Memories · Notes from West London · Word of the week

Word of the week: decompression

Do you recall the early days of mobile phone technology, back in the 1980s? The way I remember it, a disproportionate number of calls began with the caller (usually a man in a suit) exclaiming, “I’m on a train!” It became a cliché, but there was a practical purpose to it. As soon as the train was anywhere near a tunnel the signal would drop and the call would end. The person who was being contacted, at a cost of £1.50 per minute, needed to know that the line could go dead at any point. It doesn’t happen so much these days. Just like all those 20th century phone users I’d like to share with you this information: “I’m on a train!”

For the first time in the life of this Blog I am drafting a Post in a railway carriage. If Wi-Fi technology serves me well it will be also be published from this train, a direct service from London Euston to Holyhead in Wales. I am on my way to a funeral in Ireland tomorrow morning. I could have taken a flight later today but chose to travel by train and boat instead. We left London at 9.10am. The ferry is at 2.10pm. I should be at my cousins’ house by 7pm. I wanted some time to myself, and a more relaxed way of travelling before tomorrow’s events. Call it decompression. I might be using the word incorrectly but it’s the word I use to describe that bit of extra time you sometimes need, to adjust from one set of circumstances to another. It’s what I imagine deep-sea divers need, preparing to return to the surface after being deep beneath the waves. Take it easy. If you come up too quickly, you’ll get the bends.

I have been using the word “decompression” in this way for over 30 years, and in particular when recalling a trip to the south of France in the late 1980s. The year was 1988. I was heading to the Cannes Film Festival, an annual work trip for me in those days. It was always a busy time, up to 10 days of running around, seeing as many films as possible and never getting ahead. That year I was leaving a horror-show of circumstances back in London, and had developed an ear infection, as I had the previous year just before the Berlin Film Festival. My doctor advised me not to fly, both times. My journey to Berlin had involved a train from Liverpool Street station to the port of Harwich, an overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland and a direct train into West Berlin, as mentioned in this piece from last year.

For my 23-hour journey to Cannes, I left home soon after 8am, in plenty of time for the 9am departure from Victoria station. There was a late morning ferry, I arrived at Gare du Nord Paris mid-afternoon and was on the sleeper from Gare de Lyon before 10pm. I went straight to my bunk, one of six in a surprisingly small space. The other five were about to be occupied by a party of elderly French people, all of whom appeared to be at least 50 years older than me. The lights were off soon after I had shuffled out of my clothes and into my night-wear. I fell asleep almost immediately, grateful that I do not suffer from claustrophobia. Arriving in Cannes the following morning, before 7am, I felt refreshed, decompressed. I had not spoken to anyone for over 20 hours. I walked up the hill towards the apartment that I was sharing with work colleagues, feeling far better prepared for 10 days of running around than if I had flown to Nice as in other years.

Tomorrow’s funeral is for the last of my parents’ siblings. My father is still alive, and there is one aunt by marriage who is still with us, but this is the last of my aunts and uncles who are related by blood. I am expecting a whole range of memories to occupy me in the hours ahead. Tomorrow night I return to London on the last available flight from Dublin airport. The last time I travelled to Ireland for a funeral was in March 2016. It prompted this 4,000-word single-paragraph piece. I have just re-read it for the first time since 2016 and it captures the intensity of that trip. As with every other journey back to my parents’ homeland after the death of a friend or relative there had been very little time to prepare. For tomorrow’s funeral we have had the luxury of several days’ notice. I booked my tickets in the middle of last week. I arrived at Euston over 15 minutes before departure time, before passengers were allowed on board. I have never felt this relaxed at the start of such a journey. I’ll stare out of the window for a while and see what other memories emerge, of rail travel, ferry crossings and funerals past. I’m on a train.


Wi-Fi technology did not serve me well. I was unable to publish these words from the train, from the ferry or from my cousins’ house (where I stayed on Monday night), so they were finalized and posted on my return to London.




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