Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation Of Time
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ
Dan has a new job working for a tabloid newspaper in London. Having moved out of the city when he married his wife Beth, Dan now needs to commute to the city and his new job each day. After fourteen months of facing delays on more trains than he can count, making him late to work often, Dan decides that it’s time to do something about it.
After writing to the customer service department of the company that run his particular train and getting no response, Dan decides to go all the way to the top of the food chain. He tracks down the email of Martin Harbottle, Managing Director of Premier Westward trains and drops him a little line about the lack of punctuality. Dan decides that every time his train is late he’s going to write Martin a letter that will waste the same amount of time in Martin’s day that the late train wasted in his.
Dan finds that he has a lot to say and being able to air his grievances is somewhat therapeutic. He finds himself emailing Martin on all manner of topics, including his job at the tabloid newspaper, which has recently been caught up in allegations and lawsuits over ethics, the war in North Africa and even Dan’s relationship with his fellow commuters, his colleagues and even his wife Beth who is depressed after the birth of their daughter Sylvie. Before he knows it, Dan finds himself spilling his guts to Martin…and soon, Martin begins writing the odd reply back. Theirs becomes a unique correspondence and one Dan comes to rely on as all aspects of his life descend into turmoil.
I’m a sucker for a good epistolary novel. And this is a good epistolary novel.
Dan is funny, sarcastic and observant. I love the way he begins his emails to Martin, noting the time of the train he’s on, where it’s going/the line, how many minutes delayed if any and his “fellow sufferers”, whom he gives clever nicknames. There are the regular morning commuters such as Train Girl (hot), Universal Grandpa, Lego Man, Competitive Tech Heads and Guilty New Mum. Journeys home sometimes include Overenthusiastic Estate Agent or Corporate Dungeon Master. Dan shares his thoughts and guesses about their lives from his brief glimpses of them on the same trains as him – although he does, as time moves forward, begin to develop more than just a passing acquaintance with some of them.
At first I think Dan just rambles, about his job, his life, current affairs etc to fill up the email, which he wants to fill a certain amount of time. If he’s over 15m late, that equals a very long email. However, soon Dan begins to enjoy confiding in Martin, telling him things that he can’t really tell other people – the problems at his work, the problems that begin to develop at home. Martin’s replies start out quite matter of fact, dictating the reason that Dan’s particular train was late (and in fact he keeps that up throughout the book, always giving Dan the reason his train was delayed) but Martin shares tiny snippets of his life and occasionally offers advice to Dan or gives comment on an issue – he seems particularly interested in some of the trashy stories that Dan’s paper covers, even though he assures Dan he’s not a tabloid man, he’s much more of a broadsheet man.
But the book isn’t just about Dan being late. Through his emails, he touches on the morality of tabloid newspapers as the one Dan works for is brought down by allegations of phone hacking and nefarious doings. Dan took the job in order to earn money to get into the housing market and you can tell that even though he keeps going, day after day, it’s wearing him down, it’s preying on his mind. But yet a part of him still delights in writing those stories, in bringing down the people who preach one way and act in a totally different way. Dan also confides in Martin about the troubles he and his wife are having – Beth is depressed after the baby’s birth and Dan works long hours due to the commute (often longer due to the delays on the train) and Dan isn’t quite sure how to help her. Their situation goes from bad to worse and all through it Dan has someone he can pour his heart out too, someone who occasionally and gently provides him with a piece of advice.
In short, I adored this book but if I had a teensy little criticism it would be that….there was not enough Martin! We get pages and pages of Dan, who usually writes lengthy emails and then a little brief one from Martin. I understand that, because Martin is the MD who is probably busy and Dan is writing to him to complain every time one of his trains are late. Occasionally Dan would ask Martin something or mention something and Martin wouldn’t answer that in his next email which would frustrate me a little! Also there’s a little left open at the end, and I’m a girl who likes everything tied up in a neat little bow, as unrealistic as that can be! But those are just small quibbles, Dan is really quite interesting enough to carry most of the book, because he certainly has a lot going on in his life, both personally and professionally. I also liked the fact that Dan maintained his sense of self, that he didn’t fall off the wagon in certain areas.
This book sprang out of the fact that Dominic Utton, a journalist, regularly experience delays on his train line…and so he took to emailing the MD of that company to talk about it. You can read Dominic’s original emails, and the responses he got, here.
Book #62 of 2014