Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Rockin’ all over the world now seems to be a whole lot harder

Rail improvement works

Rail improvement works - Credit: PA

Rail improvement works usually put me off travelling by train now.

I awoke on Good Friday to the sound of a radio announcer reading a litany of Easter rail “improvements”. Throughout the mid 1980s to the late 1990s I spent much of my time on trains. In 1997 I did a 25-date tour of England and Wales, nearly all of it by train. The tour began in late September in Bury, Lancs, taking in Newport, Hereford, Cheltenham, Bath, London and places which I now don’t recall. I came home in early November.

The train fares ate a proportion of the tour receipts, although an acceptable proportion for that time. I would never attempt to do such a tour nowadays. Certain rail companies have become very adept at taking your money from you, often well in advance of your trip.

They also know how to punish you financially in order to corral you into travelling at those times most convenient to them. In common with so many “services” nowadays, they have a system. That system is so well worked out that it equates to a sort of travellers’ rat-maze, complete with blind alleys and sudden shocks, with few rewards. I used to love travelling by train. Now, mostly, I avoid it.

This is a shame because I used to travel with such interesting people. A surprising amount of entertainers either don’t drive or choose not to drive. I’ve had train journeys with Nigel Planer, the late Alan Sillitoe, Miles Kington, George Melly and a whole bunch of old rockers of whom you’ve never heard.

Two decades ago, I was forever seeing and meeting well-known people on stations and on trains. John Cooper Clarke, the Doctor, observed a while ago that these days you have to write off at least two days if you intend travelling to some engagements by train, This is because it can take up half a day getting to the gig and, if it happens to be a Saturday, most of Sunday dragging yourself home, whenever “improvements” are taking place.

John has a permanent driver now. He’s busier than ever at present and just couldn’t do what he does by train anymore. It’s hard work dealing with the vagaries of train travel; harder work, often, than the job at the other end of the journey. As for me, mostly, I just don’t bother going far nowadays. I did the Edinburgh Festival last year by train. I treated it as a short break with a couple of performances thrown in. I booked the trains about three months in advance and took my time getting there and back. Nobody with all their marbles would have done it as a serious job, lovely as Edinburgh and its book festival are.

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As I said, it’s surprising who you’ll meet on a train. One of my unlikelier encounters however was actually on the Gosport Ferry in Hampshire. It was with Cynthia Payne, the lady who, in the 1980s, won infamy as a result of holding kinky parties in her detached Streatham home. Her house-guests, many of them elderly gentlemen, often paid in luncheon vouchers to dress up in women’s clothing or sometimes rather odder apparel. Cynthia was sentenced to 18 months, but only did four months in Holloway after winning her appeal.

It was 1996 and I’d been given an unusual job. The Gosport Ferry, which sails back and forth across the harbour between Portsmouth and Gosport takes just over four minutes each way. As part of a local arts festival, I was appointed its poet-in-residence. My brief for that week was to perform live poetry for an hour or more each day to the ferry’s regular commuters. Since it was the quickest way of getting from Portsmouth to Gosport, at peak times, the boat was packed. It meant that I always had a daily captive audience for a dozen or so manic performances.

It was fun – if tiring fun. After the last performance, on my very last day, I saw a woman with a massive suitcase almost as big as herself struggling onto the ferry. It was Cynthia Payne on her way to speak at a festival event. To my astonishment, she said, “Ah, Martin. I wonder if you could give me a hand with this case?” I’d never, to my certain knowledge, met her before. The festival brochure, however, had been liberally distributed and so I assumed that she must have recognised me from my picture, as I had recognised her from hers.

Her maid, she explained to me, usually accompanied her on these engagements, but had been indisposed on this occasion, Cynthia had struggled all this way by herself. She seemed less like a notorious former London madame than somebody’s slightly careworn mum. What else would I have done? The case weighed a ton as I lugged it off the ferry. I wondered briefly whether perhaps one of her former clients had somehow hidden in there, without her noticing.

We chatted a little while as she waited for her lift to the engagement. She was rather nice, actually. A kindly woman of a certain age, she had warm brown eyes. Close up you could see why she’d have been popular with all those posh old judges and wing-commanders who’d once patronised her establishment.

Before I returned to my hotel to pick up my things for the long haul back to Essex, she scribbled something on a card and presented it to me. It said, “To Martin. Thank you for past custom.”