In late 1996 I was in a mood to travel. There was an impasse in my life and, as with similar confusing junctions before and since, I hit the road, spending Christmas in Britain with friends, planning to head to Paris in the New Year, by way of the train through the CHUNNEL.
Nobody was riding the EUROSTAR train that year, and with good reason. In addition to a recent tunnel fire, The IRA (an Irish terrorist organisation) had tried to blow up The Chunnel from the British side. Not to be outdone, The GIA (an Algerian terrorist group) had vowed terror strikes from the French end, while labor strikes (a Brit terror tradition) were threatened at British Rail. The general public was wary of being caught in the crosshairs of technical failures, industrial disputes, two terrorist plots and mother nature. Being flung at high velocity through a claustrophobic tube beneath the British Channel was still a relatively new concept in 1996, and people who wanted to cross it flew instead. The panicked marketing departments of both British Rail and France’s SNCF offered great deals as an incentive to put caution aside and ride the flaming-undersea-terror-express, so I did. On a nearly-empty train from London’s WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL STATION (Eurostar service switched to St. Pancras Station in 2007).
This wasn’t my first time in a high-speed train. Earlier, when working in Paris in 1990 I’d ridden the TGV. Even earlier, when living in Japan in the 1980s, I often rode the ORIGINAL Bullet Train, the SHINKANSEN (an Aussie friend in Tokyo hilariously observed; “that thing goes faster than a sharp stick!”). So my experienced eye was initially unimpressed by Eurostar. Though it looked the part, it dawdled till the coast because British Rail hadn’t yet upgraded the tracks from London to the Channel. So the Bullet Train couldn’t truly ’bullet’, lest its 1990s high-tech slickness was shaken to pieces on the 1890s tracks. Thankfully, it picked up speed in the Chunnel, and when it made landfall in France hit a cruising speed of 176MPH for a remarkably smooth and speedy ride to Paris. I’d made the Paris-London flight several times before. Although the flight itself is quicker than the train, that speed is offset by getting to your departure airport, check-in, customs, immigration and bag retrieval, and the journey from the airport into the city at the opposite end. The Eurostar was downtown London to downtown Paris in about 3 hours.
Weeks earlier, when planning the trip, I’d told Tony and Dave that I’d lived in France, and smugly assured them that Parisian winters were mild.. cross-dissolve to: France’s frightfully cold winter that year. We spent most of our time indoors, enjoying Paris’ wealth of bistros, bars and museums with our pals Simon & Tanya, and had a great time. Nevertheless, we were in the “City Of Light” and felt obliged to see Paris, and occasionally braved the arctic weather to ‘enjoy’ the scenery through chattering teeth. After traipsing through the picturesque cold, Tony, Dave and I and paused to take in the view from the middle of one of the beautiful bridges across The Seine.
As we leaned on the guard rail, we saw some rubbish drifting by in the water below us; an LP record album cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floated into view in the swirling eddies under the bridge. We each saw this freakishly-apt moment of coincidence at the same time, looked at each other with a wide-eyed laugh, then watched “Bridge Over Troubled Water” meander in the currents of the Seine and float off under the next bridge. Cheered by this quirky piece of random chance, we headed into a nearby bistro to discuss the joys of synchronisity and 1960s folk-pop over a chocolate chaud and a croque monsieur..
A few days later, we three travellers went our seperate ways, and I took a side trip to Denmark before heading back to London on the Eurostar from Paris’ GARE DU NORD STATION. I entered a totally empty train carriage, put my bags in the baggage rack near the door, and took a seat up the other end. It seemed I’d have the luxury of an entire carriage to myself until just before the train pulled away, when a large group of largish men bustled aboard and occupied the back two rows. Brit athletes in suits, I thought, perhaps returning from a game in France? The Eurostar depated and I enjoyed the French countryside zipping by until the train entered the Chunnel, when I went to the dining car to eat and write letters (on-paper letters, remember those?) telling family and friends about Chartres Cathedral, the Catacombs and other tourist sites I’d seen in my brief forays into the frigid French winter. I finished my writing and went back to my seat.
Pulling into LONDON a mere 3 hours after departing PARIS, I went to get my luggage from the luggage rack by the rear door of the carriage, and absent mindedly noted that in the midst of the large group of very large men was a smaller, rather ugly fellow. Perhaps he was the manager of this burly group of be-suited athletes. He looked like a balding Mr Bean with glasses… Wait, is that Rowan Atkinson? I did a double-take, I knew that face.. it was unmistakably SALMAN RUSHIE, surrounded by his bodyguards. For a time, Rushdie must’ve had the most recognisable ugly face in the world. His hooded-eyed mug was always in the media back then, after The Ayatollah Khomeini placed a Fatwa on him for writing the Satanic Verses. Many famous writers could be passed in the street without being recognised (it must be a pleasantly anonymous occupation for a famous person to have) but not so with Rushdie. He’s highly recognisable even now, but more so back then at the height of his notoriety, when his Bond villain gaze was on magazines and TVs almost daily. As I pondered these things, the rapidly spinning wheels in my mind must have been audible to Salman’s wall-of-muscle, and they gave me their undivided attention with intense alphadog stares. I grabbed my bags and scuttled away.
As I stepped off the train, I thought about my brief brush with fame. In the past, it had already struck me (as it has many others) that famous actors were much shorter in real life. Based on my brief meeting of Rushdie, I wondered if the similar principle with plain-looking famous folk is that they are even uglier in person? Being instantly recognisable must be one of the curses of fame even at the best of times, but extra uncomfortable when under a Fatwa; a game of “you’re it” with homicidal nutjobs weilding rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.. Clearly, Rushdie’s security team had chosen this mode of travel precisely because there were less people on the Eurostar that year. Their entourage was less likely to be ’made’ by the loons, and there’d be less collateral damage if they actually were. Then it hit me; I’d not only had a brush with fame by meeting Rushdie, but had worsened my odds in my brush with terrorism too. As well as the two terror groups I already knew about, The IRA and the GIA, who’d vowed to blow the Chunnel and therefore had me in their sights by proxy, I’d been riding a train that had been a potential target of a third terror group; the deadly yo-yos unleashed by the Ayatollah. Had they known Salman Rushie was sitting behind me, they would most certainly have shown up, guns-a-blazin’..
a BULLET train indeed!