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Rail network 0, England... who knows?
I'm writing this while sitting on a train. The rest of the country is watching England play football, as I should be. Instead, all I’m doing is trying to watch football, and largely failing.
Technology has let me down, again. I am simmering. Again.
Around me are various people, all staring at an assortment of electronic devices with a mixture of bewilderment and irritation.
Between us we have an array of laptop computers and smartphones, all unleashed with a single aim – to watch TV while sitting in a railway carriage.
It’s one of those things that should have you shaking your head at the wonder of modern life. Isn’t it amazing?
TV is streamed on the internet these days and you can even watch a football match while you’re travelling from Manchester to Watford.
Except right now, I can’t. Because it’s not working.
I’m in first class, as it happens. It’s often somewhere north of £200 for a first-class ticket from Manchester to Watford, but the rail companies know when they’re desperate for business.
At busy times, they charge a fortune. When it’s quiet, prices go down.
Right now, pretty much everyone else is at home watching the telly, so, with a carriage to fill, the first class fare has gone down to less than a quarter of its normal cost.
Bargain hunters abound. There are only six carriages on the train and three of them are now first class.
If it’s supposed to carry an air of exclusivity, it’s not really working, because there may well be more first class passengers than standard class.
But exclusivity doesn’t matter, because that’s not why I’m heading towards Coach J. Coach cachet is not the aim here. Football viewing is the aim.
The point of this train-bound act of social climbing was not a comfortable seat or the nibbles. It was the wireless internet connection – the wi-fi – that’s free for all in first class.
With that, I knew I could watch the game. With wi-fi on your side, you can watch telly on your computer or even your phone. You can definitely listen to the radio. Can’t you?
You could at Manchester Piccadilly, where I boarded the train, set up the computer and sat back to watch the introduction to the match.
But as soon as the train pulled out of the station (why, incidentally, does it feel obligatory to use the expression “pulled out” when describing a train leaving a station?) the whole plan fell apart.
The wi-fi didn’t work or, at least, it worked only vaguely and erratically.
And so the plan has fallen apart. Such is modern life.
One little digital failing and everything collapses about our ears – and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Modern technology has made the casual user impotent in the face of setbacks, like the driver whose car shows a warning light and forces him to drive straight to a garage so the engine can be attached to sensors, computers and diagnostic analysis.
Twenty years ago, you’d have lifted the bonnet, hit a few things, poured in some Radweld to fix the leaky radiator and driven off again.
These days, they don’t even like you opening the bonnet in the first place.
I should have brought a radio, of course. An old-fashioned transistor. That would have worked just fine.
Instead, I have a choice of two radio apps on my phone, both of which provide bursts of commentary, only to trail away into nothing at the crucial moment.
“Here comes Gerrard – what a cross that is – Rooney...” Then ghastly silence.
Every so often, tantalisingly, the TV screen on my computer clicks into life for a few seconds. An England fan, his face painted with a St George’s Cross, pops up, looking delighted. Then the screen freezes again.
Have we scored? Or is he just pleased to be on the big screen?
It turned out to be neither. It was just half-time.
With a cruel twist, the wi-fi kicked in for two minutes during the half-time interval, during which time I saw three of four adverts and a little bit of Adrian Chiles.
As soon as the highlights approached, it went off again.
Of course, there’s an element of camaraderie here.
The various men – yes, all men – who are trying to follow the game are all looking at each other and doing that British half-smile, half-grimace face that means we're suffering together but don't want to make a fuss.
But deep down, we're all faintly embarrassed.
It’s not that there’s shame in wanting to watch the football. It’s the feeling of unease that we’ve allowed ourselves to be caught out by technology in this way; that a crutch has been kicked away without us realising that we were leaning on it quite so hard.
Like electricity or why airplanes stay in the air, I don’t even really understand how wi-fi works.
But it’s become a dominant part of my life and when it fails, it disrupts everything.
I look around me and I see a group of disillusioned football fans, trapped in first class, dreaming of England winning a championship, and hoping they'll get to watch that particular game in front of a proper telly.
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