Jennifer O’Connell: Spotify transforms my train home into a time machine
‘People who have a habit of moving their lips silently when they read tend to be given a wide berth’
f I’m honest, the earwigging possibilities offered by the train have always been one of its chief pleasures. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
There’s a lot to be said for having the kind of job and wifi access that allows you to work in Dublin, and live pretty much anywhere else.
One of the main advantages are greatly improved odds that you don’t have to have an acronym starting with “C” or the letters “ologist” in your job title to be able to afford a house where you live. It also means you can safely ask the question “Where did you go to school?”, since outside Dublin it does not typically imply you’re trying to do a covert deep dive into their socio-economic status. If you ask somewhere where they went to school, they’ll presume you just want to know if they were in the same year as Clodagh who went on to be the estate agent and married the hurling All Star, or redhead Tom whose family had the first ever Subaru in town, and who once got sick in the bus coming back from the Kill disco.
Equally, of course, there are a few disadvantages. One of the things not to be said for this arrangement is, in my case, that encounters with the Red Cow roundabout and covert Gatso speed vans are far more frequent than I would like. Which is how I came to rediscover the joys of train travel.
Since the last time I was a frequent train traveller in the 1990s, you can now get wifi, order wine or fancy filtered coffee, and even pre-book your seat. Sometimes you think you’ve pre-booked a seat, only to get on and find that Iarnród Éireann is conducting its own sinister version of the Stanford prison experiment, pretending to everyone that their seat is booked and then seeing what happens when passengers are left to fight it out among themselves.
The more you travel, the better you get at securing a seat, and sometimes even a whole table, to yourself. I’ve noticed that people who have a habit of moving their lips silently when they read tend to be given a wide berth. I’m not saying I’ve tried this. It’s just something I’ve noticed.
If I’m honest, the earwigging possibilities offered by the train have always been one of its chief pleasures. I recently sat in front of a couple who had a whole conversation from Bagenalstown to Dublin without using a single proper noun. It was all “yer man we would have met the time he came over with her nibs is after putting planning permission on that place you were in that time.” They were either very in tune with each other, or were cunningly guarding against their conversation going viral on Twitter.
When I’m travelling on Friday evenings, I try to the get to station early, so that I can buy something to eat in the world’s tiniest Mark’s & Spencer at Heuston, and a novel in Eason’s, leaving me with enough time to find a seat on the train, order a 25cl bottle of wine from the trolley, and maybe even a packet of peanuts. Then I’ll plug my earphones into my laptop, and pretend I’m travelling first class on a flight. (This might be an effective strategy only for people who have never actually travelled first class.)
It’s the dirty little secret I share with no-one except the Spotify algorithm
When I’m not earwigging on other passengers, the train is where I listen to the music I don’t get to enjoy any other time, particularly when my car is full of preteens with disappointingly good taste, who insist on songs by The Cure and REM. On the train, I can listen in peace to my Time Capsule playlist on Spotify, featuring all the dubious music of my teens – much of it played during actual slow sets. Slow sets, for those under 30, represented an unparalleled opportunity to shuffle awkwardly around a GAA hall, a mere rigid arm’s length from the object of your desire, in a hold that was as erotic as the pope delivering a blessing, while REO Speedwagon made vaguely stalkerish threats to not eat, sleep, or do anything except keep on loving you.
The playlist brings me back to those days. It’s the dirty little secret I share with no-one except the Spotify algorithm. Let’s just say there’s some INXS on there. Some Bon Jovi. Possibly even some Phil Collins.
Recently, I had cranked up the volume on it, was busy being transported back to the days of shaggy layered bobs and unironic high-waisted, stonewashed jeans, when I felt a gentle tap on my arm.
A nice, middle-aged American man from across the aisle was gesturing at me to take my headphones off. “I don’t want to interrupt you when I can see you’re enjoying yourself,” he began.
That’s no problem, I said, smiling expansively in a manner meant to imply that this had better be good.
“But I think you might have plugged your headphones into the wrong jack.”
I looked around at the packed train carriage, which suddenly seemed to be full of people smirking while looking everywhere but in my direction.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on. “I like Bonnie Tyler. But I’m not sure the rest of the carriage is the right demographic.”
I took a break from train travel for a while after that.