Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Pyrrhic Victories

Dominic Utton began to keep a blog of letters to the train company's managing director which have been the inspiration for his new book

So I stumbled across this book, Martin Harbottle's Appreciation of Time by Dominic Utton. Kinokuniya was having a special shelf with epistolary novels (books told in the form of letters), which you know I love. And I was lucky that I picked this particular book because it is SOOOO good. It is a series of emails that Daniel (a writer for a well known tabloid in the UK) writes to Martin Harbottle, who is managing director of the railway that Daniel travels on every day. Daniel has come up with the brilliant idea of sending Martin an email every time the train is delayed. The length of the email depends on the length of the delay. Say, it was a 20 minute delay (totally unacceptable), then the email will take 20 minutes to read. But maybe because he runs out of things to say about bad service and train delays (that would take one or two minutes at most) he goes on to talk about other things, his life, Greek literature, his marriage and newborn daughter, his work in the tabloid during one of the most interesting times in its history, gossip about the people they feature...

Anyway, here is one of the letters. It sort of gives you an idea. And I hope that on reading it, you go out and get a copy of this severely underrated book:

From: DantheMan020@gmail.com
To: Martin.Harbottle@premier-westward.com
Re: 22.20 Premier Westward Railways train from London Paddington to Oxford. June 22. Amount of my day wasted: ten minutes. Fellow sufferer: Overkeen Estate Agent.

How the devil are you, Martin Well, I hope? In the pink? Good, good. Well done.

I gather you had a rough night of it last night. I hear that all Premier Westward services out of Paddington yesterday evening were -- not to put too fine a point on it -- up the spout. Down the Swanee. Round the U-bend. Nothing moved, as I understand it, for hours.

I monitored it all on the internet. I kept a window open on my desktop as I worked into the night. All those winking 'delayed' signs reproduced faithfully for the benefit of the world. Just as well I had to work late, eh? Just as well my sadistic boss was in an especially bad mood (the threat of legal action against one's employees can do that to a man, I hear). Just as well he wanted all my copy rewritten. Or I'd have been right round the U-bend myself.

As it was, I escaped with a mere ten-minute delay to my journey home. As it was, my wife was only moderately cheesed off with me. Lucky me!

Or rather -- lucky us. Me and Overkeen Estate Agent. My sole regular fellow traveller on the night shift home.

He's an odd one, is Overkeen Estate Agent. I only ever see him when I'm on these later trains -- and he always seems to have come straight from work. The shiny suit, the tie in a fat footballer's knot. (What is that knot? Like a quadruple-Windsor, far too big for any shirt collar, swatting there at the neck like a fat silk Buddha. Who decided that was a good look? And when did we start taking sartorial direction from footballers anyway?) He's always on the phone (a white iPhone -- and that in itself speaks volumes. He chose the white model. I am male, I appear to the heterosexual...and yet, still, despite all that, I'd prefer the white iPhone. That's the sort of person I am) and he's always saying things like: "We need to drill this down", and "Let's get that actioned asap." He uses words like "diarise" and "bro" and "PDQ". He calls people "legends". He's about 14 years old. I'm simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by him.

But, to be fair to him, he rarely seems bothered by the train delays. He just keeps talking nonsense into his white iPhone and staring at his reflection in the window.

But then: I've been thinking. If I'm to write to you every time my train is delayed, and if a massive, will-to-live sapping delay should therefore prompt an equally massive time-wasting letter to you in return, then there may be a problem in my otherwise brilliantly childish revenge plan.

Are these letters nothing more than me wasting even more of my time that you've wasted in the first place?

That, Martin, would make all this decidedly Pyrrhic. A Pyrrhic victory. Do you know what a Pyrrhic victory is? Of course you do -- you must have benefitted from a classical education. Where was it? Rugby? Stowe? Where then...? St Andrews? Cambridge? Or have you worked your way up from nothing? Managing Directed your way out of the mean streets? Was it a case of sport and management directing being the only legal options for a kid from the wrong side of the tracks?

I'm going with the classical education. The traditional route to the top. Born to rule, eh? Effortlessly schooled in the ways of casual superiority.

Anyway, no shame in that either way. We play the hands we're given, right? You am what you am! You need no excuses. You deal your own deck: sometimes the aces, sometimes the deuces. Dead right!

Where was I? Oh yes. Pyrrhic victories. Let me explain, just in case you skipped class that day.

A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there was a king called Pyrrhus. As Ancient Greek kings go, he was pretty tasty. Gave the emergent Roman Empire a bit of a spanking on more than one occasion. He took no lip off nobody. He was a born winner.

But there was a flaw. Old Pyrrhus, he was a bit over-keen. The way he saw it, winning was all that mattered. Victory had to be pursued -- no matter what the cost. Until, after one particularly bloody encounter at a place called Heraclea, his defeat of the Romans was so absolute that it ended up costing him his whole army too. He won the battle but he also kind of lost. And a certain Mr Plutarch, who was a leading tabloid scribe of the day, coined the term "Pyrrhic victory" to describe that peculiar kind of victory that comes at a prohibitive cost to the victor.

Interesting, eh? But also, eye-opening. A Pyrrhic victory. Are my letters Pyrrhic victories? It gives me pause. Oooh, and it makes me wonder, as Robert Plant puts it. Am I the real loser here? Twicefold? Firstly by giving you so much money for such pitiful service every day, and secondly for wasting my own time in order to waste your time writing about it?

Possibly, I'd welcome your thoughts.

But on the other hand...to hell with it. I'm with Pyrrhus.

Until next time,

Au revoir!


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