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4:38pm on Tuesday, 20th June, 2017:

Hot Day


I went to Chelmsford yesterday to talk to some people at County Hall about gamification, then headed on to London for the Humanist UK presidential reception.

The Chelmsford meeting was at 4pm, but I'd never been to County Hall before so figured I'd take the 3pm train and mooch around in Chelmsford for a bit after finding it. Chelmsford is about 20-30 minutes from Colchester, depending on whether you get on the express or the bone-rattler that stops at pokey little stations, so I'd have time plenty of time either to panic or to find an air-conditioned coffee shop in which to recover from the oppressive heat.

I arrived at Colchester railway station only to find that there were no trains showing on the screen that were heading in the direction of London. This was because the screens were full of trains heading in the other direction that were delayed. It turned out that the London trains were delayed too, because of "overhead line damage", "a broken-down train" and "a buckled rail outside Chelmsford".

Fortunately, a bone-rattler showed up at about 15:12, and although it went slower than normal it did get me to Chelmsford for the meeting. Amazingly, the heating in the train was not on. Even though this was the hottest day of the year so far, I hadn't believed that the train operator would go so far as to switch off the train's heating. I wasn't aware it had an off switch. The system must have been broken or something.

The County Hall meeting was productive, in that I managed to persuade them not to ask me to do any more work for them. There was no air conditioning in their offices, so we all put on our best stiff-upper-lips and made no concessions to the weather whatsoever, thereby displaying no signs of weakness. I kept my jacket on the whole time. This is what the Victorians did, and the only minor side-effect was the cultivation of an imperialist desire to rule a quarter of the world; I can cope with that.

I left County Hall at 5:45pm. I know this because the toilets outside close at 5:45pm and I saw them being locked up. I made my way to the train station and discovered that there was a "signalling blackout" that had stopped all trains running between Shenfield and Marks Tey (about 30 miles apart, with Chelmsford between them) for 30 minutes thus far. We were given water to drink, but I'd already bought some juice so didn't accept it; just as well, because there was only enough room in the station waste bin for my juice bottle, so I've no idea where the people with the water bottles were going to dispose of those.

At 6pm, I went to the toilets at the bus station. I know this, because they close at 6pm and I saw them being locked up. The toilets at the train station are on the other side of the ticket barriers, but the staff weren't letting anyone through. They'd been ordered not to be management, but (in the great tradition of British rail services) management had not explained their reasoning, nor had anyone any expectation that they would.

After maybe half an hour, without warning, the public address system announced that the train on platform 1 was about to depart RIGHT NOW. We poured through the ticket barriers to get aboard. Another great characteristic of British rail services (London Underground is the exemplar here) is the assumption that everyone knows the numbers of all the platforms and where the trains from them go. I could see where platform 1 was because everyone was heading there, but I didn't know until I saw a sign that it was for trains going to London. If it had been going to Colchester, I'd still have boarded it, I just wouldn't have gone to the Humanist UK get-together.

I arrived in London about an hour after I'd expected to arrive. The HUK meaning was in the Royal Society building off the Mall, next to the Duke of York's column. I'd planned to walk there from Charing Cross, but half the underground lines were closed or experiencing severe delays so I took the Central and Piccadilly lines to Piccadilly Circus and walked from there. I knew which was the right building as I was about 20 metres behind human rights activist Peter Tatchell, so I just followed him.

Inside, it was cool and warm. This building used to be the German Embassy in the 1930s (Ribbentrop's dog is buried next to a tree outside) so it was properly engineered to ensure that people inside wouldn't bake at gas mark 4 whenever the temperature outside exceeded 30 Celsius.

The chief executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, gave his opening remarks and was about to introduce our new president, Shappi Khorsandi, when the fire alarm went off. It was piercing, irritating and not an alarm you want to hang around for, so once the consensus emerged that we probably should evacuate, we evacuated. Our mustering point was the statue of the Duke of York's column (as in the Grand Old Duke of York, who had 10,000 men - those Victorians were far more liberal than you might imagine).

As we assembled, one of the humanists remarked "at least we weren't on the 25th floor". Being a humanist doesn't mean you're incapable of making jokes in bad taste.

I got into an interesting conversation with a bloke there, and it took perhaps 5 or 10 minutes before we realised that we had been attending different meetings. I confess that I did think his probing of my views on the state of modern molecular biology was more in-depth than that to which I am accustomed.

We got back into the building after another half an hour's delay, and the president could finally give her speech.

She's actually pretty good. She should be a comedian. Her main story was about how she went to the registrar's office to register the birth of her child and when they presented her with the birth certificate she saw the word "Islam" there. She complained, demanded to speak to the chief registrar, accused his staff of assuming that just because she's of Iranian heritage that doesn't make her a Muslim, and her daughter was only a few weeks old so couldn't know a religion anyway. The registrar apologised profusely, but did comment that it was unusual as normally that particular box on the form contained the name of the doctor present at the birth. As Shappi had had an emergency Caesarean section, she didn't know that the surgeon who delivered her baby was Dr Islam.

I left the meeting at about 9:30pm and caught the 22:03 train home. It took 20 minutes longer to get back than usual because of "weak rails", "scheduled maintenance" or "earlier problems", depending on which announcement I felt like believing.

In winter, British people routinely remark that the whole transport system falls apart if there's a centimetre of snow. When this happens next winter's first snowfall, I shall recall today and remind myself that it falls apart if the temperature exceeds 28 degrees, too.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).