Person under a train

Banksy

One of the great, unexpected things that has come out of my project to read a book from every country in 2012 is the fact that I’m often invited to go and tell people about it at various events around the UK and even abroad. There’s nothing nicer than sharing some of the great stories you helped me find and the extraordinary kindness of many readers and writers around the planet that I encountered that year – and still do to this day.

So when Graham asked me to come and give a talk yesterday evening at the Hilt in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, I was only too pleased to say yes. The plan was that I would get the train from London to Winchester, where Graham would pick me up.

Everything was going swimmingly until, about ten minutes before we were due to pull into my stop, the train slowed to a halt. The guard came on the Tannoy. There’d been an incident at Winchester, he said, and the station was closed. Instead of stopping there, the train would go back the way it had come and take another route. Next stop: Woking, then Southampton.

My heart was in my mouth. I thought of Graham waiting at the station and all the people who had bought tickets to hear me speak. How on earth was I going to make it on time?

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me knew the area well. The best thing for me to do was to stay on until Southampton as it wasn’t that far to drive there from Winchester. I’d be late, but I would at least make it, she said.

Over the next two hours, the woman and I chatted as the train crawled its way around southern England. Claire, I learned, was a film editor making a documentary about fashion and we talked openly about our work and families. At some point, we heard that the disruption at Winchester had resulted from a person jumping under a train, a sad discovery that made us reflect on some of the difficult situations facing people we knew in our own lives.

At last, 20 minutes after my talk was due to start, we pulled into Southampton Central. By this stage, poor Graham had been waiting for nearly an hour and had bought me several cups of peppermint tea and a veggie pizza, nearly all of which had gone cold.

We got to the Hilt and I gave my talk. Despite having to wait so long, the audience were warm and enthusiastic and I felt very welcome. As ever, the excitement and fellow-feeling that books have the power to generate was humbling.

Then it was back to the station. Things I’d seen online suggested that by this stage trains should be running from Winchester once more, but when I arrived on the platform, it turned out not to be the case. The information on the boards and the recorded messages just kept pushing departure times back and cancelling services, and there was no member of staff (erhem, South West Trains) to advise us.

At length, a man asked me if I was headed for London and what I thought about the idea of getting a group of people together and trying to share a taxi. It seemed better than spending the night staring at numbers on a screen, so we gave it a go and before we knew it we had six people and a taxi prepared to drive us the 70-odd miles or so to London for a reasonable price.

Feeling a bit like children embarking on a school trip – the taxi driver even made us stop at a petrol station to use the toilet and get snacks and drinks before we started – we set off. My fellow passengers, I discovered, included theatre director Daphna and set designer Jenny who had been at work on I Do, a play showing at Winchester’s Theatre Royal and coming back to the Almeida Theatre in London soon, and a young artistic guy working for an architecture firm called Tom.

Sitting up front as we bowled down the motorway, Tom and I had a great discussion about Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months, and our various projects.

Finally, some way north of midnight and after the poor taxi driver’s sat nav had erroneously led us to the Ritz, we arrived at Waterloo, tired but strangely happy. Against all the odds, it had been a great journey. We had met new people and learned something about the awkward strangers we normally found ourselves sitting among on public transport.

If the person who died on the tracks that day needed proof that they were worth something and had the power to make a difference, it was there in that car. Sadly, however, they’ll never know.

Picture of a Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers

23 responses

  1. A lovely post. I hate hearing that announcement and the generalised moaning that usually comes from people who’ve had their journey disrupted. People can be so unfeeling in the face of such tragedy. I’m glad you were able to find a positive from your disruption.

  2. It’s sad someone had to die that night, but it is true that sometimes things you cannot control lead to an unexpected and new experience. As long as you look for it, there will be always something positive behind all the negative….

  3. I so enjoyed reading ur post. After a long busy day with my 8 month baby boy. And after i just put him to sleep, i read your post and it took me on that train and that taxi with you and the interesting people u’ve met. Thanks

  4. Great post. I love that sometimes people can be brought closer together, even inadvertently, by the tragedy of a stranger’s death. This used to happen in Tokyo a lot and I always wished that people would comment on it rather than just ignore the signs saying, ‘train delayed: personal accident’.

  5. What an enriching experience, so glad you made it to the event – in a way we need disruption to stay connected, it wakes us up from that lull we live in where we rarely have to deal with creating an alternative when what we have always taken for granted is no longer there. Happily, it was only on a small scale, finding alternative transport, for those connected to the one who departed, it is quite something else.

  6. I was at your talk at The Hilt and thoroughly enjoyed it! Thank you for making the journey and for this post. You have inspired me to read books from other cultures again. I was astounded by the way the internet has made so many conversations possible.

  7. For me, this is what life is about- sharing strangers’ stories and the whole idea of the human connection. I think it’s so tragic that people reach a place in their lives where they believe nothing in the world brings them wonder anymore. I hope we bump into each other like this, on a starry night when life is taking strange turns!

  8. As a bookaholic who suffers from severe depression I truly love and appreciate this post. Wonderful and true.

  9. Now after six months I feel ready to say what a touching piece that was. It was my little brother who died that day and your last paragraph stays with me always. Thank you

    • Hannah, thanks so much for you comment. It means a great deal. Although I never knew your brother, I will remember the extraordinary things he made happen that night for many years to come.

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