He [Sartre] should’ve been on my train when an oik* made 40 calls… in the quiet carriage! – writes Gyles Brandreth in the Daily Mail; published on February 6, 2018.
Robert Winston is one of the great men of our time. The eminent doctor, broadcaster and Labour peer is a world authority on fertility, a former President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, since last week, my personal Number One hero.
At 77, Lord Winston has just dared to do what I have been wanting to do for years. He criticised a woman for talking loudly into her mobile phone on the train. On a Virgin train journey from London to Manchester last Thursday the normally benevolent curly-headed scientist was driven mad by a fellow passenger jabbering away at the top of her voice and without pause.
As they passed through Milton Keynes, the noble lord picked up his own iPhone, took a surreptitious shot of the offending female and shared her picture and his frustration with his 40,000 Twitter followers. ‘This woman has been on this phone call for 30 minuted (sic) in a crowded carriage,’ he tweeted irritably. ‘We are not interested in her conversation.’
As the journey progressed and the prattling continued, the distinguished professor (whom I have met and know to be a generally genial and mild-mannered man) was driven to take further snaps of his talkative fellow traveller and post them with increasingly infuriated updates. ‘She’s now been on phone 40 minutes and having worn out one ear is now using the other one,’ read one tweet. ‘It’s now 60 minutes – she has a child with her. Why not talk to her child?’ read another. Inevitably, within minutes of sending out his irate tweets, Professor Winston, who presents the BBC1 series Child Of Our Time, a public figure of authority and distinction, was being criticised himself, accused of being an internet bully and savaged for posting ‘invasive’ pictures of the mouthy mother online.
He received a flurry of flak which he didn’t deserve and, under fire, his celebrated Groucho Marx moustache drooped and the professor retreated, saying he was contrite and deleted his tweets with alacrity.
I am sorry he didn’t stand his ground. In the world of medicine, as a pioneer of IVF, Professor Winston has received more awards than Usain Bolt has won gold medals.
In my book, he deserves another one. Yes, he invaded his fellow passenger’s privacy by taking her photograph without her knowledge, but she started it.
She invaded his privacy by assaulting his eardrums with her ceaseless wittering. It’s just bloody rude. As he said in another of his tweets: ‘She is in a public place and we can hear every word of one side of what seems an entirely banal chat.’
I am with the great Winston all the way. I travel by train all the time – I take hundreds of rail journeys every year – and the intrusive, incessant, inane non-stop one-sided mobile phone conversations of my fellow passengers drive me to distraction.
Lord Winston, I suspect, was travelling First Class which, when I am paying for myself, I sometimes do. (Book in advance and you will find it can be cheaper than steerage.) In First, the first thing you have to listen to as the train sets off is everyone around you calling their partners or PAs to say: ‘I’m on the train.’
It’s not necessary, it’s not interesting, but it’s inevitable. And, mercifully, it’s usually brief.
Unfortunately, it’s often followed by a second call in which the bloke across the aisle is discussing a brilliant business deal he is brokering and there is something about being on the train and in First Class that makes him boom and boast bombastically about it without a thought for anyone else – and without pause.
Recently, I was on the 8am from King’s Cross to Edinburgh – a journey lasting four hours and 18 minutes – and throughout it the guy sitting immediately behind me (a disturbing cross between Alan Sugar and David Brent) made in excess of 40 calls (I counted them), each, it seemed, louder and more self-aggrandising than the last.
I would have moved to the designated Quiet Coach, but we were already in it. Of course, I complained, both to him and to the ticket inspector. It made no difference.
I should have taken a leaf out of Lord Winston’s book and gone for direct action, photographing the man and posting my complaint on Twitter. Next time, I hope I will have the courage.
Sometimes in First Class there is a steady supply of complimentary alcohol, and this has the tendency to make the mobile loud-mouths even louder and more loquacious.
As the booze goes down, the volume goes up. If you are hoping to use your train journey to work or think or sleep, forget it. Like it or not, you are forced to tune in to your fellow travellers’ bletherings. I am not alone in feeling the pain. I happen to be writing this on the Stansted Express and a tweet has just popped up on my screen from theatre and opera buff @MarkValencia. ‘There’s a Mike Leigh play unfolding on this @VirginTrains choo-choo to Leeds,’ he reports. ‘Four women drinking, drunk and screeching as they discuss stillbirth and other gems. #LemmeOut’
Yes, we live in an age where discretion has gone out the window. People don’t just wash their dirty linen in public. They hire loudhailers in the shape of mobile phones and force you to tune in as they hang it out to dry.
For the past ten years I have been a reporter for The One Show, so much of my train travel is undertaken on behalf of the BBC when, quite rightly, I am sent standard class. Here, there is no free booze and the space is more confined.
There are fewer braying businessmen boasting down the line and many more personal conversations going on.
Sometimes I report these to my own Twitter following. On a train to Swansea, I had no choice but to eavesdrop on one young woman’s unhappy love life. ‘I like him, sort of.’ Pause. ‘I don’t fancy him. Have you seen him?’ Another pause. ‘But I like him. He’s better than nobody, isn’t he?’
I once travelled on a train from Leeds across the aisle from the celebrated playwright, Alan Bennett.
There was a woman in our carriage pouring her heart out to someone down the line. I noticed that Bennett had a notebook open and did not stop scribbling.
I imagine you will see it at the National Theatre one day soon. In my experience, standard class is always packed and invariably I am wedged beside someone who is clinically obese and consequently has no choice but to invade my space.
Usually they are eating (and not quietly) and, if they are not calling their mum to whine about something, they are playing a game or watching a video on their iPhone. Thoughtfully, they are wearing headphones which allows them to hear the soundtrack and obliges me to endure its insistent irritating buzz without being able to follow the storyline.
You can’t win – and with the advances in mobile technology I reckon the situation is going to get worse. On a trip to Chester the other day, I found myself sitting opposite a proud young father who had discovered the wonders of FaceTime and spent most of the journey going ‘goo-goo-goo’ into the screen when not holding it to the window to show his infant at the other end the passing scene.
When I lowered my newspaper to glare at him, he glared back at me, evidently affronted. He was the one making the noise. I was the one made to feel guilty.
If you travel as much as I do, you know the mobile phone can be a great convenience as well as a great nuisance, but whether in first or standard, like Lord Winston, whenever I receive a call or need to make one I get up and make my way to the space between compartments. Of course, there are hazards to be confronted there.
Not long ago, making a call in the train corridor I inadvertently leant against the electronic lavatory door which, because the occupant had failed to lock it, opened wide.
Horrified I pressed the CLOSE button on the outside at the same moment as the unfortunate fellow, clutching at the trousers around his knees, lunged at the CLOSE button inside the toilet and somehow, between us, we managed to jam the door in the open position.
Famously, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said: ‘Hell is other people.’ He did not know half of it. He lived before the age of the mobile phone and never took the 8pm from King’s Cross to Edinburgh.
Given Lord Winston’s unhappy experience, I have come to the conclusion there is only one answer: earplugs.
To insulate myself from my fellow passengers, I am buying them in bulk. The good news is: you can get 200 pairs for £20.95.
www.dailymail.co.uk – illustrations Osho News
Gyles Daubeney Brandreth is an English writer, broadcaster, actor, and former Conservative Member of Parliament. gylesbrandreth.net
Editor’s note: *) If you refer to someone as an oik, you think that they behave in a rude or unacceptable way.