A title that amuses the author in at least three different ways simply isn’t enough: convention dictates that a weblog should have a subtitle. A number of publishing applications, notably WordPress, have functionality to allow, even encourage, the use of a subtitle. Prospective authors would do well to note the default subtitle, “Just another WordPress weblog”, with foreboding: for never a truer statement will likely fill this line.
Here, the use of a subtitle has been played down but, when one was required, I went with “a sporadic weblog from the United Kingdom about culture and technology”. You’ll agree that this, while basically accurate, is about as vague as its possible to be on subject matter. It does nothing to capture what the author regularly publishes nor, more importantly, what the visitors come to read.
Of late, I’ve been writing at length about my faulty brain; not exactly a cultural nor technological subject. Quite a fair few people came to read about it too, mainly because they’d been pointed to it by someone else. But what about the casual visitor? The ones that come here following a search on Google and the like? As it turns out, they care very little for my faulty brain. They also don’t care much for culture and technology. By far the most popular search term is “things to do on a train”, which guides them to a highly facetious post I wrote more than seven years ago.
Back then, it wasn’t so easy to post to your weblog on the move, but I’d developed a way involving my own CMS, a Palm Pilot (with sexy folding keyboard) and a mobile phone that allowed me to recover some of the time I was spending on trains (over two hours a day). All that was left to do was think of something to write about. As I looked up and down the carriage, I realised that inspiration was sitting all around me: a rush-hour train out of London packed to the rafters with irritating people. This was a time long before publishing weblog posts as lists was commonplace – I simply observed annoying things going on around me, arranged them in order of irritation caused.
It has occurred to me, however, that those arriving at this post via Google are going to be disappointed by what they find. Whereas they turned up looking for something to fill a tedious journey, what they find is me whinging about how bloody awful people are. So, let’s leave culture, technology and faulty brains to one side for a moment, and give the masses what they want. Following a bit of research, may I present (slightly) more appropriate lists of suggestions of things to do on a train.
- iPod, iPod, iPod. Get hold of a decent pair of headphones and settle in. Audiobooks are particularly good for this kind of thing. Get Stephen Fry to read you some Harry Potter and see if he can’t force you to enjoy it (I’ve got Fry reading various things, including his own works, and I’ve enjoyed them all – I’m convinced he could read me the phone book). If you prefer something more current (or lower priced), I’m sure I needn’t point out the many thousands of podcasts just waiting for your ears. The Rissington Podcast is always excellent for the technically inclined, but you will need those decent earphones as the levels can be a bit wild and woolly. Alternatively, if you have one of the newer iPods and are very well prepared, you could watch a video of something or other, which leads nicely onto…
- Watch the box. iPods, portable DVD players and laptops make it possible to watch a good film or whatever you fancy. If you have one of those little handheld TVs, and you can get a signal, you could see what’s on live TV in the middle of the day. You could even watch Jeremy Kyle in just your pants and pretend you’re unemployed. If you don’t have any such gadgetry, all is not lost. Take advice from Lib Dem councellor Jonathan Wallace: “I am currently watching one of those David Attenborough programmes about life in very odd places – this one is about life in caves. It is playing on the laptop of the person sitting in front of me. I can see the screen over her shoulder. Very interesting!”
- Play a game. I’m so not into computer games it’s unbelievable, but even I have had a go on one of those little Nintendo what-nots and managed to waste an hour or so. I can see that brain training thing as being ideal for public transport. Of course, games don’t have to be electronic. If you’ve been unable to find Sudoku between arriving at the station and boarding the train, I’d get yourself down to the opticians pronto.
- Read a book. Not very hi-tech, I know, but they don’t tend to run out of batteries and require very little forward-planning. I must confess I’m not a big reader of fiction (that’s where audiobooks come in), but there are plenty of works that make pleasant, low-commitment reading and are perfect for the train. John O’Farrell‘s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge) is a good example.
- Read the paper. Not the free one strewn across the platform – go and buy a paper. My advice is not to buy the one whose size and typography appeals to your age and demographic, as it’ll only tell you what to think rather than inviting you to think for yourself. Instead, get hold of the pink one. Yeah, that’s right, the FT. It’s not just a great big list of share prices, you know – they’ve got a bunch of usually well-written editorial in there that you’ll enjoy thinking about.
- Write something. Lots of people do this – usually they appear to be making notes on the meeting they’ve just been to or for the one they’re about to attend. But it doesn’t have to be all work work work: maybe you could write creatively. If that’s not your thing or you’re in a dry patch, write a list of things that’ll make your life better. If you write down the things that need to be done when you get in tonight, you’ll be surprised how much quicker you get through them. Alternatively, write a list of all those things don’t need and have been meaning to put on eBay – once they’re laid out in front of you, the true value of getting on with it becomes very clear. Also, when was the last time you wrote someone an engaging letter or email? You have friends and relatives that would love to hear from you. Which almost leads elegantly onto…
- Browse the web. As the gadgets get more advanced with every passing minute, and the infrastructure improves in line with the increasing technological capability and demand, so the internet spreads into previously unlikely places. The iPhone 3G and its competitors are setting new standards in web portability, but the rise of mobile broadband means that even the humblest of laptops can now be connected on the move. I have such a SIM card from Vodafone, which I use as the basis of my connection both at home and away. When at home, it’s inserted into a Linksys wireless router (much as you would with a standard phone line but without the bullshit – don’t get me started), and when on the move, it’s in either an ExpressCard or a USB dongle – both, to my surprise, seem to work on the Mac just fine. Using mobile broadband exclusively has worked out around 40% cheaper than the cheapest fixed-line broadband provider I can find, with the added advantage that I can take it on trains etc.
- Strike up a conversation. Very un-British, I know, but still. I quote the advice given to someone looking to occupy a train journey: “start up a conversation with the person you are sat next to, I did, and she is now one of my wife’s best friends, and we regularly keep in touch”. Another angle on this could be the abhorently-titled but potentially useful art of “networking” – I quote again from someone else’s advice: “you never know who you might find yourself sitting next to on a train and if it’s someone who could help you further your career, then who are we to stop you saying hello”.
- Figure out where you are. You never know, you might want (or need) to come back sometime. Many suburban railways tend to cut their route between commercial or industrial estates but, on the whole, the network will pass through some interesting places – occasionally, some truly spectacular ones. Six years ago, my girlfriend of the time and I took a train from London to Plymouth to catch a ferry. The train passes along a truly breathtaking section of line along the coast at Dawlish, where you’re so close to the sea you could believe you were running along the beach. We were so struck by the place that we decided to return there the following summer for a short holiday. If the names of passing stations aren’t enough of a giveaway, and you don’t have some kind of GPS-enabled wingding on you, Google Maps for Mobile is surprisingly good at figuring out your location based on the nearest cellular masts.
- Drink railway tea and watch the world go by. If all or any of the above seems just that little bit to strenuous, and you dare not fall asleep for fear of missing your stop, why not just sit back and relax. One of the great joys of rail travel is that it’s entirely passive, so why not take the fact you’ve got nothing to do as a positive thing. We’d all do well to do nothing from time to time.
If you’re looking for more subversive activities than these, there’s always my original suggestions or a couple of other amusing offerings elsewhere: Ten Super Fun Things To Do On A Train Journey; and Twenty Things To Do While Bored On A Train Ride.
So that should be enough to get you going – can you come up with any more?