? Go by bus then). What I particularly liked was that it was slightly slower than the same scheduled train service had been at the time of the Ottoman empire.

It is the same with all the great train rides. Yes, some of them are very long journeys. But what makes them really "great" is their slowness. The Trans-Siberian may be the longest railway in the world, but by any standards a whole week to get from Moscow to Vladivostok is a hell of a long time. A French TGV covering the same route could do it in not much more than a day.

My own favourite place for extremely slow trains used to be Spain. It was as recent as the late-1980s that I enjoyed the pleasure of taking the longest domestic train journey then available anywhere in the European Union, between Barcelona and Granada. Timetabled at an astonishing 18 hours, it was none-too-convenient for a quick business meeting. But for a tourist, creeping down the coast to Valencia, moseying inland across the plains of La Mancha to Ciudad Real, then meandering south through places like Valdepenas and Baeza... well, what could be better? The Spanish state train company, Renfe, seemed to understand this, deliberately slowing the train down the nearer you got to your destination. The last stages, inching between the barren hills of Andalucia, gave tourists a spooky feeling that they were coming to the last place in the world.

But that has all changed. These days Spanish trains have become so speedy that there is no fun in them any more. Riding to Andalucia is getting to be a lot faster than riding to (say) Nottingham. I don't see why British train operators cannot capitalise on this, and start making a virtue out of their slowness. At least it will please the tourists.

Sunday, December 10, 2000

The pleasure of Ramadan

The pleasure of Ramadan

No food, no drink, no sex, no work - observing Ramadan brings liberation in unexpected guises

By Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 10 December 2000

We're right in the middle of Ramadan, during which Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours between sunrise and sunset.
A shocking time to take a break in the Middle East, then, you must be thinking. Any chance of a glass of water during one's desert outing under the hot midday sun? Sorry.

Well, that's as maybe. But I once spent Ramadan in Riyadh, the none-too-festive capital of Saudi Arabia, and my memories of that time, I have to point out, are almost exclusively of merry-making and jollification.

For the entire month, all work went onto the back-burner. People did short hours, if any, on the grounds that it is not easy to concentrate when you have got a stomach full of nothing. A few bleary-eyed tellers continued counting money in the banks, and the odd grumpy traffic policeman could occasionally be seen waving cars through broken traffic lights in 100C, but the general rule was that life during Ramadan should be different.

The basic idea was to expend as little energy as possible during the daylight hours, then, at the moment the sun set, you broke your fast with a meal of dates before moving on to the harder stuff, if appropriate. Having spent the day sluggish and semi-comatose, it was quite normal to put in a few hours of work after your sunset meal, and then to spend the rest of the night feasting until dawn. And the best thing was that you knew everybody else was on short working hours as well, so there was no need to feel guilty.

A whole month every year, to put aside! It struck me even then, that this was at least as good as a month on the beach every August.

Inevitably there were a few people who took things to extremes: gloomy types, who went around in fear of accidentally swallowing their own spittle, for example, or who spent time checking that other people weren't sneaking a quick fag in the office toilet.

But most people were having the time of their lives, relishing the anomaly of sleeping late under the air-conditioners, enjoying not doing their jobs properly, savouring the possibility of catching up on old friends at four o'clock in the morning. Petty-spirited expatriates, I noticed, used to deride the evidence of people actually enjoying themselves as contrary to the spirit of Ramadan, but this usually meant two things: first, that they were bitter about their favourite cafes keeping unusual hours, and second, that their notion of Ramadan involved suffering and penance.

What would happen if we tried to inaugurate a Ramadan-style month of fasting and reflection in this country? Some, I suspect, would look at their diaries and think : "Oh no! What is the point of living if I am not working efficiently?". They would then lock themselves in their offices with piles of illicit sandwiches and coffee and pretend to sleep, while doing their utmost to exploit the temporary absence from work of the rest.

Worried that you might be one of these people? A short holiday in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan might be just the thing for you.