The pandemic update, in which Britain tries to beat the world

Let’s start in France instead of Britain:

Because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, wine sales have been down. Bar and restaurant closures hit the industry hard, and if that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump got mad at the whole damn country and slapped a 25% tariff on French wine. 

What’s a wine-producing country to do?

Make hand sanitizer. Some 200 million liters of unsold wine will be–or possibly already has been; it’s hard to know how to read this–made into hand sanitizing gel. That will free up space in the wine caves for this year’s vintage. 

The gel will not sport its vintage on the label, although up-market wines were hit particularly hard, so you could be rubbing your hands with some really great wines. Or at least some really expensive ones. 

You can’t turn it back into wine, though, no matter how hard you try. 


Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.


In Britain, shutting down the pubs–and also opening them back up, which will happen eventually–is all about beer, and beer (I’ve just learned) doesn’t last forever

So how do you get rid of it? You can’t just dump it down the drain. You have to talk to the water board. You have to record everything and verify everything, because you’re going to want to get your beer duty back from the brewers. 

Beer duty? You don’t want to know. It’s a tax. And you have to  submit a Beer Duty (in caps) form by the fifteenth day of the month after your accounting period. 

After you do all that, presumably, you can dump it down the drain.


New Zealand is now free of Covid-19. You probably already heard that, but good news is hard to come by and I can’t let it go to waste: New Zealand. Covid free.

If you’re not New Zealandish, though, you can’t go there. They’re keeping tight control of the borders, and even incoming New Zealanders will be quarantined–by which I don’t mean the mythical quarantine Britain’s imposed (ride public transportation, go shopping, lick a few door handles, then stay kind of vaguely inside, mostly, unless you need something), but the real kind, where you don’t breathe on people or touch them or lick their door handles.


With that out of the way, let’s talk about the world-beating track and trace system that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised us. 

Why do we want to beat the world on this? Because we’re coming second in our official count of coronavirus deaths (the US is ahead, the wretches, and Brazil’s rushing up the charts just behind us). Well, by gum, that’s not good enough. We need to beat someone at something. 

How are we doing at beating the world with our track and trace system, then? 


Our custom-built track and trace app should be ready next month, the government says. It was supposed to be ready last month, but never mind. One month is a lot like another when you’re in lockdown. And the calling system that’s supposed to back it up, or possibly substitute for it until it’s working, is a privatized shambles. 

An independent science advisory group, formed by the government’s former chief non-independent science advisor, Sir David King, says the system isn’t–in that very British phrase–fit for purpose. To prevent the infection rate rising, he says, it needs to detect 80% of an infected person’s contacts, and it won’t. He’s called for it to be scrapped.

“This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes. We believe that a new approach is required, one that moves away from a centralised system that utilises a local-first approach. We are calling on the government to urgently rethink their course to ensure that we have a system in place that will help and not hinder the country’s recovery.”

Why’s the government stuck on the idea of a centralized system? My best guess is because there’s money to be made that way, and contracts to be handed out, and the god of privatization to be placated with large offerings.

One contactor in the tracing program is Serco, which has an impressive record of disaster. A few months back, it was fined £1 million for failures on a contract.

And £3 million for messing up another contract

And £122.9 million (plus repaying £68.5 million) for another. That’s for the contract that saw them billing the government for all the work involved in monitoring the movements of the dead.

No, that’s not a joke. They really did that.

Anyway, they’re working on the contact tracing program. We’re in good hands here.

The junior health minister, Edward Argar, is a former Serco lobbyist. Which has nothing to do with anything. Don’t give it a minute’s thought. I only mentioned it because I’m biased.


A small pest-control company–small as in 16 staff members and £18,000 in assets–was awarded a £108 million Department of Health contract, making it the government’s largest supplier of protective equipment. 

A coffee, tea, and spice wholesaler got a £2.15 million contract to supply medical and surgical face masks. 

All told, £340 million in contracts were signed in April, most of them without a competitive process. Some of the companies may be doing exactly what they’re being paid to do. Others–. Well, you do get the sense that a lot of money was spent without adult supervision.

I was going to give you a link to Pest Magazine for this story, because how many times in a life does a person get a chance to link to Pest Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s not much of an article. I only added the paragraph to justify the link.


But we don’t need to go to a pest control company to buy a mask. A full-page newspaper ad tells me that we can all order our own, and since they’re not the kind the NHS uses, we’re not taking anything they need. The masks come in packs of three, they’re reusable, and the ad doesn’t say how much they cost.

But no mask is complete without face mask sanitizing spray, which is designed to “eliminate and reduce the spread of harmful germs and viruses.” So first we eliminate the little bastards and then, in case that isn’t enough, we reduce them. And it all comes with a 100% money back guarantee. The fine print is too small for human eyes, but I think it says that if you die from the virus, you get your money back.


But we were talking about Britain beating the world, and it still could. Or at least it could lead the world’s major economies in being hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Go, us!

The current guess is that we’ll be looking at an 11.5% fall. 

And even better, the Covid Crash should hide whatever disasters a no-deal or last-minute-deal Brexit brings us.

The pandemic update from Britain: visors, volunteers, and outsourcing

The ongoing saga of why the British government can’t provide protective equipment for health and care workers just keeps getting stranger. The government’s said all along that the problem is about distribution, not supply. Did anyone believe them? Why would we? Truth’s a scarce commodity lately. It turns out, though, that in a strange way they were telling the truth. 

It all starts with the outsourcing of the British stockpile of  emergency equipment. 

Outsourcing? That’s when the government pays the lowest bidder to do work it used to do itself because, um, it’ll be more efficient that way. And cheaper. And even if it turns out to be neither of those things, by the time that happens no one’s watching anymore and it fits with the political orthodoxy of the moment so it’s all good. That means we have private companies deciding who’s eligible for government benefits, a company with no ships got a contract for post-Brexit shipping, and a private company is managing the nation’s stock of essential emergency equipment. 

A store in Launceston, Cornwall, has set out a table offering free fabric to anyone making protective gear. Someone in our village is sewing masks to sell at the local shop as a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance.  She ran out of elastic yesterday and offered a free mask to anyone who’d give her some. I think she ignored the woman who offered to cut up her underwear.

Which brings us back to our tale:

In three years, that stockpile’s been in three different warehouses. The company in charge of it has just been sold. There’s also a lawsuit involved, along with a landlord who’s threatening to lock the warehouse gates, with the stockpile on the inside and the need for it on the outside. The cars of warehouse workers were searched one day as they left work and I wish I knew the story behind that but I don’t.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock swears the government’s rising to the challenge and–um, something, but don’t worry about it, it’s all going to be fine. 

The Department of Health and Social Care explained why it would all be fine even if it wasn’t yet by saying, “We’ve had to create a whole new logistics network, essentially from scratch.”

That was on April 12. So far they’ve invented the wheel part of the logistics network. Any day now, they’ll work out how to get the wheel on a truck. Then they’ll drive that much-needed equipment where it’s needed.

As soon as they locate a map. And invent a driver. They’re working on the DNA even as I type.


While that was going on, the government made a deal to buy protective gear from a company in Turkey. Planes were sent. Or one was sent and others were on standby The press was called: Look! Protective gear! Eighty-three tones of it! Aren’t we clever? See how we take care of our frontline health workers? It’ll be here on Sunday.

Then the aforesaid Sunday came and the gear didn’t. 

Either someone hadn’t gotten export approvals in Turkey (which the people in charge of that deny) or something else had gone wrong. One theory is that the company that was supposed to supply it overpromised.

On the 22nd–that was the Wednesday after the Sunday in question–a planeload arrived. According to one guess, it carried ten percent of the order.



I still haven’t seen an explanation of why the protective gear can’t be made domestically. In 2010 (the most recent year I can find statistics for) £1.5 billion worth of clothing and accessories were made in the U.K. I can’t break out the accessories from that to give you a number for clothing alone, but basically a lot of cloth is involved in this, with all the machinery and skills that involves. And then there are all those people sitting home with pinking shears and sewing machines, pitching in locally, or ready to. They can’t make ventilators, but scrubs? For anyone who can sew, scrubs are easy.

Could local efforts be scaled up with government support? You bet your dining room curtains they could.

Surgical gowns need to be “made from either impermeable material or a water-resistant, tightly woven fabric,” so we can’t all cut up our old sheets and make them, but if the garment industry and the people at home who sew are provided with the fabric, it could be done. They may not turn out everything that’s needed, but right now anything would help. 


Semi-relevant comment: “People at home who sew” is an awkward thing to call anyone, but if you’re at all at ease with English you’ll understand why sewers doesn’t work. Seamstresses is gender-specific and so not necessarily accurate. In a tweet, the linguist Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist) mentioned the word sewists, which turns out to be something some people actually call themselves, but I don’t think I can manage it so I’ll just leave a gap in the language and fill it with awkward phrases.


With that out of the way, let’s check in on a few volunteer efforts. In Somerset, 700 people are making scrubs and wash bags. They’ve set up a warehouse in a driving school and driving school staff do the deliveries. Local people are donating the fabric. That translates to, Keep an eye on those curtains if they matter to you at all.

In Bedfordshire, a design and technology teacher and a group of volunteers are making visors, with a group called Discover Islam providing funding for the materials and bringing lunch. So far, they’ve made 7,500.

In Kent, a school has been working with the fire brigade, making 20,000 visors. And two brothers in Wrexham, who are eleven and thirteen, started using a 3D printer they got for Christmas to make protective visors for people working in care homes. That sparked thirty volunteers to start working at a school, using donated and crowdfunded printers. They can make two hundred visors a day and hope to shift to an injection-molding process that will turn out eight thousand a day.

One injection-molding machine was donated by a company, Toolmakers Ltd., and the other was donated by the North Wales Freemasons. Who, I’m sure, had one sitting around in the basement, waiting to come out of mothballs.

The brothers are still turning out visors on their home printer.


As for the protective gear available in hospitals, it isn’t designed to fit women. On one unit, half the women failed the fit test, meaning they can’t work with the most infectious cases without putting their lives at risk. The only men who fail the fit test are either very small or refuse to shave their beards.

Since eight out of ten (or three out of four, depending on your source, and possibly on how you define your sample and whether you round the numbers up or down)–

Let’s start that again: Since most of the people working in healthcare are women, it only makes sense that the equipment is designed for men.

The problem was raised as long ago as 2016. The people in charge stuffed their fingers in their ears and sang, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”

We are all very, very happy.


Poison control centers in the US report an increased number of calls from people asking about disinfectants–presumably whether to drink them, inject them, or do both at once while gargling bleach and juggling fire. 

A Fox News article reports that the New York Poison Control center saw thirty cases of exposure to bleach and other cleaners in eighteen hours after Trump suggested that they might cure coronavirus. In a similar period last year, they saw thirteen cases.

Trump is now claiming that when he recommended disinfectants he was being sarcastic, and I recently saw a tweet saying that only a liberal would be stupid enough to drink bleach and liberals are the reasons that products have safety warnings.

My friends, satire is dead. 


In Italy, even a Covid-19-impaired sense of smell can catch whiffs of lawsuits related to pandemic deaths. Prosecutors are looking at heavy clusters of deaths to see whether people in authority are responsible. Lawyers are advertising to the bereaved. 

One group of people took to Facebook, first just to bear witness to their losses, but the group quickly turned to gathering evidence for a lawsuit–not against healthcare workers but against “those in leadership positions.” 

“We do not want financial compensation,” Luca Fusco, who started the Facebook group, said. “Our main objective is to have justice from a criminal perspective, so if someone is responsible, we want them to be charged and brought to trial.”

While we’re talking about lawsuits, the state of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against China for economic damages caused by the virus–presumably because China screwed up and the U.S. has handled it so effectively. And an Italian ski resort is suing China’s health ministry.

When all else fails, sue someone. Once upon a time, in a very different world that we all used to live in, I’d have said, “Suing someone? It’s the American way,” but I don’t think I get to make that joke anymore.


A drug that looked promising as a treatment for Covid-19, Remdesivir, has failed a double blind test and the trial was stopped early because of the side effects. It was used in China in uncontrolled–for which read, desperate–trials and seemed to help. The drug’s manufacturer says it may be useful in patients who are not as ill as those in the trial. 

I think I hear a hint of desperation in that, caused the sight of money disappearing out the window, but I’m ready to admit (a) that I’m getting more cynical every day and (b) that they could well know something real about this.

Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola.


Speaking of privatization–which we’re not anymore, but we were not long ago–a privately run coronavirus test center has managed not to send any test results to some people and to send the wrong test results to other people. 

It’s a drive-through center in–I don’t make this stuff up–Chessington World of Adventures. It’s being run by Boots (a drug store chain, or in British, a pharmacy chain), Serco (an outsourcing company), and Deloitte (which is basically an auditing company and I have no idea why they’re photo-bombing the operation).

They’ve all covered themselves with glory. 

A government lab doing diagnostic tests isn’t doing great work either. Because the country has had trouble getting reagents and assorted chemicals (unnamed, mercifully, otherwise I’d have to spell them), they’ve had to rely on substandard ones and may have missed some infections.

And the government turns out to have ignored offers from leading scientific institutions to help with testing. Along with a businessman’s offer to produce 450 visors a day, which sounds like it’s one of many.

The Cabinet Office said it’s “incredibly grateful for over 8,000 offers of support from suppliers as part of the national effort to ensure appropriate PPE is reaching the front line.

“We are working rapidly to get through these offers, ensuring they meet the safety and quality standards that our NHS and social care workers need, and prioritising offers of larger volumes.”

It has, it says, engaged with over 1,000 companies and is working with 159 potential UK manufacturers.

So that’s going well.


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the government bought some 3.5 million antibody test kits, which were supposed to test whether people have been exposed to Covid-19 and might therefore be immune. If, of course, having had the virus turns out to confer immunity, which no one’s sure of yet.

The best of the tests are only seventy percent accurate. The worst? They’re fifty percent accurate. Given that only two answers are possible, yes and no, that means you could do as well by flipping a coin. 

Sorry, I tried to come up with a better image but couldn’t get a 50/50 chance out of throwing socks at the washing machine or letting the dogs loose in the back yard.

The government’s trying to get its money back. And I’m trying to get back my lost youth.

Not my lost innocence. Innocence is overrated. Or mine was, anyway.


South Korea is being looked as a country that might show us how to get out of this mess. It brought the rate of infection down from some 900 daily to dozens and then into the single digits, all without going into lockdown. How? By testing. It set up hundreds of free testing centers–drive through, walk through, mobile. (Not in a World of Adventures park as far as I know. They may not understand what an adventure we’re all having over here.) Then it traced the contacts of people who tested positive and alerted them. 

To avoid pointing a finger at infectious people, they’ve anonymized the alerts. 

Although they didn’t institute a lockdown, they did convince people to distance themselves and urged companies to allow employees to work from home, and they placed some restrictions on public places, schools, and religious services. 

They’re worried about a second wave when those are relaxed, so we can’t say they’ve solved the problem yet. 


What are all the lockdowns going to do to the world’s economies? The short answer is that we’re going to be in deep shit. Different types and amounts of shit in different countries, of course, but nobody’s likely to come out of this smelling good.. The International Monetary Fund says the world’s facing the worst depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some experts are predicting famines in the poorest countries

I know. You come here to have a good laugh. Don’t I just know how to have fun?


We need one feel-good story. A former paratrooper who was walking the entire British coast, with his dog, to raise money for an armed forces charity was offered refuge on an uninhabited Shetland island for the duration of the lockdown. He was given the key to a former shepherd’s hut–no electricity, no running water–and coal, water, and food are dropped off every couple of weeks, weather allowing. In between, He forages, fishes, collects driftwood, and keeps a three-week supply of dog food on hand.

He had been homeless after he left the forces, struggling with anxiety and depression, and started his walk with £10 in his pocket when he faced homelessness a second time, starting out .

Since he’s been on the island, he said, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Taking the Train to London, or Adventures in Choice

I took the train to London.

That shouldn’t be the opening sentence of a tale, but bear with me, because I had choices to make.

Arrival time. Okay, sane enough thing to choose, but arrival time wasn’t so much about the time I needed to be in London but how much time I needed to allow for delays so I could be sure I’d get to London by the time I needed to be in London. Train problems? Let’s say half an hour. Tracks? Same. Signalling problems? File that with tracks. No floods at the moment. Someone throwing themselves on the line? Hours. Everything stops while the police do the whole crime-scene routine and finally release the train and its traumatized driver to finish the run.

Wild Thing and I were on a train once when this happened. After that, it’s something you calculate. Or decide not to calculate, which is what I did. I’d take my chances.

Irrelevant photo. The coast near Fowey, Cornwall.

Irrelevant photo. The coast near Fowey, Cornwall.

Having weighed all of this and chosen a time, I had to choose a website. Google offered me over 40 million results. I confess, I didn’t check them all, but every one of the promotions I did read claimed to be cheap, cheapest, cheaper, or more discounted, better looking, and thinner than all the others. I compared. I contrasted. I did my best impression of a careful shopper. But this wasn’t just about comparing sites, because trains on a single route are priced differently. Why? Because the train companies want to make us crazy. Not to mention because finding the cheapest possible ticket is a full-time job and most of us don’t have the time and dedication, so—hmm; they wouldn’t be making money from making us crazy, do you? Anyway, the question wasn’t just what time I wanted to be in London, allowing for as many delays as I was willing to allow for, but how much I was willing to pay to arrive at the time I wanted to arrive, or how willing I was to get there earlier or later if I wanted to save a few quid.

On the train I chose, the 11:40, the cost of an advance ticket with no rail card ran from £46 to £46. I was grateful to have done my comparison shopping, because it was going to save me big bucks. That was, of course, before taking into account that many of the web sites charge for using a credit card, using the web site, using your own keyboard, and breathing air. I bought my ticket from the train operator, First Great Western, which is what I would have done if I hadn’t done my comparison shopping.

Another confession here: I do have a rail card, and I use it, which reduced the cost of the ticket by quite a bit. It had damn well better, because I have to pay to have it. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

I made more choices: Quiet coach? Noisy coach? Morris dancing coach? Forward facing or rear facing seat? Aisle or window? Inside out or upside down? Enter your credit card details and prepare to be boarded by pirates.

My tickets came the next day.

On the day I was traveling, I left an extra half hour to get to the station because I live in the country and it’s easy to get caught behind a tractor or a herd of cows. I got caught instead behind a garbage truck, which is less romantic. It lumbered its way along the highway at ten miles under the speed limit, but eventually I found a straightaway and passed. But in Exeter, traffic was backed up to—well, it was backed up to where it’s always backed up to and I thought I’d allowed for it but I hadn’t.

If you miss your train, you can always buy a last-minute ticket for the next train, I told myself.

This was supposed to spread inner peace throughout my being, but I’ve read about the cost of last-minute tickets, so it didn’t. No one understands the pricing system, but we all understand that buying last-minute tickets is insane. Everyone complains and agrees that we’re getting ripped off.

I fretted about the traffic, reminded myself that I could buy a last-minute ticket, fumed about the cost, bumped forward a few car lengths, checked the time, rehearsed parking problems I hadn’t had yet, and generally enjoyed my tour of Exeter. Which, if you’re in the mood for it, is a beautiful city.

I wasn’t in the mood. It was ugly.

At the station, I used a phone-in/credit card system to pay for my parking. The alternative was to plug the machine with more coins than any normal human is physically able to carry. The phone-in system gave me another choice: I could pay for 48 hours and be pissed off because I needed—allowing for brake problems and signal breakdowns on the return trip—let’s say 28 hours, or I could pay for 24 hours and risk a ticket. I wasn’t offered the choice of 24 hours plus four. Having chosen to measure in days, I seemed to be stuck measuring in days.

I paid for 48 hours was pissed off.

I had ten minutes before the train was due and stopped at the departures board. Where I didn’t find the 11:40.

Now, I raise numerical incompetence to the level of high art, so the night before I’d checked the departure time on my ticket at least three times. It might have been more. I don’t really trust myself to remember the number three. Still, I was almost sure my train left at 11:40, but there I stood before a board listing exactly two London trains, and one at 11:55 and the other was at 12:13.

Fine, I thought. Either I’ve mixed up the time or it’s been rescheduled. Just get on the 11:55 and don’t worry.

And even as I heard myself think that, I remembered newspaper articles about people catching the wrong train for one reason or another and having to pay the full, absurd, last-minute fare as well as a penalty fare. Punch “wrong train ticket” into Google UK and you get 3,480,000 results. Approximately. The 8 or 10 thousand (okay, the 1 or 2) that I checked personally are testimony to how intricate and incomprehensible the system is. People write in and ask, “What happens if I catch the wrong train?” and are warned about penalties and unpaid fare notices and the possibility of prosecution.

Do not get on the wrong train, the saner part of my brain warned.

It’ll be fine, the other part said. I’m always being taken for a tourist. I’m expected to be an idiot.

The last two statements were true—my accent is unchangingly American—but the first was not, so I thought I’d ask the man at the ticket barrier about my train. He’d helped me and half a dozen other people get through when we put in the wrong ticket and the barrier didn’t open. You should understand that every passenger gets two tickets, and they look almost identical, but only one of them opens the barrier, so it makes sense to pay someone to stand there to keep people moving through.

Sort of. I seem to remember reading the privatizing the trains was going to get rid of inefficiencies. And give us choice, which is a good thing because it gives us choice. But those are serious issues, so never mind.

Before I had time to bother him, I spotted another column of numbers on the board. Numbers are like that for me. They can be right in front of me and stay invisible.

The new column was the time the trains were scheduled, and there was my 11:40, delayed until 12:13. I left the man at the ticket barrier in peace and made my way to track 5. Which I checked twice, although the London train’s always at track 5.

The later train, the 11:55 pulled in, but those of us who were booked on the 11:40 couldn’t get on without incurring the wrath of First Great Western and of the Great God of Railway Tickets, who is an angry god and afflicted with obsession-compulsive disorder, so lo, although we looked on longingly, we waited.

The train doors closed. The train sat. It sat a while longer. A man got off, pursued by the angry and, I should mention, invisible God of Railway Tickets.

“I got confused,” he said to the milling crowd.

He was not fined or penalized or beheaded, presumably because the wheels hadn’t yet turned.

I have no idea how he found out he was in the wrong train. Maybe he tried to claim his reserved seat and found someone else had a better claim.

A couple with tickets for the later but earlier train—that’s the 11:55 in case I’ve confused you as much as is appropriate to this tale—appeared but weren’t allowed to board because the doors had closed. The platform guard told them they were required to be on the train two minutes prior to departure.

They argued: They’d used the elevator that allows the disabled to cross the tracks, and it was slow.

It is slow. I’ve used it when my partner was recovering from ankle surgery.

“The doors close two minutes prior to departure,” the platform guard said.

The train started to roll, ending the argument. They now had two useless tickets. They could return them for a refund, minus a booking fee, but they couldn’t use their tickets on our earlier but later train because they weren’t for that train. They either had to go home and forget the whole thing or buy two outrageously expensive last-minute tickets.

Thank god privatization freed us from the stranglehold of bureaucracy.

I don’t know what they did because I headed for the café, where I bought a cup of tea to take on board, because the café on the platform gives you a full cup but if you buy it on board a full cup is too dangerous—you get about three-quarters.

Don’t ask.

I passed a man whose tee-shirt said, “Forever Delayed.” I figured him for a regular rider.

Our train pulled in. My seat was in the last row, just in front of the train manager’s compartment, so I got to eavesdrop on the conversation when a woman knocked on the door and asked if he’d sign her ticket so it would be accepted on a later connecting train.

He did. What would happen, I wondered, to all the people who hadn’t ask him to do that? Maybe, knowing a train was delayed, the train managers would be kind. And maybe not. Maybe since the system is now broken up, they wouldn’t know that a train run by another company was delayed.

Two women ahead of me began a cross-aisle conversation about whether one of them would get to Gatwick in time to catch her flight. She was Spanish-speaking, and I got into the conversation half to help out and half for the pleasure of speaking Spanish. Her connection was tight and she was worried.

I knocked on the train manager’s door, and he talked her through the two trains she could catch—one direct but later, the other a involving a transfer but earlier. He recommended the later, easier train, but she was too worried about her flight to take the risk. We discussed platforms and staircases and the name of the stop where she had to change trains, all in a mixture of English and Spanish.

Mercifully, we the gaps in our vocabularies didn’t match.

Although she lived in Spain, she was from Colombia and her Spanish was as beautiful and easy to follow as any I’ve heard. She was also extremely tense. If she missed her flight, her ticket would turn to ash.

The train manager printed out two bits of paper that looked like cash register receipts, detailing her route. I asked if he needed to sign her ticket and he said no.

I didn’t ask if he really needed to sign the last woman’s.

After the Colombian woman left the train, I got into a conversation with the man in the seat next to me. He lives in Plymouth and his wife travels to London for two days each week. He’d become a ticket geek, he told me. The cheap tickets are released twelve weeks ahead of time, so he’s up early on Saturdays to buy one before they sell out. We’d both read that it’s sometimes possible to lower the cost of a trip by booking separate tickets on a single train—Exeter to Reading, say, and then Reading to London, all without getting off the train. He’d never gone that far. It’s a system that begs you to make mistakes. I’d end up putting myself on different trains, or on the same train on different days.

“Choice,” he said, shaking his head.

It is indeed a wonderful thing.