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).