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Martin Harbottle's Appreciation of Time by…
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Martin Harbottle's Appreciation of Time

by Dominic Utton

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Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is a funny and engaging novel, written in epistolary format, consisting of emails between Dan, a frustrated commuter, and Martin Harbottle, Managing Director of Premier Westward Trains.

A tabloid journalist, with a wife and newborn daughter at home, Dan is fed up with the continual delays he experiences during his daily commute between London and Oxford and, after fourteen months, demands a explanation from Premier Westward Trains customer service. When he receives no reply to his repeated queries, Dan tracks down the private email address of Martin Harbottle, Managing Director, and decides he will send the man an email every time he experiences a delay, with the length of the email to be equal to that of the delay he experienced whether it by 5 minutes, 12 minutes, or 17 minutes – the idea being that he would waste the same amount of his time as the train service had wasted his.

At first, Dan’s emails to Martin express his frustration at the poor service he endures, but soon Martin becomes Dan’s (mostly) silent confessor, as he shares everything from his musings about his fellow commuters – Train Girl, Lego Head and Universal Grandfather, to the distress of his strained marriage, to the looming crisis at his workplace, The Globe, loosely based on the disgraced ‘News of The World’.

Martin’s replies are often officious and dispassionate, briefly providing Dan with explanations for the delays his experiences, variously vandalism, late employees, or faulty signal boxes. But every now and then he engages with Dan with response to a question or a word of solicited advice.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time. Dan is eminently likeable, and his emails are full of keen observations, snarky wit and a just enough middle-class/ middle age angst to be both funny and poignant. I expect this novel would capture the imagination of many a commuter, no matter the mode of transport, it did mine.

**Note: For two years journalist Dominic Utton commuted between Oxford and London on First Great Western trains. In late June 2011, after 14 months of paying around £450 a month for utterly appalling service, he decided to speak up. Every time his train was delayed, he wrote to the Managing Director and Director of Communications for FGW trains – and the length of his email reflected the length of that day’s delay. He shared these missives on his blog, Letters to First Great Western and they are the inspiration for the novel, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time. ( )
  shelleyraec | Apr 27, 2014 |
Dan is a former freelance journalist who now works for weekly tabloid paper the Sunday Globe. He commutes from Oxford to London, and he's sick of the regular delays on his trains, so he writes to customer service to complain. When he receives no reply, he finds the managing director's e-mail address (he's a tabloid journalist, after all) and begins writing to him. Managing Director Martin Harbottle does reply, and they strike up a lopsided correspondence in which Dan writes to Martin every time he is delayed, for the length of the delay, and Martin replies occasionally and usually briefly. These letters, for Dan, are much like a journal with an audience of one: he complains about the terrible train service, yes, and he describes his fellow commuters with evocative nicknames, but he also writes about his home life and his work.

Home life is somewhat fraught for Dan: his wife, Beth, has just had a baby, and little Sylvie is causing the usual disruption that newborns cause. Beth is overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and depressed, and Dan is also overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and stressed (especially when his train is delayed). Meanwhile, the Globe has come under scrutiny for alleged illegal practices, and there is a court case going on; and of course there's the worsening situation in North Africa.

Martin does not always address Dan's concerns, other than explaining the (often ridiculous) causes of the delays, but that doesn't seem to bother Dan very much; complaining about the trains has become incidental to his larger narrative. One doesn't have to be a commuter, the parent of a newborn, a tabloid reader, or even a managing director to enjoy this inventive and unique novel in letters.

Quotes

And that's how I feel every morning at Oxford and every evening at Paddington. It's like anticipation in reverse....Anticipation in reverse. The feeling that what's coming is bound to be disappointing. (4)

Working in a newsroom: it's mainlining the zeitgeist. (27)

Perhaps - and I'm no managing director, obviously, so take this with a pinch - but perhaps what you could do is concentrate on running a business that can cope with the occasional emergency...the kind of company that doesn't fall apart every time something awkward happens. (33)

Isn't every story beautiful when it starts? It's what happens next that really matters. (37)

It's a tightrope. Finding the truth is the easy bit. Being able to tell the truth is another thing entirely. (46)

Between you and me, Martin, I don't think I should have told her to be reasonable. In my experience, telling someone to be reasonable almost always incites them into direct unreasonable behavior. (110)

Why anyone would choose to write such things on a train is quite beyond me; and I must say that even their seeming inability to spell the profanities they're writing makes the whole business even more disheartening. (Martin writing to Dan, on vandalism, 165)

After two hours the driver finally told us what was up. The train had failed. It had failed, Martin. It had failed at being a train. (204)

I am also sorry to hear that your trip to Torquay was marred slightly by problems on the network. Unfortunately trains do on occasion fail...I am afraid, however, that the conditions of your complimentary tickets do mean that I am unable to reimburse or recompense you in any way for the inconvenience. (Martin to Dan, 209)

Or am I wrong? Or should I stop with this whole right or wrong business, with always insisting that everything has to either be right or wrong, black or white, and acknowledge grey areas, admit things sometimes aren't as simple as newspaper sub-editors and headline writers like to pretend they are? (213)

Your trains may be appalling, but you are a gentleman at least. (239)

That's the thing about advice, It's all so simple to give and so much more difficult to take. It's the gift everyone asks for and nobody really wants. Truly, where advice is concerned, the joy is in the giving and not the receiving. Anyone can seem wise, when dealing with other people's problems, anyone can seem sorted when sorting out other people's lives. It's dealing with your own mess that's tricky. (239)

The story's solid, I'm sure of that...but it's our nuclear option. We're firing our big weapons now. We're launching a full-scale attack and I can't help thinking that the one thing we know about nuclear was is that nobody really wins in the end. (251)

That's the thing with tunnels: there's always a light at the end of them. No matter how long, how dark, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. (291-292)

That's what commuting is, Martin. That's what my life has been. It's been the slow death of the sloth. (323)

...I'm sick of Pyrrhic victories, I'm sick of scoring moral victories but losing what makes me happy in the process. (324) ( )
  JennyArch | Apr 18, 2014 |
Dan takes the train to work. That the train is frequently delayed inspires choler and bile in Dan. He begins writing emails of complaint to Westward Trains’ Managing Director (the Martin Harbottle namechecked in the title).
Though Dan imagines he is carping into the void, Martin responds. He simply apologizes for the poor quality of service, but his acknowledgement serves to encourage Dan. Soon, Dan is holding forth on various subjects unrelated to train delays: his faltering marriage, his insomniac new child, his uncertain job at tabloid newspaper The Globe (loosely based on the defunct News of The World), his attractive friend who wants benefits, world problems, etc. Dan reveals himself, through his missives, as droll, literate, and upstanding. Martin reveals very little about himself. We piece him together slowly, using the tiny scraps of information that he offers.
The little ad on the front cover says, “Don’t get mad. Get even”. Supposedly Dan is delivering justice when he contacts Martin; his stated intent is to waste as much of Martin’s time as the delayed train has wasted his. But Martin doesn’t have to read the emails if he doesn’t want to. Getting even isn’t really Dan’s motive.
So then, why does Dan continue to write to Martin, when Martin’s replies are infrequent, vague and impersonal? Why does Dan look to Martin for moral guidance and reassurance?
Dan is lonely and all at sea. Martin is a stand-in for God, and the emails are prayers, confessions. Or maybe Martin is a substitute for Dan’s dead father. Either way, Dan’s need is poignant. You’ll find yourself anxiously waiting for Martin’s next reply and disappointed when it’s another dispassionate form letter.
I’m trying to think who wouldn’t like this book…and I’ve got nothing. You’ll like it no matter who you are. It’s got universal appeal. ( )
  USCLibrary | Apr 14, 2014 |
Funny But Oh So True

Dominic Utton has hit on a winning novel with Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time, this novel is based up on the email of Daniel who has to commute in from Oxford to London on a “premier-westward” service and decides to email the Chief Executive every time his service is late.

This is the novel that all commuters want to write about their terrible, and unfortunately it is often commute in to work on our great train network. How often have we spoken to customer services and just wanted to cry in despair at their lack of service or care. This is a novel for those who have often heard the train announcer come out with the “Such and Such rail would like to apologise for the .... (late/cancelation) of the service to/from ... I have heard that announcement that often that I now have loyalty cards for a large number of coffee shops to pass the time as I wait – in hope – for the next service.

Dan our protagonist emails Martin Harbottle with a well written email equating to the length of time that the delay or cancelation has taken out of his day. Those minutes that we will never get back, he makes sure his email is the length of the delay. These musings are often funny incisive and speaking for all of us.

At the same time Dan who works as a tabloid journalist on a Sunday red top that is in trouble with the courts and the police for some of their underhand methods. He and his wife a nurse who has just given birth are living in the commuter belt so that they can make their way on to the housing chain. The only chink in his armour is the commute the train is either late or cancelled and never is a customer told the reason. Using his journalist tactics he finds the MD’s email and hence begins a long email correspondence bring all manor of subjects for discussion.

This is a funny book if read on your daily commute will mean there will be quite a few train company CEOs awaiting your email for your late arrival in our capital and elsewhere. Oh train company bosses you should read this it might even make you smile instead of just taking our cash and giving us poor service. Great book, great read for the commuter! ( )
  atticusfinch1048 | Dec 30, 2013 |
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Epigraph
'The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter'
- Mark Twain
'I wasted time, and now doth time waste me'
Shakespeare, Richard II
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people or institutions, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and, to be frank, most likely the product of your own fevered imagination. You can probably blame the media for that.
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For my dad
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Dear Sir/Madam
I am writing to complain about the continued and many delays on this line.
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Disgusted by unreliable commuter train schedules, which cause him to be habitually tardy, Dan begins sending lengthy e-mails to Martin Harbottle, the train company's director, in an attempt to cost him as much time as his trains have cost Dan. Oddly, he finds solace in opening up to a stranger about the dramas of his day job at a scandal-hit newspaper, the challenges of his night job as the father of a baby who isn't sleeping, and about life as it is played out in the confines of Coach C, while world events pass by its odd mix of inhabitants.… (more)

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