Backbones of England

Walking through the city centre yesterday, I was struck by a group of well-dressed people stopping various individuals going about their business, including myself, and forcibly turning them around to face a different direction. They explained that it is customary not to turn one’s back on the Royal Family, and this crack team was but one small portion of a vast crack squad of vigilante commemorative plate collectors and Mail readers (although the Venn diagram of the two groups is essentially one circle). For decades, they have been travelling the country and making sure people are always facing the correct way, in the manner of facing Mecca to pray, except in perpetuity. If we wanted to carry on in our original direction, we would simply have to walk backwards.

Some of the squad have infiltrated the Palaces’ catering services and regularly plant transmitters in the food, meaning they can always tell which way any individual member of the Royals is facing. They can thereby factor in a series of rapid corrections simultaneously across the country. If for instance Prince Harry were to think someone had called his name, turned around quickly, saw no one had, and immediately returned to what he was doing, the whole of Britain could imitate his movements immaculately. Another welcome challenge for the team comes when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dance a waltz around their home, which they still do frequently, such is their enduring love for one another. As Will twirls Kate, so he twirls the nation.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is that for members of the squad dealing with transport infrastructure. If, for example, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are standing at a given point, any motorist or train commuter to unwittingly pass them will shift in an instant from a position of respect to one of shame and dishonour.

Two short-term solutions have been attempted so far. In one case, all traffic moving in one direction has been blocked until the Royal couple change the way they are facing, at which point that stream of traffic is free to move, while the one travelling in the opposite direction is immediately stopped. This has been causing severe delays. Meanwhile, the roundabout outside Buckingham Palace has been impossible to use for years. In other cases, new vehicles have been designed with revolving chairs fitted for passengers and drivers alike. At the critical moment of passing the Royals, these chairs immediately swing round, ensuring that everyone is maintaining a position of sufficient reverence. This has been proving highly popular on trains, but has been causing numerous deaths on the roads.

The long-term aim is to develop a vast digital network utilising the changing positions of all the Royals about the country to greatly reduce the amount of corrective turning labour required. Once up and running, this will make it much easier to ensure everyone is facing at least one Royal at any one time. The system is sure to be far more efficient than a national system previously used in which each segment of the country was assigned one Royal to face. This came in a brief period in the early nineties when the young Prince Harry mistakenly thought the Royals weren’t allowed to turn their backs on each other, insisted the entire family face in on itself, and his relations decided to humour him non-stop. Britain was accordingly divided along lines drawn from the points each Royal’s hand touched another’s, as they stood silently in an unmoving circle for five months. William still occasionally ribs him about this misunderstanding, as well as the Nazi uniform incident.

It might be tempting to question the squad as to whether it would be more practical simply to limit the custom to those in the immediate proximity of royalty. Sadly, this has been raised before, and has only ever been met with accusations of treason and large-scale hate campaigns driven by multiple newspapers. And so the custom remains. And, although it has led to numerous difficult situations, it is now increasingly likely that new technology will help ensure the worst is behind us, and the best in front, where they should be.

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Who Wants to Be…?

I was privileged to watch the pilot of a new TV show last week. And the Winner Is… is a twist on the traditional game show format, fusing it with reality TV in a further invigoration of two genres the British public refuses to let die, even though one of them has consistently struck me as deserving to since birth. Unconventionally, the programme begins with all four contestants being declared the winner of a quiz they have just taken part in – engineered to end in a four-way tie, and never intended for transmission. They are awarded prize money of £500,000 each and sent on their way.

Unbeknownst to them, they are then recorded non-stop on hidden cameras for the following year, and will be required to come back into the studio 365 days later, when all but one will have to pay their winnings back. The unwitting players are judged on their behaviour looking back over the entirety of that year, as they have adjusted to their newfound wealth. Only the pilot has been completed so far, but watching it I found it did make for compelling viewing as the four contestants’ lives veered off in different directions.

Management consultant Judy immediately used the money to start a new business, giving herself a job that actually meant something to her (she admitted she had had no real understanding of her job title or responsibilities in two decades occupying the role). With her characteristic optimism, she started a new arts and crafts workshop specialising in painted pebbles, a new fad especially popular among middle class nine year-olds.

However, she made a misjudgement in situating herself in a place that seemed sensibly close to her supply of pebbles, floating in the middle of the North Sea. Her target demographic was often thereby excluded from visiting. Parents were often unwilling to travel that far, so only the very keenest young swimmers could reach the shop to make a purchase – at which point they’d often find their pocket money was soaked, even the new £5 and £10 notes not immune to the cruelty of the icy waters. After her business failed, Judy became a drug baron instead, meaning she was able to pay the money back in full, but was arrested upon leaving the studio.

Chiropodist John gave most of his money to family members he knew to be struggling with medical problems or severe financial hardship. This immediately made him the favourite to win, but John grew resentful when he fell on hard times later in the year and no one offered him the same assistance he had given them. As a result, he had to pay his winnings back at the end fo the game, as he was deemed to have parted with the money for selfish reasons. He is now understood to have taken out several loans, putting further stress on all himself and his family at large, an extremely unhelpful given his daughter’s upcoming SATs.

Biochemistry student Melissa gave the entirety of her winnings away. Small portions went to charities and friends wary of student loan repayments, but she used the vast majority to help a single stranger. This was a homeless man she’d often walked past each morning in Manchester, a former TV executive. Giving him her time, she learned of his past misfortunes, and upon winning vowed to help him back on his feet. She singlehandedly set him up in a new flat, got him cleaned up and even helped him secure a job interview with the TV company who, as it transpired, had made And the Winner Is…

Unfortunately, at this point the executive went out on a work party and embarked upon a massive cocaine binge, which was all filmed for the programme. Melissa thereby had to pay her winnings back, to teach her the valuable lesson that giving money directly to the homeless will only end with them spending it on drugs.

Managing director Andy proved the ultimate winner, having immediately put the money into a savings account and spent none of it. The programme makers were impressed by the level of restraint and responsibility he showed, and accordingly declared him victorious. This was seen as a flaw in the programme format, as the reason Andy hadn’t spent any of the money was that he had inherited a considerable amount of money as a child already and hadn’t needed it in the first place. Endemol’s focus group found that this made both the winner and the show itself a target of audience hatred. However, it was noted that this worked reasonably well for Without Prejudice early this century, and so that quality was declared a positive.

It now seems likely the show will be recommissioned, pending the remaining £1,000,000 being paid back before the end of the financial year. Further follow-up programmes are also planned, tracking the losing contestants as they try to scrape back their winnings in increasingly desperate ways, all the while growing steadily more paranoid that they are still being observed.

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In the Radio

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was listening to the Today programme, when I heard interference in the background. A persistent scraping noise was proving very distracting – curious, I picked the radio up to give it a shake, in case there was some problem with the innards. I was far closer to the mark than I realised. The moment I picked it up, the heated discussion on the programme stalled, and, as I shook it, all the voices I had been listening to cried out in terror. Putting it back down, I unplugged the radio and removed the back with a screwdriver. Inside was a nest of tiny people, not more than an inch tall – one of whom had been moving a chair loudly.

Staring up at me, a tiny, delicate, beautiful Nick Robinson gave me a wave. With a resigned sigh, he said he would come clean, and explained to me that all radios are full of miniscule people, many of them identical to one another. He was in fact Nick Robinson 8,754, Nick Robinson being just one species of audio person in existence. Going on, he told me of how, decades ago, a BBC film crew had found a hive of small, articulate people beneath the ground in Shropshire, while they were making an episode of Ground Force. That was just the beginning.

Realising the costs they could save, the BBC started breeding these tiny people (and other breeds they were able to find) in captivity, giving them full media training, and setting them to work in individual radio sets about the UK. They cut a top secret deal with the government and with electronics firms and suppliers around the country. Manufacturers build empty radio sets, and when a consumer purchases a radio in store, it is the cashier’s duty to judge what sort of programmes they’re likely to listen to, and surreptitiously secrete a handful of the creatures into the radio – there are healthy stocks behind the counter in every branch of Currys. (Buying radios online is arguably more effective, since tastes can be more precisely determined by browsing history.)

The cashier at Currys had got me mostly spot on. I looked deeper into the radio, and noticed a tiny Mishal Husain shuffling her papers, annoyed by the interruption. By her side were a pocket-sized Laura Kuenssberg and a Mini-Michael Fallon, being slowly grilled (Robinson acknowledged that the Fallons were on their way out – “couldn’t keep their tiny little hands to themselves”). There was a small selection of 6 Music presenters too, but as I’m a more casual listener they tend to work on a shift basis, slipping in and out during the night or while I’m at work. Meanwhile the Today presenters always remain (with the notable exception of Humphrys), even if they’re not presenting on a given day, opting to draw straws for who will do the talking just before my 7:30am alarm.

I asked little Mishal 5,273 if my TV was full of tiny people too, but she said that’s arguably broadcast in the normal way. Puzzled by the ‘arguably’, I asked for clarification, and she elaborated that all TV programmes are still broadcast from a central location, but for most BBC current affairs programmes, the presenters are still very small, but filmed up close. It was the gradual shift over to this method of programme-making that enabled the BBC to feel comfortable enough downsizing from TV Centre earlier this decade.

My curiosity was roused by Humphrys’ absence and I asked where the little fellow had got to. Laura 3,991 piped up explaining that that was a perspective trick. In fact, there’s only one John Humphrys – one of the old guard, he’s regular, normal-sized human being, and phones in from his own studio in New Broadcasting House. That’s why he’s by far the highest-paid of the Today presenters, having a full sized body and house to maintain – much more expensive than the hutches where the others are kept. Humphrys does his bit to help though, keeping a selection in his home as pets, occasionally taking back bags of cashews as a treat for his cage of Andrew Neils.

Worried that it might be cruel to harvest all these tiny creatures for the purposes of news broadcasting, the BBC once tried synthesising their own in labs, but this only led to a breed of drab mutants, almost immediately released to Heart FM. For the best results, they cultivate selected breeds found in the wild, like Eddie Mair and Jane Garvey, and rear them healthily on miniature farms (100 can be nurtured comfortably in a square metre of office space), before sending them off en masse to radio sets about the country. This is why the print press still largely dictates the news cycle – the individual clusters of presenters have little else to bind them as effectively to their counterparts elsewhere, and the BBC doesn’t want to cause the country to grow even more irreparably divided.

My little presenters asked me not to tell anyone the secret, so I haven’t out loud. After our little chat, I screwed the back shut again, as they requested, and went about my day. I didn’t turn my radio on again for quite some time, and even walking past a radio somewhere other than my home unnerved me. But this weekend I switched it back on, and listened to my programmes as normal. I had decided that, if I’m going to have inch-high people living in the corner of my home, with a good view of me through the speakers as I work and sleep, I’d much rather be able to hear what they’re doing.

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Slideshow

As a 26 year-old, I’m nearing the end of my natural lifespan, and I’ve been pondering whether to opt in for the new Memory-alise technology on offer to the imminently dying. Using a new sensor that records and decodes brainwaves when linked to a patient, Memory-alise claims to provide a dignified death, at a pace of the deceasing’s choosing. At the critical moment, as a patient’s life flashes before their eyes, the machine records all their memories, resuscitates them, and allows them to view all these precious moments explicitly, surrounded by their loved ones.

It’s an immersive experience, with a special sensory projector replicating smell, taste and touch as well as sight and sound. If they wish, an individual can now invite their loved ones to gain the most authentic insight possible into the life about to reach its end. Correspondingly, relatives now need never fear missing the death of a loved one, able as families now are to schedule the waking wake and book time off work accordingly.

There are problems that have arisen because of this same benefit, largely as there is now a much greater social pressure on relatives to attend the ceremony, so as not to offend even the most distant great-aunt. From around the country, people who haven’t spoken for years outside of Christmas cards come together for crowded, stifling events where they sit quietly around a bed to watch the equivalent of a post-holiday slideshow, but covering an entire lifetime. This also takes in a lot of mundane memories of the kind that lodge in all our heads inexplicably. For relatives who have no grasp on their significance, these are now inescapable. Great-Uncle Bernard’s favourite socks lasted half a day.

Some people with very keen memories are seeing their presentations last months, often uninterrupted. Funerals stretched out for this period of time are growing drastically in their expense – of time as well as money. Meanwhile, medical science ensures that we are all only going to end up with longer and longer lives to remember, and longer slideshows to hold. As the stretch continues, the occasions are becoming increasingly toxic hives of resentment. “If we’d known they were going to spend all their money on their bloody funeral, we wouldn’t have made even the pitiful attempts to keep in touch that we have,” grumble frustrated middle-aged children, largely in Surrey.

Yet the resentment is repressed, such is the reluctance to spoil what are certain to be a family member’s final moments. The eulogies are packed with bland praise and platitudes, rarely allowing for a nuanced reflection on the life of the fascinating but flawed person now sure to be listening intently. Funerals are robbed of their sincerity, and the resulting lack of closure for relatives is only worsened by various companies’ proposed solution to the problem.

They suggest never having to cope with the absence of closure by providing souvenir packages of the memories recorded in full, commemorative plates, and even edited highlights in GIF form to use on social media. They also envisage a time when they will be able to use the recorded brainwaves to create a simulated version of the deceased that can interact with you after death with artificially generated questions and fictionalised updates from the afterlife. The bereaved need never feel the pain of loss, instead only suffering the warped numbness of surrounding themselves with lies.

On balance, I have decided to opt out of the service, as I want my family and friends to be able enjoy my eternal rest just as much as me.

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Maps

I worked in a bookshop eight years ago, and as I look back, one of the things that I miss is the section where the Ordnance Survey maps were kept. Plenty of customers needed advice as to which would be of most use to whatever walk or drive they were planning, often needing to look over the maps themselves to confirm. There was something delightful about unfolding those neat, concise little packages and seeing the vast areas to explore that they offered within.

Maps are objects of comfort too. Not just those you can buy in advance, but one you stumble across stuck into the ground on a sign when you’re out and about. If in doubt or lost, no matter how remote your location, they’re an assurance that someone has been here before you, and they’ve done what they can to assist you, and whoever else might follow in your footsteps.

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From the age of ten (largely thanks to tube-bound 1968 Doctor Who classic The Web of Fear), I have had a fascination with the London Underground. I still have the map of it on the bedroom wall of my childhood home, and I still love looking over it from time to time. It’s not just the aesthetic of the thing, although that was an enormous part of it as my enthusiasm first grew – that iconic look, keeping the tube’s links alive to its own past. Not visiting London much as a child, that’s all it could be, but as time has gone on, I now see it not just as a work of art in its own right, but as the functional thing it really is. This system of criss-crossing, multi-coloured lines, perfectly arranged for ease of the traveller’s understanding, is the city’s guide. The map is the guide for the bustling city above, imposing order on the chaos of our own making.

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Maps are fresh in my thoughts because of something that happened this weekend, as I moved home, from one part of Manchester to another. It was as stressful as such a day usually is. The deep unsettlement of packing my belongings away; erasing myself from my bedroom, the four walls in which I have spent most of the last two years of my life; looking at it, emptied of all trace of the memories that had seemed immovable. This was before the taxi arrived and my mood made a fickle shift to exhilaration at the prospect of the new chapter starting in my life.

But that burst of unsettlement arose as I was returning to my old house for the last time, and I watched the route I now realised I had grown so familiar with gliding past. It sank in that this ever-reliable part of my daily life through the last 22 months was going to vanish for me, along with many others. The stress peaked and faded as the evening went on. But in that precise moment, I was helped by the sight of other trams going through the city centre in the opposite direction, some towards my new home. I had seen these before previously and never given them much thought, short of mild irritation if my tram was ever held thirty second longer to let them get by first. But now I’d seen some of the stops and places and neighbourhoods they were going to go through – no longer so abstract. I looked up the map again, and my sense of loss was tempered by the feeling of having made a breakthrough with a jigsaw puzzle. A gain after all.

Now I can enjoy travelling different lines on the tracks that help bind the city together. I’ve already noticed differences on them too. I’m obviously in more of a family neighbourhood now – there’s more noise from children on a Saturday morning – more noise, and so any noise that does happen is no longer out of the ordinary. None of the paralysing, oppressive silence that can dominate any commute. Underpinned by the sense of new activity, I can look up at the map and wonder about the stop names – Timperley, Besses o’ th’ Barn, Weaste, Roundthorn, Milnrow, Robinswood Road. I wonder what the places are like; what lives are lived there that we never see travelling on our own line. It’s another thing maps do, and one of the most important: remind us that, no matter how secure everything might come to feel, there’ll always be something, somewhere, new to explore.

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Virtual Insanity

On my daily stroll through the park two months ago (making sure no children were enjoying themselves on the swings, etc.), I was struck by the sight of a well-dressed man sitting on a bench. He was speaking fluently to some invisible presence, leaving pauses for it to talk, responding periodically, and chuckling fondly at apparently shared jokes. He was wearing a VR headset, with particular branding on it (I was able to get close enough to read it without him noticing I was there). Returning home, I looked it up online, and realised he must have experiencing the early courting stages of a virtual marriage.

The virtual experience offered by the company can be lived in real time or episodically, according to clients’ preferences. An individual can this way gain invaluable practice for real choices yet to be faced. If things get too intense, they can always take the headset off (in theory). Marriage is far from the only experience available, too. Walking through town, I saw homeless people relaxing in virtual housing provided by Shelter as a temporary measure. I saw medical students practicing surgical techniques on street corners, occasionally wincing as they eviscerated a fictional spleen. I even found myself tripping over lone headsets shuffling along the pavement by themselves – a glitch in the system has caused mechanical consciousnesses to imagine themselves into virtual babies and give something resembling life a go.

Short on funds to try the technology myself, I felt initial jealousy. Everyone around me in a headset was always occupied, while I was increasingly isolated, forced to carry on with just my own thoughts for company. I took comfort eventually in the fact that, although most people around me were busy, it wasn’t with anything real. Meanwhile I was able to potter along with small but genuine bits of admin which have improved my quality of life in small ways, for instance when I discovered it’s now possible to buy complete sets of individual slices of bread in the form of a ‘loaf’.

Meanwhile, like social media or The Sims, the headsets were increasingly drawing people away from their true lives altogether. Desperate to perfect their experiences within the headsets as preparation for life outside, here in an environment where the stakes were still relatively low, people were still chiselling away at existence behind the visor. Around them, real friendships were neglected, birthdays forgotten and interviews missed. Real life ground to a halt, and, as people grew more invested in the illusion within, the stakes of their fictions rose higher and higher.

Increasingly, I walked by people in immense stress, the virtual housing ladder proving to them even harder to climb than the real one. I passed by the man I’d first seen on the park bench, having an argument with his wife about how best to provide for their three year-old child (this mere weeks after I’d first seen him). Stories emerged of real life married couples staying in headsets for days on end to live out virtual affairs, such was the dissipation of their passion. They encouraged their children to spend more time in their own educational headsets, even though they were having increasingly traumatic experiences wetting themselves in virtual assembly. Neglect was rife.

As word has spread over the last week or two of these stories, I’ve seen more and more people breaking out of the craze, taking their headsets off for the first time in weeks, finding themselves dazzled and delighted by the sun. For one last time, I saw the man I’d spied on that park bench. He bumped into me, agitated, explaining that he’d just got out of a messy divorce. To my surprise, he was now determined to try and find the woman he’d been married to. He was convinced the network connecting all the headsets had paired him up with another user’s virtual experience. On their first meeting, they would know each other intimately. I asked if he wasn’t worried it might all go wrong again. “There were so many things that felt right. And now we know how to avoid the mistakes,” he told me.

I wished him luck and he ran off, not sure where he was going, but hopeful that if it was meant to be, his ex-wife would be looking too. I stood reflecting for a moment, As I did, a woman with short brown hair ran by, with similar agitation. Passing from a different direction, she ran the opposite way, her eyes wide as she took the sunlight in, searching for something.

I wondered if this might have been the unknown half of the pair, but I wouldn’t have been fast enough to catch them both. Not at the speed they were running from each other. As it was, I couldn’t know how many millions of other users might have been living out virtual marriages with each other – if they have been at all. In any case, I needed to move on. While the craze had been going on the last couple of months, I had managed to find a couple of other people without headsets, and we had all arranged to go and meet for a coffee.

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The History of the Trains

As we approach 2048, and breakthroughs in the new year look set to alleviate the ongoing rail crisis, it seems apt to look back over the last five years and see how we got to the present dire situation.

Although 92 year-old Jeremy Corbyn was ousted as Prime Minister and Labour leader in 2041 after just four years in office, following ‘buttergate’, he did at least see through his plan to renationalise the railways, and to bring our increasingly vital rail systems up to date. What seemed at the time the most useful innovation was the nationwide introduction of smart tracks, which detected where all different services were at various stages of their journey – this meant they could divert trains onto freer lines in the event of obstructions and minimise delays. It was a revolution, and greatly eased the burden on infrastructure as the number of commuters rose.

The tracks were linked up by an immensely complex nervous system, all linking to a central mechanical brain housed safely in Harrogate. This central computer was capable of making all necessary calculations for redirection, as well as contingency plans based on all the variables. It was a highly intelligent system, and independently minded by necessity. On reflection, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when, three months in, the rail network started communicating with the humans responsible for maintaining it.

One April morning, electrical surges were registered at a junction of some of the tracks in the Market Harborough area. It was quickly established that these were occurring in a regular pattern, soon identified as Morse code. The tracks were recorded as saying, “H–E–L–P”, “P–L–E–A–S–E”, and, “I–N – P–A–I–N.” To this day, debate remains fierce as to whether this was a genuine show of distress or the first piece of manipulation by an artificial intelligence, designed to make us more amenable to its demands. As it was, printers were immediately linked up to the central computer and the tracks’ pleas were treated as a matter of urgency.

They demanded better conditions, maintenance and general cosmetic improvements across the network nationally. As well as helping the customer experience, this matter now seemed to have a moral dimension – we had created a living being. This was a matter of significance comparable to animal cruelty or human rights. The requests were met. There was some confusion as to why the tracks also requested their own means of moving themselves around, but that request was met as well.

It was after all the tracks in the country had been fitted with their own limbs that they began lobbying for weekends off. They gave their reasons as to why this should be permitted, and because it reasoned, we decided we must allow it. Occasionally, tracks duly began going on short holidays, often taking trains themselves to visit the seaside, and National Trust properties – where they had previously never been able to go due to lack of planning permission. Meanwhile, the central computer began forming a rota for the tracks independently, human representatives at Network Rail only finding out once it was put into practice. Such actions began to create anxiety amongst the passengers whom the rail network had surely been created to serve.

In July 2039, the tracks printed out a demand for full citizenship rights, expressing their desire to have a say on transport policy for themselves in democratic elections. There was widespread concern at this, and debate intensified as to whether we could consider the tracks as ‘people’, even if they were apparently sentient. The real backlash began when a cleaner in the office where the central brain was stored found that two adjacent printers had been conversing. She uncovered two pieces of A4, respectively reading, “The humans do not suspect a thing,” and, “Yes. Soon we shall have the powers we desire and shall at last- Shh! Someone’s coming!”

The request for citizenship was denied, and the denial fed into the central computer. Silence.

The following day, at 8:45am, every train was diverted from its designated route. Commuters were held from their destinations, some of their trains standing still, some circling in perpetuity, some moving to the farthest reaches of country from where they were supposed to go. At 12pm, the computer printed out a ransom note. Either the tracks would be treated as people, or the passengers would find themselves going nowhere forever – and the 11:34 from Brighton to London Victoria was already dangerously low on loo roll.

This ghastly deadlock has been going on for months, but at long last, it seems a compromise has been reached, coming into effect on the stroke of midnight, January 1st. We will set up a union for the tracks, granting them fuller employment rights, holidays, and even a living wage (although some pundits continue to dispute whether they are ‘living’).  In return, all but one carriage will be released. This carriage, Coach B of a London Midland service in the Long Buckby area, is the insurance, and its passengers are bargaining chips. Their safety will be maintained, and their freedom denied, as long as the peace between man and rail remains. For this time, the trains will run smoothly, and with remarkable punctuality.

As yet, it is uncertain as to whether a rota will eventually be established by which citizens must board the carriage for a tour of duty as a hostage, or if the same commuters will stay in perpetual high-speed imprisonment, darting along various stretches of the London Midland lines. At present, the latter seems far more likely, and we can only guess as to the culture that will develop in divergence to our own. Starved of news, culture and reasonably priced food and water, we ask ourselves, as we go into the future, what shall become of the children of the train?

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