conversation in Kings Cross railway station, London
So, there I was at Kings Cross railway station in London, standing on a platform in the mid-winter breeze, waiting for the doors of a mid-afternoon train to Cambridge to open. After a short while I felt the need to urinate. I decided to follow up this urge by seeking out the nearest public lavatory. Eventually I located it and confronted one of the many frustrations of traveling by rail in Britain: one must pay 20p to activate the station toilet entrance barriersa major inconvenience when one is in a hurry, has very few coins in one's pocket, and is in possession of a full bladder. I paid the toll, and, as usual, the barriers failed to work. Three failed attempts and 60p lost, all was not well at entrance one.
So I did what I've done on countless occasions: ended the frustration by jumping over the barriers. Behind me in the queue was a tall man sporting an unattractive purple tracksuit top. He had his thinning blonde hair in a ponytail. He shared in my frustration, claiming: "This sort of thing doesn't happen where I come from!", followed by a robust laugh. Perhaps, after his stay in Britain, he will view this toilet episode as symbolic of a country whose public services are in decay. Things are clearly better for him at home. In any case, the shared frustration we experienced produced a spirit of togetherness in the urinals area. A flurry of conversation took place while we relieved ourselves.
I asked Mr PonyTail where he came from. "I'm from Finland!" he said with a certain amount of pride, "and everything works in Finland!" Ah, Finland. My mind suddenly began to flood with nostalgia and memories of Lasse Viren. Lasse Viren was an athlete of slight build and with patchily constructed facial hair. He captured my imagination during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, by winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races for Finland. It was a games when the Soviet Union and East Germany finished way ahead of the Americans and the Brits in the medals table. I tended to support the Soviet Union against the Americans in most of the team events. The Soviet Union were the baddies. So, naturally, I wanted the baddies to win.
I also had a thing for the pretty Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comeneci. But she was a 14-year-old stunning the world by scoring the first perfect 10 on the asymmetrical bars and the beam. At the time I was an over-excited 11-year-old schoolboy in South London. It never would have lasted. But, while Nadia was the star in Montreal, the ungainly but feisty Lasse was my hero. I wondered aloud whether Lasse was still alive. "Of course he is!", replied the Finn. As if the very idea of Lasse passing away was unthinkable. Maybe the Finns have invented immortality, too.
So, while recent newspaper surveys suggest that over 80% of Brits are dissatisfied with the state of public transport in Britain, it's refreshing to knowand I am happy to report to youthat everything works in Finland and Lasse Viren still alive.