My wife and I recently went on a train journey to take my two-year-old son to see Peppa Pig and George, courtesy of my very lovely and thoughtful mother-in-law. I’m a father now, you see. So this is how I occasionally spend my time.
Our journey began at Kidderminster Severn Valley Railway station, where we immediately joined the end of a long queue of families. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, which is why, despite the quaintness of the station, it’s how I imagine Brief Encounter would’ve looked if it had been produced by the Channel 5 documentary team behind the series Neighbours from Hell, High on Spice, Hacked Down My Conifers.
Once through the ticket barrier, we then searched for seats on a lovely heritage steam train, hoping to stumble across an empty carriage that all other families had decided to avoid. Maybe there’s a carriage filled with bees, I thought, where piss from a broken toilet sloshes around your feet as the train rattles along the track. We could certainly endure that if it meant we had it all to ourselves! But alas, there was no piss and no bees to be found – just busy carriages filling up rapidly. We eventually found a nice little table on which my son would later bang his head while attempting to retrieve a foam dinosaur that had dropped onto the floor from the cover of CBeebies magazine.
When we arrived at our destination, we made a beeline for the room in which Peppa and George would make their personal appearances. Dozens of parents were already gathering around a small picket fenced area in anticipation, so we quickly scanned the room for any available space. Thankfully I was able to swoop in and brazenly steal the spot of a mother who’d briefly abandoned her position in order to retrieve her daughter’s larynx, which she’d spewed onto the floor during a Force 12 meltdown. In the same way that people didn’t politely stand on ceremony during the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, I hurriedly claimed the free plot and vowed to defend it to the death.
After several minutes holding my ground, while being jostled by latecomers, intermittently bashed in the face with my son’s plastic Duggee figure, and successfully fending off the displaced mother with my rucksack, George was ushered into the room with what appeared to be a personal bodyguard. The reason for George’s private security detail quickly became apparent, when his arrival whipped the crowd up into a frenzy reminiscent of the fall of Saigon. I saw one man thrust his screaming daughter towards George like a sacrificial offering to the giant pig god, while his wife – Sofia Coppola, by all accounts – filmed the precious moment from every possible angle, temporarily stalling George’s movement around the holding pen.
The couple next to me had brought reinforcements in the shape of two sets of grandparents, all of whom were armed with smartphones and in a heightened state of readiness. In stark contrast to the two-foot gap I was clawing onto at all costs, they’d managed to colonise roughly one hectare of space for their multi-camera set-up. The pressure on the grandparents to provide the mother with high-quality footage of the occasion, rather than an accidental screenshot of Solitaire, was palpable.
When George finally reached us, I was standing on my own with my son in my arms (my wife having retreated to the periphery when space at the picket fence became limited). I then became everything I despise, as I ham-fistedly tried to capture the moment with a selfie, but instead managed to film myself – in shaky ‘found footage’ style – encouraging my son to “give George a kiss!”. The meeting lasted approximately one minute. We then left the personal appearance zone with absolutely no appetite to return for Peppa’s ‘meet and greet’ 45 minutes later.
It was at this point that I zoned out and became weirdly preoccupied with trying to guess which couples had voted for Brexit. I only snapped out of it when I realised I was on the verge of reprimanding a little boy for rudely commandeering all the carriages on a toy train set that my son was playing with. It was definitely time for some fresh air.
As we made our way through the crowded Engine House, oohing and aahing at the genuinely impressive collection of steam locomotives, we walked past a room with a big screen, where people were gathering for the premiere of ‘File not found’. We ended up standing outside in the ‘Vaping Zone’ waiting for a swing or slide to become available in the outdoor play area, as thick plumes of vapour twisted into the air like ectoplasm at a Victorian séance. Nothing ever did become available, so we bought a muffin and waited for the next train home.
We shared a six-seat compartment with a lovely old couple on the return journey, while the family in the next compartment banged and crashed around as if climbing the wood-panelled walls to escape a swarm of bees and torrent of piss from a broken toilet. You see, hell is other people…as Jean-Paul Sartre once said.