Lament for Michael Kilburn (Part II)

May 14, 2008 by

For Part I of Lament for Michael Kilburn click here

THE UK has an efficient rail system with comfortable high-speed trains that run frequently and on schedule.  While last-minute ticket prices are unreasonably costly for long distance travel, one can travel inexpensively by booking a seat several weeks in advance.  In this sense, the trains operate much like air flights.  Should you book ahead and later decide you want to alter your travel date, you must pay a change fee as well as the difference in price between the old ticket and the new.  This pricing scheme benefits those who plan weeks in advance, but obviously disadvantages off-the-cuff travelers, who must either opt for slower and less agreeable bus travel or dig deep to cover those hefty last-minute ticket fares, which seem like little more than subsidies for the well-organized.

The human creature is remarkably adaptable, especially in economic matters, and though I had always belonged to the off-the-cuff grouping, I soon learned to plan ahead for all UK travel.  And as I was entitled to a discount Rail Card that gave me thirty percent off standard or advanced fares, I was soon securing train tickets at up to half the cost of bus travel.

On Easter Day, March 23, I traveled by train from London to Newark North Gate—less than two hours to the north—to visit my relatives for two days.  I had purchased the return ticket a week earlier for £29.70 (£14.85 each way), not the cheapest fare for that journey, but still around a third of what I would have paid on the day of travel.

One of the Rail Card provisions stipulates that the card-bearer must always display the Rail Card for the discounted ticket to be valid.  In other words, if you don’t have your Rail Card, the train conductor will charge you—not just for the thirty percent of the original ticket price that you saved, but for the entire cost of a new last-minute ticket purchased on board.  It may not sting as much as having one’s hand chopped off Taliban-style for theft, but it is similar in that, considering the nature of the crime and the extent of the punishment, the victim can’t help but feel he’s been done over.      

It wasn’t until I arrived at King’s Cross train station that I realized I had left my Rail Card back in my room.  The train wasn’t departing for another ten minutes so I explained my predicament to a ticket sales employee.  He said I had two choices: to purchase another Rail Card for twenty pounds or another ticket for fifty (and this just a one-way).  Both were out of the question, the latter for obvious reasons (fork over $100 for a short train ride I had already paid for?) and the former not only because my train was leaving shortly and I lacked the two requisite passport photos but also, and more to the point, because I wasn’t going to be milked for the cost of another Rail Card.  With steep change fees and a non-refundable ticket policy, the National Express had several times in recent months cashed in after I’d altered or cancelled my travel plans; the last thing I was going to do was bend over for them. I decided to return to my apartment to get the Rail Card and then take the next train out to Newark, hoping that the conductor might accept the expired ticket after hearing my sob story.

Before leaving the station, I decided to stop by the front carriage of my scheduled train to see whether the conductor might accept my ticket without the Rail Card.  To my surprise, the conductor, who was standing on the platform, waved me onto the train good-naturedly, although he did first warn me that on my return tomorrow his colleague may be less accommodating.  Fine, I thought, I would deal with that obstacle when it came. And surely with a minimum of effort—a brief email and a phone call or two to the higher-ups—I could secure some brotherly arrangement to ensure a penalty-free return.

Ten minutes later I was sending an email to Customer Services, explaining my situation (on some train routes, free Wifi is available).  The next morning I received the following reply:

Dear Constantine Markides,

Thank you for your eMail.

Unfortunately you cannot purchase/travel with a discounted ticket without showing your Railcard.

The Terms and Conditions of the Young Persons Railcard state: You must carry your Railcard with you and when asked by rail staff, you must show a valid ticket and valid Railcard, otherwise the full fare will be payable as if no Railcard and/or no ticket were held.

Once again thank you for your eMail and I apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Considering that I had emailed them precisely because of those terms and conditions, it was an exasperating response, akin to telling a junkie who has called in for an ambulance after an overdose that heroine is illegal.

On arrival I checked at the ticket counter to see if something could be done for my return leg.  As before, I was told I’d have to buy either a new Rail Card or a new ticket.

-Is there no-one higher-up I could speak to, I asked, anyone with the authority to issue a waver?

Unmoved, he looked at me through the booth pane with the detached weariness of one who has said all there is to say but is forced by circumstance to carry on the dialogue.

-It’s the rules, he said, quietly. And besides, it’s Easter Sunday.  Everything is closed.

-But what about tomorrow? I asked. Surely tomorrow I can call someone.

The corners of his lips lifted as he slowly shook his head.  No one was waiting behind me but our discussion had clearly come to an end.

I decided to deal in person with the conductor the next day, just as I had done at London’s King Cross Station.  The only problem was that the train was not originating from Newark North Gate; it was only briefly stopping there on route, which meant I had no choice but to board and deal with the consequences.  But I was confident I could convince the conductor, or at least work out some arrangement with him: I am usually capable of weaseling my way out of such predicaments.  It was arrogant posturing on my part and entirely unjustified keeping in mind my recent run-ins with the law, or rather with the rules.  After all, the rules of the game were different in this land: while smooth talk, charms and amiability may here as elsewhere get you a free lay, they won’t get you a pre-paid ride.

My seat on the return journey was in one of the rearmost carriages.  As it was a London-bound train on the evening after Easter, it took me at least ten minutes to work my way to the conductor’s carriage.  I had decided to approach him directly in private rather than wait to explain myself when he came checking tickets, since the presence of the other passengers, all undoubtedly versed in the fine print of the terms and conditions, might dissuade him from overlooking the absence of my Rail Card.

At the time I thought this the wisest course of action.  After all, just as statesmen who want to dispose of individuals or depose elected governments say We cannot allow a rotting apple to ruin the rest of the barrel or The virus must be cut short before it spreads, so too might the conductor have said, Innocuous as it may seem, allowing you to travel unpunished without your Rail Card may provoke discontent among those rule-abiding passengers who have from infanthood absorbed the understanding, which I should note permeates every one of our society’s private and personal institutions except of course for those delinquent ones that free societies by virtue of their very openness must ironically perforce tolerate, that one can only build a democratic edifice upon a carefully prescribed and adhered-to legal foundation, which must be defended not only by a vigorous judicial and legal class but also by a proactive general public who appreciates that even the slightest exception for something like a forgotten Rail Card exposes the good society to the mushrooming weeds of corruption and nepotism and therefore warrants civilized expressions of discontent, even outrage, although hopefully nothing more than that, for we would not want the public ire to snowball, however justifiably, into train riots, railway station occupations, mass internment, a coup d’ etat, civil war.

Had I better assessed the situation, I would have stayed put in my seat, seeing that with the crowded numbers on the train and the frequent station stops, it would be unlikely the conductor would manage to keep track of those whose tickets he had already checked and those who had recently boarded, especially if he was dispensing sermons along the way like the one above. 

I found the conductor behind the snack bar.  In a tone that was respectful without being deferential, I showed him my ticket and explained myself. He listened, taking stock of my words, and then pulled out his hole-puncher.  It had been as easy as I’d hoped it would be.

And then I made the error.  In my excitement, perhaps wanting to reassure him that I hadn’t just cocked up a story to save myself a few pounds, I told him I’d be willing to give him my debit card info so that they could later charge me if I failed to present them with proof of my Rail Card.  I should have just kept silent.  He paused, a look of troubled self-awareness coming over him as if the words ‘debit card,’ ‘proof’ and ‘Rail Card’ had snapped him out of a dangerous trance.  Although I didn’t realize it right away, it was obvious enough what was going through his head: Michael, hast thou forgotten the Rules and Regulations? O injudicious man, how now this folly? Honor thy rules and thy regulations as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

He put the hole-puncher away and pulled out a small fare booklet in which he began to run his finger down a column of train stations.  Even if he was merely obeying a deep rooted inner voice, his apparent change of mind seemed an act of malice, and the stooped gentleman with graying hair standing before me in the light blue shirt and red tie suddenly took on a sinister aspect.  Even so, I did not recoil at this sudden and unlikely incarnation of evil.  I assumed he was going to charge me the thirty percent of the ticket value that my Rail Card had saved me.  Fine then, so be it.  Let the devil have his seven quid.

His finger stopped its downward course and swept rightward along the page.

-Forty-four sixty-five, he said.


-That will be 44.65, he repeated in a flat tone.

I had heard him perfectly well the first time but I needed a few moments for the figure to sink in.  So the old goat was exhorting a new ticket out of me!  I stared at him wordlessly.  He waited calmly without meeting my eyes.

-Well, can I get my money back later if I show them my card? I finally said.

-The rules and regulations say that you have to have a Rail Card on you at all times, otherwise you have to pay for—

-The cost of a new ticket, I know, I know, I said, without hiding my irritation. Rules were made to serve men, not men to serve rules, I added imperiously.

The poetic force of my cliché had no apparent effect on him. He began filling out the ticket. 

-I find this astonishing, I went on.  What, you think I would go through all this trouble booking a ticket in advance that was invalid, just to save a couple of pounds? You actually think that—

-Wait a moment, he said, putting down the bill.

He walked away.  Again, I was confident I was about to be let off. He returned five minutes later.

-So that’ll be 44.65, he said, casually.

At first I thought he might be joking. The deadpan delivery would not have been out of keeping with British humor, which is the godfather of comedy precisely because of its variety and unpredictability, incorporating both highbrow and lowbrow, ironic understatement and outrageous slapstick, witty puns and nonsense.  I could have easily been in a British TV sitcom at the moment: all that was missing was the audience laughter.  In fact, considering how much of British humor emerged out of constrictive social conditions (i.e. the lewd and bawdy satire that one finds in films like Life of Brian is part of a larger tradition that developed in response to Puritanical stiffness and intolerance) I would not be surprised if the rules and regulations culture has contributed to the superb self-depreciation and irreverence one finds in British humor.

But seeing that he would not meet my gaze at all, I quickly realized that he was not just having fun with me.  Michael Kilburn was clearly no Michael Palin.

-Forty-four sixty-five eh? I said icily.  Fine then, I see how it is.

I was now sensing malice not in him but in myself.  But at the same time, I felt gratitude.  The end of the month was nearing and I had nothing in mind for my Fourth Night essay.  Petty vengeance is as good a spur as any for writing.

I was staring at his face intently as he filled out my ticket.  Outwardly he was impassive, but I could tell my malevolent smile had touched him.  It wasn’t enough: I wanted him to pay somehow too.  Malice is one of the most selfish of emotions: like greed, it is never satisfied with what it has.  I retrieved a pen and paper slip from my pocket.

-Could I have your name please? I said softly, while pointing at his name tag, which was facing the wrong way.

He turned it around but seconds later moved his body in a way that made the tag flip back around.

-I didn’t quite get that, I said.

He turns it around again, holding it up to me.  Michael Kilburn.  He then lets it drop again.

-I didn’t get your security number, I said.

-Oh no, not the security number, that’s not for you, he said, grinning unconvincingly, pleased with his little victory.

I was going to ask him why it was on his I.D. tag if it was not for me to see but decided it was enough for now. I continued staring at him as he finished filling out his ticket. His neck was a blotchy red, although I could not say if that was from my presence.  It’s not that I had no sympathy for him.  He was only doing his job after all.  But that was precisely why I resented him so much.

-How will you be paying? he asked civilly.

I handed him my debit card.

-The conductor in London, who let me on without any fuss warned me that other conductors might be less understanding, I said.  I now see what he meant.

He then mumbled something about having dispatched the station about my case but not getting permission from them.

-It’s up to you, not the station.  All you had to do was punch a hole in my ticket.

It was true and he knew it.  He handed me the new ticket and receipt.

-Happy Easter, I said, and walked away. 

It would be unfair to give the impression that UK train conductors are rigidly bureaucratic.  In my few other similar run-ins with conductors, they have always been fair-minded and exercised personal judgment in place of rules where it seemed reasonable to do so.  They also seem to be perpetually and genuinely in good spirits, despite being in the business of enforcement, not a role that can ingratiate them with the customers.  In this instance, Mr. Kilburn was in the unfortunate position of having to charge me close to $100 for an 80-minute train ride that I’d already paid for.  The fee seemed particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that three days earlier I had booked a roundtrip air ticket from London to Frankfurt for $45 (also ludicrous, but for the opposite reason).

The inconvenience was trivial, and I could never say I’d been victimized by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, but I still couldn’t shrug it off.  Had Mr. Kilburn acted out of personal gain, with the goal of pocketing the money, I would have maybe digested the offense more easily.  At least there would have been some purpose—perhaps not commendable but understandable nonetheless—to his heisting close to a hundred bucks off me.  But fining me this way, in the selfless line of duty, seemed chillingly inhuman.  It was rule not by the iron fist smashing down upon the masses but by the iron finger sweeping unswervingly along the terms and conditions.

I worked my way back to my seat.  A half hour later Mr. Kilburn walked through my train compartment, only to again traverse it after five minutes. He did not check any tickets.  Had I stayed in my seat in the first place, I would never have been fined.

I again made my way to the front of the train.  I encountered Mr. Kilburn in the passageway between two train cars.  He looked away upon seeing me.  But the relief was evident on his face when I merely asked him for the National Express contact details regarding refunds.  Really I had just wanted one final chance to see him up close, to get one final perspective on this person who was taking the lead role in my next Fourth Night. He set off down the corridor, shoulders stooping, arms hanging limp at his sides, the palms facing back towards me, resembling an upright anthropomorphized turtle like the Looney Tunes character Cecil Turtle.

Suddenly all the malice went out of me.  I felt sorry for this man who was sandwiched like a buffer zone between a strict rule and regulation culture and barbarians like me who had not grown up in such a culture and therefore not internalized its values and requirements. He was the victim of both the bureaucrats who carved the rules into stone tablets as well as the infidels who wanted the tablets smashed. He was like the policeman who is ordered to quell an anti-war demonstration while the masters of war remain unmolested behind their walls and desks.

Mr. Kilburn fumbled about briefly in a compartment drawer and then returned with a booklet.

-This is who you want to contact, he said with a warm smile, drawing a neat square around an address and email.

He did not seem at all annoyed with me.  In fact, he was only too happy to oblige. This was all strictly in keeping with the rules and regulations. I was overwhelmed by a sense of shame and compassion, although it was obviously still not enough to keep me from dishing him back an undeserved ticket, this time in the shape of an essay.

I ended up sending my train tickets and a photocopy of my Rail Card to the National Express requesting a refund.  Three weeks letter I received a letter from them stating that although it is the responsibility of customers to have a Rail Card in their possession, they were ‘happy to be able to offer [me] a refund as a gesture of goodwill.’  They included a check for £35.

I was devastated.  I had already written and posted the first half of this piece and so this defiance of protocol from the bureaucrats themselves, the gatekeepers of the supposed rules and regulations zeitgeist that I had been writing about, suddenly threw the rest of my essay into critical condition.  How much easier it would have been to receive a polite referral to Terms and Conditions!  Then I could have gleefully sunk my teeth into them.  Instead I felt like a hell and damnation preacher who, in the middle of his red-in-the-face sermon, suddenly realizes he no longer believes in fire and brimstone.

Thankfully, however, the National Express had only included a check for £35 not £44.65.  The reason for this was mentioned in the letter: ‘Please note the deduction of a £10 administration fee from the original ticket cost.’ (that they only deducted £9.65 to keep the math simple seemed to be yet another unexpected bending of the terms and conditions).

At least there was a regulation dictating procedures on handling refunds, in this case involving a £10 pound administration fee.  In a gesture of goodwill they may have defied one of the rules, but at least they brought another one to bear upon it.  All was not lost for Lament for Michael Kilburn, although there was no doubt that from now on if I was going to be lamenting anything, it was that I had made such a big fuss over such a small thing.

Constantine Markides

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  1. Margaret

    Phew, what a relief! I had been dreading the second part of this essay, wondering what else you might have found to write about the British.
    We spent a weekend in France recently, regularly assaulted by tales of the petty bureaucracy of parking officials and nosey neighbours who peer out from behind curtains to “dob” unsuspecting foreigners who park in empty streets in authorised places. If only they knew that we experience France in exactly the same way as those civilised French people experienced London – we almost missed all our trains back to the UK because the SNCF insisted we return our car rental agreement (which I’d thrown away in our hotel) as well as the hire car key. Like you, my annoyance was intense and I ended up throwing the keys at the officious uniformed lady who was refusing to accept them without the contract, rather than miss my train. I suppose the thing is, you know the rules of the country you are most comfortable with, and so the rules cease to rub in quite the same way as they strike those who are new to them …
    I hope that, just as there are things about France that delight us and things that appal us, your memories of your year in London will be complicated and diverse and will include happy times as well as frustrating times.

  2. German trains are efficient and i found the conductors really nice – a friend of mine forgot his laptop and the conductor (after he was alerted) searched for it and then locked it in his cabin for safekeeping. The issue in your story is the unfortunate separation of responsibility and power in the way bussinesses are run in Britain. The conductor and the person who answered your email felt acocmodating your resobable demands they would have the resposibility of the action without the power to make the desision – a classic case of overecentralised burreocracy.

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