Just can't tune out Irritate FM

December 8, 2006

The train doesn't always take the strain, finds Kevin Fong, after enduring an ear-splitting mobile conversation all the way home

I'm on the train, on the way back from Liverpool. I got to the station early and bagged a seat next to a table with a power point.

Nirvana: the prospect of a productive couple of hours of work, free of the distractions of e-mail, television and kettles. I even drew up a list of stuff to do: write that lecture, fill in that form, read those papers.

Then a girl with a mobile phone to her ear boards the train and sits behind me. "Alright babe? It's me," starts her conversation, which in and of itself is OK, albeit a little loud, but there follows another half-hour of anecdote about a wedding or something. The plot is hard to discern among the tirade of eye-watering expletives, but it seems to involve a drunken friend trying to "shag a fella who was like 69 years old or sumfing". Verbatim. I'm looking around to see if they are filming an episode of The Catherine Tate Show or perhaps Little Britain , but, alas, no.

I try to concentrate on my work, but it is hard to chug through lines of mathematics while all you can hear in the background is: "She didn't? She didn't, did she! Never! What a slag. Yeah. That's wot I said. What a slapper." I consider the relative pros and cons of decamping to the quiet carriage, of having to give up my lovely seat and make do with the paltry battery life left in my ageing laptop. I decide that girl-with-the-phone must run out of battery life herself sooner or later, but she doesn't, leaving me to consider the pros and cons of self-immolation.

We're at Crewe now. I've given up waiting for the battery to run out and instead am relying upon patchy mobile signal coverage as we plunge back into the countryside. Nope, no joy there, not only does she seem to have a phone powered by 25th-century dilithium crystals, but she also appears to be hooked up with more network coverage than Airforce One. I can't stand it. The precious minutes of my life are evaporating uselessly with me unable to tune out Channel Irritate. OK, don't panic. Forget writing the lecture, she'll stop soon, if only to breathe, and there is still time for me to read the papers.

There's a pause, long enough to mean that it might all be over, long enough to offer hope... and then, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, it starts again. "It's annoying on the train innit coz one minute you've got five bars and the next minute you've got nuffing."

There's no stopping her. She doesn't respect anything. Not even the limitations of satellite technology.

More swearing and anecdotes that make Vogon poetry sound like a Shakespearean sonnet. Now we're on to one about a drunken friend who got into a taxi, but forgot where she lived. I begin to wonder if there is a human being on the other end of the phone because surely nobody on Earth could bear to hold that to their ear.

And then, as we pull into Stafford, her friend interrupts for the first time in nearly 60 minutes to say that she has to go. "OK babe," chirps Irritate FM. And, then, silence, followed by more silence. Perhaps that was her only friend? Dare I allow hope to build in my heart? Could it be? And then there is a faint clicking from behind, followed by a pause, followed by: "Alright babe? It's me."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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