Rail rage: the commuter who turned ‘blind fury’ into a book
Dominic Utton’s rage at a train company was fodder for his debut novel
Dominic Utton: ‘People were disappointed if I wasn’t delayed.’ Photograph: Dave Meehan
‘I’m not an angry man,” Dominic Utton tells me as we wait for a bus in the rain. In 2011, however, he was enraged by First Great Western railways, and, in “a blind fury”, began a correspondence with its managing director, Mark Hopwood.
Hopwood, Utton insisted in his first letter, would be afflicted with an email each time the train was late, and that email would take the same length of time to read as Utton had been delayed.
He turned the emails into a blog, which has been adapted into a very funny epistolary novel, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time .
It was sort of low-key literary terrorism. “I kept saying: all this can end if the trains just come on time,” says Utton, sounding reasonable. “‘You have the power to finish this.’
“I’m not an angry man,” he adds.
“You said that,” I reply.
At the time the softly spoken and not at all angry-sounding Utton started his blog, he was a reporter with the News of the World ’s Fabulous magazine, commuting to London from Oxford every day.
First Great Western’s trains were featured regularly on lists of the most-delayed trains in the UK, and Utton was learning why. “You make a choice in life,” he says. “I chose to live in Oxford and to commute for an hour. That’s on me. But I didn’t choose for a commute of an hour and 10 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes. That’s my time being taken from me.
“I’d get home at 8 and my kids would be asleep. Some weeks I literally wouldn’t see them awake for a week. Those 10 minutes make a huge difference to people. I did snap.”
A lot of people could relate to Utton’s ranting exasperation and recognised the ridiculous explanations from the company, such as “the train was late arriving due to it being late leaving”, and “the train is late because of slow running”.
“What does that even mean?” he says. One evening, Twitter “discovered” his blog and readership increased to the thousands.
“It was largely frustrated commuters pleased I was ‘sticking it to the man’,” says Utton. “I was saying what they were saying in their angry tweets but because [Hopwood] wrote back it was different. If he hadn’t written back I’d have just looked like a madman.”
He laughs. “He shouldn’t have done that.”
Meeting his tormentors
He even got to meet his tormenters, Hopwood and communications manager Sue Evans, on a radio chat show. “They were very nice,” he says. “Very courteous. They even got me a birthday card. But it was maybe a shoddy attempt at good PR and to nip it in the bud. It just encouraged me more.”
At work, his lateness became a running a joke. “People said, ‘Of course Dan’s late. He’s always late – haven’t you read his blog?’ People were disappointed if I wasn’t delayed because they wanted another blog post. Sometimes I’d start writing in anticipation of a delay. I’d write 1,200 words of brilliance and the train would be on time. That was a bit annoying.”
The novel is quite different from the blog. It uses the sarcastic email format to chart a young man’s breakdown under the stresses of family life and the phone-hacking-related implosion of the newspaper where he works (Utton was working for the News of the World when it closed).
“In the book it’s clear that his problem isn’t the train,” says Utton. “It’s his work life and his home life and his powerlessness to have a good effect on both. I think if someone continuously loses the plot over a late train, that isn’t the only problem in their lives.”
In real life, he says, the problem really was the train.
He is fascinated by his fellow travellers. We peer around the carriage of the northbound Dart where the interview takes place (at 11am it’s largely Spanish students and pensioners).
“You see the same people every day and so you do wonder about their lives and project stuff on to their lives,” he says. “You think, ‘Oh, she’s pregnant!’ You get your cycle Nazis, middle-aged men in Lycra, who bring their bikes on to the train. ‘My bike must have this space!’ I can’t stand them. Then there are your classic Reggie Perrin types – harassed, suited, miserable people.”
Is he worried they represent his future? He laughs. “Well that’s the danger. I did once see a respectable-looking bloke just losing it. He was on the phone to his wife or someone, and he was just shouting and ranting and everyone was like, ‘what?’ Then he hung up angrily and there was total silence and everyone pretended not to look at him.”
He finds it fascinating how commuters cocoon themselves. “No eye contact. No chatting. Everyone immersed in their books or iPods or screens, immersed in their own worlds. Sometimes you’re literally cheek to cheek with people but there’s no communication. There might be collective tutting when the announcement of a delay comes over the intercom, but that will be it. That’s the only acknowledgement of a shared experience.”
He knows a thing or two about commuting, about how everyone goes to the same places on the platform and the same seats. “You should always head for the farthest carriage,” he says. “Amateurs go to the first carriage, but that’s the fullest one. And no egg sandwiches. Don’t bring pungent food into a crowded train.
“Oh and M&S sell these mini bottles of wine. Get one for the journey home to numb the pain. It’s just a little bottle of red wine but everyone knows it as ‘train wine’, because it comes with a little plastic cup.”
Not everyone understands his obsession with train punctuality. “When the book was coming out there was a conversation about ‘markets’ and someone said, entirely seriously, ‘You might have a problem selling it in Switzerland. The thing is, they have no concept of a late train. There isn’t such a thing. They won’t be able to understand what you’re talking about’. ”
And then there was the neighbour he’d see regularly on the platform. “He’d always walk away from me and I’d wonder what that was about. He’s now retired and he told me recently: ‘I used avoid you. I was convinced you were cursed. Whenever I saw you I’d think, ‘I’ll get a different train’.”
Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is published by Oneworld Publications