A Liquid Breakfast, Up Against the Wall

Some of the best train stories are to be found when speaking with commuters who have travelled the line for the longest time. How could it be otherwise? As guitarist Johnny Marr reminded us in a recent interview on 6 Music, ‘such a thing as inspiration exists, but it has to find you busy’ — a useful insight he gleaned from Picasso. In the same way, rail travel will deliver riches, but in order to receive them we have to be on board. Day after day, again and again.

After not seeing him for months I encounter the Master, wine glass in hand, at a private view one evening. ‘My dear boy’, he says, ‘how are you’? I tell him something of my project and ask if he has any stories he wishes to share with me. With no change of expression he rewinds the film imprinted behind his eyelids by 40 years of commuting.

‘In the 1970s – or it might have been the early 1980s’, he says, ‘there used to be an agent for the Burmese government who got on the train at the same station as I did. At least I was told he was an agent – from what I understood he used to buy and sell things for them. Guns, probably. There used to be a proper restaurant car on the train in those days – you could have a full English breakfast for 25p. A man called Alec used to work in the buffet car and serve the breakfasts. We got quite friendly. Alec never liked to serve a broken fried egg and as I quite liked broken fried eggs he would give them to me at no extra charge.  Anyway, the agent always used to come to the buffet car, regular as clockwork in the morning, and order either five or seven miniature bottles of whisky. Then he would take a teapot and a teacup, pour the whisky into the teapot and sit and drink it on his way to work. He would do much the same on the way home, although I don’t remember if he bothered with the teapot.

‘One evening I found myself sharing a table with him and it proved a good opportunity to gain some insight into his politics and social outlook and perhaps the views of the people he worked for. The drink made him quite free with his opinions, once you were in close proximity. “You know what’s wrong with this bloody country’”, he asked? “I’ll tell you. The bloody trade unions. If I had my way I would put them all up against a wall and rat-tat-tat-tat…” The noise he made was quite loud and he accompanied it with an expansive, theatrical gesture of mowing a crowd of people down with a machine gun. At least I hope it was theatrical. Then, after he had taken another drink, he went on: ‘You know what’s wrong with this bloody country? The bloody politicians. You know what I’d do with them? Put them up against a wall and rat-tat-tat-tat…’ The fate he outlined was the same for bureaucrats, the working classes and numerous other sections of society, and it took him the whole journey to expound it fully. He had a beautiful daughter who used to come to the station I remember, to scoop him up off the platform when he arrived back in the evening…’

We agree this pugnacious character deserves a place in the roll call of ghosts of travellers past. Presumably he has long since retired to a place where he can finish the job on himself he began with his slow motion firing-squad of miniatures. There is a chance, perhaps, his views are going out of fashion with those in power in his own country. The society he was so scornful of has changed also. I am not sure how long he could speak the way he did on a train today before a nervous fellow traveller quietly informed the authorities, as we are constantly exhorted by recorded voices to do…

Incidentally, Alec, the man who served both solid and liquid breakfasts on the train in those days, crops up repeatedly in veteran commuters’ memories of the times. Perhaps because another regular breakfaster was Sir Peter Parker, then Chairman of British Rail,  at the end of Alec’s career he was rewarded with either (accounts differ) an O.B.E. or a British Empire Medal. The latter seems more likely, but I like the idea of the former, as his colleagues are said to have muttered quietly (and perhaps unfairly) that the acronym for his decoration stood for Other Buggers’ Efforts…


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2 thoughts on “A Liquid Breakfast, Up Against the Wall

  1. markswill

    Another beautifully-written, thoughtful and entertaining blog, James, but I think the scrumptiousness of the full-English depicted in the photo betrays the impossibility of it having emerged from a railway train kitchen. These days a soggy, tasteless ‘Breakfast Bap’ is about as good as you’ll get, and at an extortionate price, too. But you knew that, anyway.

    • James Attlee Post author

      Ah, but we are not speaking of ‘these days’… This tale comes from a pre-lapsarian, possibly mythical time when such meals were served up with proper crockery and cutlery in designated carriages to people who possibly wore bowler hats and carried rolled umbrellas when they alighted from the train… But I must admit, the image in question is of a generic ‘Full English’ pulled from the net, so fair cop on that front.