Dabbler Diary – Railway Cake


Hugh Laurie once wrote of his teenage self: “I somehow contrived to pull off the gruesome trick of being both fat and thin at the same time”. This summer has managed to be similarly perverse, being first disgustingly hot then offensively cold and wet. Why do we British even pretend to enjoy summer? Hot weather is only good if you’re abroad on holiday and don’t have to do anything except sleep, while summer cold must be endured without central heating or comfort food. People still say “I know it’s a bit strange but I actually prefer autumn” even though that isn’t the least bit strange because so does everybody else.

I was put in mind of this when reading this Spectator article by Alexander Chancellor, in which he writes about how everybody has the ‘wrong idea’ about the game of croquet

A greater misconception is that croquet is genteel. It is, in fact, one of the most vicious of games. To quote Herbert Swope, the American gambler and legendary newspaperman, on whose Long Island estate Groucho Marx and Dorothy Parker are said to have played it with unsportsmanlike rivalry in the 1920s, croquet ‘gives release to all the evil in you. It makes you want to cheat …it’s a good game.

Hang on, I thought, putting down the magazine on the side of the bath. I’ve never played croquet and know very little about it, but the one thing I do know is that it’s a vicious game that encourages cheating. I know this because it’s the one thing that everybody knows about croquet – not least from reading countless references to the fact in articles by people like Alexander Chancellor.  ‘Croquet is actually a vicious game’ is one of those comfortably familiar filler pieces that resurfaces periodically (along with such as ‘Why I’m leaving London’ and ‘If your relationship can survive shopping in Ikea it can survive anything’). I wonder how many times Chancellor himself has written it, over the years?

Very weak for the Speccie, which is meant to surprise. Indeed, I increasingly rely on it to debunk all the previous week’s news. This article gleefully trashing the middle class drinking ‘epidemic’ myth is a good example.


While we wait, eagerly sharpening our voting pencils, for the chance to anoint Jeremy Corbyn as our High Sparrow at the next General Election and usher in a brighter 1983, there are two emergent themes which I don’t think have been sufficiently questioned in the general Corbynmania coverage.

One is the notion trumpeted by Owen Jones etc that the Corbynite left has policies that are popular with the mainstream of the electorate. Leaving aside that people vote for governments rather than individual policies, it does indeed seem to be true that a majority of Britons favour re-nationalising the railways. I can only put this astonishing fact down to people having completely forgotten about British Rail.

When I was growing up, nothing – I mean, nothing – was more complained about in everyday life than British Rail. From the sandwiches to the wrong type of snow, it was, quite simply, a national punchline.

But I suppose nobody under the age of 30 has any memory of all that. Which brings me to the second emergent theme: that Corbynism has ‘engaged young people’. Like the Scottish nationalist movement, left-wing populism has got young people enthused about politics and, as the High Sparrow himself puts it, “What’s not to like about that?”

Plenty, is what. God I hate it when young people start getting enthused about politics.

The problem with young people is that they don’t care about the future. This is partly because they’re ignorant of the past, but mostly it’s because for teenagers the future is a vague thing full of idealistic possibilities in which smashing the system will probably make things better. Youths are reckless about the future because it isn’t a real thing to them and seems far away: they don’t even realise that it will contain their own deaths. This is as it should be, but also why their political opinions should be ignored.

The people who care about the future are parents and grandparents. I would raise the voting age to 32, which is when disillusionment begins slowly to turn to resigned acceptance and a sort of constant low-level fear.


On a more optimistic note, this is very good. I imagine a sizzling love affair between the two dancers. In a Wes Anderson movie they would be an old couple running a strange hotel and this would be a flashback about how they met.


I don’t have specific memories of British Rail sandwiches but am strongly nostalgic about a particular kind of hard, dry fruitcake prevalent in the 1980s. It came in slim rectangular slices individually wrapped in a plastic substance of which, lacking any intrinsic flavour of its own, it tasted. We called it ‘Railway Cake’ because it would typically be seen on the train trolley, but I remember it most from our summer holidays in North Devon: it was invariably the ‘dessert’ element in the packed lunch option supplied by the kitchens of the NALGO holiday camp.

The great joy of Railway Cake was that each slice contained a single treat in the form of a cross-sectioned glacé cherry. I developed a special method of eating the cake, nibbling all around so as to save this sugar-loaded fruity sweatmeat for the last bite.

Bloody terrible, really, those cakes, absolute archetypal British culinary rubbish of the time before the great UK foodie revolution of the 1990s. We’ll say things like ‘I never saw an olive before I was fifteen’ to our grandchildren in the same way that our war-surviving elders talked about bananas.


The best time to drive down the M5 to Devon in the summer if you have small children is at night, because they sleep most of the way. There are drawbacks. For example, if they don’t sleep then playing I-spy on a dark motorway can be trying.

We discovered another one last month. At around 11.15pm we suffered a savage puncture on the A361 near Chivenor. Naturally we had no spare tyre, only the sticking plasters/can of gas combo which Vauxhall laughably calls a ‘space-saver kit’ and which, as every professional mechanic has ever told me, usually doesn’t work. I ruled that out immediately as I surveyed the rubbery wreckage that used to be a mid-price tyre. The freezing summer holiday rain lashed my face and droplets penetrated my collar.

Very retro situation, this, I thought. Belongs to another era, like Jeremy Corbyn’s beard. The car breaking down on the way used to be as much a routine part of the holiday journey as stopping at Little Chef or being sick. At least now we can call the AA from inside the car instead of walking miles to find a phone. Mrs Brit googled the number on her iPhone while I climbed back in and sucked water from the inside of the hood of my raincoat. It tasted of 1980s plastic and Railway Cake. The girls slept on, oblivious.


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13 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Railway Cake

  1. wormstir@gmail.com'
    August 3, 2015 at 11:05

    “Croquet is a vicious game” is definitely right up there as a massively well-known ‘little-known fact’ along with “Bloody vicious, Swans are – they’ll break yer arm given half a chance”

    • Brit
      August 3, 2015 at 12:04

      A better article would be ‘Why croquet is, contrary to popular misconception, a very genteel game which teaches the art of good sportsmanship’.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    August 3, 2015 at 11:13

    I have a theory (well, who doesn’t) which goes something like this…we assume, because we are forever being told, that the media is that great bulwark between them and us, journalism is the thin red line, the kid with his digit in the dyke, if you will pardon the expression. It did, after all, grass up the politician’s fiddles, this from a section of society that, itself, had it’s beak in the expense’s trough since time immemorial.
    The current mini firestorm surrounding that bloke with the beard who appears somewhat bemused is merely this weeks media filler, next week…who knows? They, the bulwark have, like the Borg, merged with the object of their ire, they have become part of the problem, they should be prised away from their good little earner and concentrate on the rise, or demise of celebrities and the rescue of cats from trees.

    • Brit
      August 3, 2015 at 12:08

      Yes it’s a sort of quantum observer effect. We put Corbyn in the headlines and then report that Corbyn is in the headlines, then have a headline about someone saying he shouldn’t be in the headlines, etc etc.

      There is news because there must be news, and now the news is the news.

      • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
        August 3, 2015 at 13:06

        Yes, and the same phenomenon is going on with Trump on the other side of the spectrum on the other side of the pond. It seems the media has an insatiable appetite for ten second spots that feature semi-literate nobodies claiming their man “tells it like it is”.

        • Brit
          August 3, 2015 at 13:29

          Mind you, who wouldn’t pay good money to be a fly on the wall in the first meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Corbyn?

        • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
          August 4, 2015 at 01:04

          The problem, I think is that it would be too depressing to utter the plain truth: we are heading for Bush v. Clinton. It is not depressing for their adherents or funders, but it must depress circulation figures of newspapers and audience share on TV.

          Republican candidates always take at least two hands to count at this stage of the cycle, but invariably there is one who is bound to make it, and a herd who will not. In 1980 there were Reagan, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, one or more Cranes, and several others whose names a true political junkie could come up with several more. But it would have been a reckless man who bet on any but Reagan. 1964 may have been the last true surprise.

          Trump makes good copy, i.e., he is happy to say idiotic things. He has no chance of winning the nomination. In fact, I don’t think that he will have any substantial effect on the process, other than to make some consultants richer.

    • Gaw
      August 3, 2015 at 18:12

      Contrary to expectations, social media appears to be destroying the Left as an electoral force. Kenny Farquarson, a journalist, coined a fabulous phrase the other day: ‘selfie politics’. All about striking a pose and ganging up. I think what is being revealed to us is some deep-seated truth about idealistic politics. I’m not sure what it is but I am sure it’s not the one Paul Mason is talking about.

  3. August 3, 2015 at 11:14

    What’s good about autumn? Every week is a little colder than the last, the days grow shorter and the trees lose their leaves. Like growing old, it’s a time of diminishing pleasures. I’m quite happy with the summer, apart from that brief period when it becomes vaguely foreign, with a cloying humidity and an oppressive, enervating heat.

    You have my sympathies on the holiday front. After a few miserable holidays spent in the rain with children going stir crazy, I now keep a firm eye on the weather forecast and only book at the last minute, when sunshine is guaranteed. If you do it for a long weekend in term time (and frankly, one or two days bunking off primary school isn’t going to ruin your child’s academic future), prices are good and the beaches are empty.

    • Brit
      August 3, 2015 at 12:10

      We’re lucky because we stay with the kids’ grandparents down in Devon. I much prefer the beaches in winter.

    • Worm
      August 3, 2015 at 13:24

      growing up in cornwall, we weren’t allowed to acknowledge ‘rain’ (despite it being omnipresent) and if we were out on any beach/boat outing whilst it was raining, we would be handed black bin bags to make head and arm holes in and wear as rudimentary ponchos. Practical AND stylish :/

    • Gaw
      August 3, 2015 at 18:16

      There’s no worse night of the year than the one when the clocks go back. Not even New Years Eve.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    August 3, 2015 at 15:17

    Envy we oldies if you will, off we jolly well go, just as the wild eyed, shattered parents are returning with the brood, low cost flights, even lower cost Air B&B accommodation etc. Except , three weeks at forty plus in Florence, stepped onto the Ryanair charabanc in forty five degrees (gas mark seven), stepped off at Edinburgh in fifteen degrees. Seemed like paradise. Viva British summer, snow in the Cairngorms and Worm mini-me’s pelting hither and yon on a West Country beach bedecked in bespoke Tesco’s finest placky bags.

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