I started writing this post before two things happened this week.
First, the UK tabloid media exploded amidst sordid revelations and allegations that encompass the Prime Minister’s Office and personal judgement, phone hacking of the families of kidnapped and murdered children as well as the bereaved families of UK soldiers , Rupert Murdoch‘s NewsCorp Empire-building, illegal payments to the police for information about live investigations, business executives misleading Parliament, incomplete or ineffective polive investigations, and the unholy relationships between our elected representatives the media. I’ve included plenty of links there, but for the best 8½ minute summary of the whole scandal (written and delivered just hours after the News of The World was closed), listen to John Finnemore’s astonishing, barnstorming, brilliant piece from Friday’s Now Show…
Second, the father of one of my daughter’s school friends suffered a heart attack while he was at work, and subsequently died. He was 44. I can’t say I knew him well, but he lived only a couple of doors away from us, and we saw him most days. When recent weather permitted, he would supervise our children on their bikes and scooters. He was kind, unassuming, a good man.
These events, one intimately personal to our street and the other with potentially international implications have hit me quite hard. Apparently there is a whole class in our society of very powerful, wealthy people who seem to think that pretty much any behaviour is acceptable to preserve their status quo. On the other hand, there are decent people everywhere trying to live their life, support their families, make some kind of contribution; but, often, bad things happen to them over which they have absolutely no control.
All of this has made me realise that life is indeed short, but beautiful. I have two children I want to raise with a real sense of morality, a strong sense of empathy for those around them and indeed the wider world, and a thirst for enriching, exciting experiences.
I started writing this post about a pretty miserable experience I had last week commuting into London. I’ve subsequently adapted it a bit. I hope it still makes sense amidst the madness in the news at the moment.
Thanks for reading my blog. It means a lot to me to write it, and even more to know that people enjoy reading it.
At 07.35 on Tuesday 5th July 2011 I was in a good mood. After a lovely day off at Legoland with my lovely wife Rachel and our gorgeous girls, my brother Mike & his lovely wife Kate, I’d had a clear rush-hour run into Reading for a rare business trip to London. It had been a long day on Monday and an early start but I felt fine.
Then I walked into Reading station, to be faced with long queues at every ticket desk and all the (ahem) Fasticket (sic) machines. I joined a queue, and immediately someone joined behind me, effing and blinding under his breath, clearly frustrated, furious at the world and especially at Reading station “this f—ing service, it’s as bad as the f—ing trains”. For the next few minutes, he muttered to himself (actually clearly audible to me), frustrated that one of the machines wasn’t working, frustrated people took so long to acquire their tickets, frustrated when someone broke ranks to try the apparently broken machine, even more frustrated when they discovered it was actually definitely broken.
Everywhere in the concourse there were sullen, downtrodden faces among both the staff and customers. Despite the fairly bright, open space, there was an atmosphere of isolated, resigned frustration, of grim determination, that this morning ritual is something to be endured. I was determined to cling to at least a vestige of my good mood. It was a lovely sunny day, already pleasantly warm. I was going for a reasonably rare meeting in London – a chance to break my own office-bound routine.
But as I ascended the escalators from the main ticketing hall to the platforms, the world got darker. Upstairs the ceilings are lower and seem more oppressive. People are effectively kettled onto the different platforms, clutching their copies of Metro and their £2.50 coffees. It became clear that there were already a lot of people waiting for the same train as me. Indeed, around 20 people crowded around the carriage door at one end of Coach D of the 07.40 First Great Western train from Reading to London Paddington, calling at London Paddington only (the train originated in Frome).
Despite a slow procession of people leaving the train, noone who boarded Coach D (or, as far as I could see, Coach E) was actually able to sit down. We stood in between the coaches, leaning against the toilet doors, balancing shakily down the length of the carriage aisle, trying not to touch or disturb people in their seats. Noone seemed especially surprised or openly angry. We jockeyed for the least-bad places to stand. The carriage was almost completely silent. People plugged themselves into their iPhones and iPods, checked emails and Facebook, or tried to gather a few more minutes of sleep.
When we arrived in London and the train disgorged us onto the platform, the crush to descend into the Underground network was even more oppressive. A swarm of people flowed down the escalators and passageways beneath Paddington Station. I paid £4 for a 15 minute journey on a rumbling, clanking train, where there were no free seats at any point in my trip, where bodies were pressed against each other and against the doors every time they squeezed shut. It was hot, stifling. Noone spoke, noone even seemed to dare to make eye contact.
When I arrived at our London offices for the 09.00am meeting, I had been standing or walking for 90 minutes. I was hot, a little bit sweaty, and in need of both water and caffeine. I was knackered.
Surely it can be better than this? With all our technology and collective brain-power, is this the best model we can come up with? Our journey to work should be something that gets us there quickly and smoothly, so we feel ready to perform, ready to do our best, ready to inspire or be inspired. Instead, we are corralled into carriages, into rush-hour traffic jams, beaten down and depressed.
Why do we all have to arrive at or leave work at the same time? Do shops have to open at 9am when the majority of the population are either at work, at school or still in bed? Why are office hours apparently 9am-5.30pm? The UK winter evenings draw in by 5pm, but in the summer we have good daylight well beyond 8pm: could there not be seasonal flexibility?
You’d think employers might pay more attention to this sort of thing. 19th Century factory- and mill-owners were forced to improve working conditions for their staff, and ultimately found that productivity improved. How much more might we be capable of if the conditions of our journey to work were improved?