The Service Manager | Conversations on the Train

The Canadian. Miles of cool, densely corrugated steel encasing sleeper, economy, dining and activity cars. It is gorgeous – If a train can be said to be gorgeous.

© Maurice Li Photography

Fabien, the Service Manager (and, I find out later, union rep), is in the back activity car playing his guitar in the moments he doesn’t have to appease anyone.

I look at the gold name badge that announces his role and ask, “What’s a service manager?”

“The person in charge of the safety and security of the passengers. I’m the guy who makes sure everything that’s supposed to be on board is here. The one who makes sure it’s all running right.”

“How long have you been doing it?”

He tunes his guitar.

“Since 1998. I started as a Red Cap in 1984 in Montreal, handling baggage. I transferred in the Western region in 1996.”

He’s French Canadian and I like the impact this has on the way he phrases things.

“Do you like it?”

He grins, “Yeah! It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Jobs are 8am – 4pm. Over here it’s well… you get on the train and the family, it’s your crew. We stay together, very close, and we go forward.”

He launches into a rendition of Puddle of Mudd’s Blurry. I’m not sure what the words other than ‘blurry’ and, ‘can you take it all the way… when you shove it in my face,’ are, so wait until he moves on to Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) before I join in. Then a static voice says something through his walkie talkie. He talks to it briefly, and I use the break to speak.

“What’s the best story from the time you’ve been working?”

“There is no best story, it’s all the best story.”

I give him a look.

“A story, a story… there are many. We meet lot’s of good people, I’ve met John Cleese, Sylvester Stallone, Sting – these are nice people, they love the train. And I’ve collected a lot of addresses from people I can go and visit when I retire.”

“That’s lovely.”

He grins again.

“The New Year’s Eve train is the most fun. We take away the tables and create a dancefloor and have the best champagne. In 2000 we were on the Y2K train, but with so many time changes nobody even cared what time it was.”

He sings a song in French before sipping his tea.

“I guess my story is music. I’ve always played music on the train. The head of the company came on board and liked what I was doing. We talked about it, and I was given the go-ahead to start a music programme. It gives access to musicians. Now we have them performing twice a day on board. We give them a bedroom and a meal in return. So yeah, that’s something that when I retire will be my legacy.”


Until 20th June, if you’re based in the UK, US or Canada, you could win a trip across Canada with VIA Rail. For a chance to win, retweet the following message on Twitter: ‘I RT’d for a chance to win 2 tix across Canada on @Via_Rail #ExploreCanada! #Tbex @ExploreCanada {CAD/US/UK:18+}’

We were hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail. More about the trip can be found on the CTC blog. An upper berth is cheaper than a lower berth. If you book well in advance, a discounted fare upper berth costs around $400 (£250) for the Vancouver to Jasper leg of the trip. A lower berth costs around $475 (£300).

From the UK, you can book seats through International Rail by phone on: (0)781 231 0790.

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Ambulance Driver | Conversations on the Train

I’m on the Caledonian sleeper train to Aviemore in Scotland with my friends Amy and Emily. I talk to Amy about what she does for a living for Conversations on the Train on the way.

“What do you do?”

“I work for the ambulance service in Bristol”

“The normal ambulance?”

“The nee-naw ambulance.”

“Do you say that often when you’re there?”

“I never say that! I work for the emergency ambulance service. So I do all the driving. I’m not a paramedic.”

“I don’t get that, if you’re not a paramedic how can you drive? I mean, don’t they need to be paramedics… because on Casualty right…” I wink.

“Cutting costs… the NHS can’t afford too many paramedics, so I assist them. I’m an emergency care assistant.”

“So what can you do?”

“Not a lot. I can drive, I can give oxygen and I can give gas and air, but I can’t actually administer any drugs. I’m just there for support.”

“So there’s only one paramedic?”

“A crew would usually go out as a paramedic and an ECA, occasionally you might get two paramedics, but it’s very rare.”

“You don’t need two?”

“No, often we have paramedics that go out in a car as well, a rapid response vehicle, and they’ll get to the scene first because the cars can get there a lot quicker than ambulances. The paramedic will assess the scene and then the crew can transport the patient. So you quite often have three people on the scene.”

“What’s the most common reason you’re called out?”

“Chest pain.”

“Really?” I say.

“Yep, people often think chest pain is a heart attack. It’s not, you can get a call for chest pain in someone who’s 25 years old. That chest pain is probably indigestion, strain from having a cough over a long period of time, or they’ve got a cold with chest pain and freak out.”

“I think my dad called an ambulance once because he had a migraine…” I say.

“Actually migraines are pretty bad…” she laughs, “some people do need an injection for that… but yeah chest pain and respiratory are the most common.”

“Respiratory like in old people, or like I’m choking on a donut?” I ask.

She laughs again, “I’ve never seen anyone choke on a donut. Yeah I suppose any breathing problems like asthma or emphysema, bronchitis…”

“Do you go out Fridays and Saturdays?”


“Do you get loads of drunk people?”

“Fridays and Saturdays you do, yeah definitely. I do a shift from five in the evening till three in the morning and that’s predominantly drink-related calls. But we do have St. John’s Ambulance to help out. On Fridays and Saturdays they have a sort of army, if you like, so that whenever there’s a call comes in and it’s within walking distance of the centre they’ll send a couple of St, John’s out to it, find out what’s going on, and if they need paramedic backup then they’ll request it. A lot of the time it’s just young girls and young lads that have drunk too much and just need to sober up. They’ll put them on the booze bus…”

“The booze bus?” I say.

“Yep, then they can take them down to A&E. I believe they just sit in the waiting room until they sober up.”

“Do you get drugs as well?”

“Yeah, we have a lot of regulars. Drug users who have had problems maybe when they’ve been taking heroin, for instance, and they’ve got abscess’ that are out of control.”

I grimace, “are they hostel dwellers?”

“Yeah, a lot of them live in supported living places.”

“But drug-related calls are not a Friday thing?”

“No, that’s an anytime thing.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

“I suppose a hanging is the worst thing. It was when I’d just started out. That’s a horrible thing to see.”

“Was the person dead?”

“No… they’d been cut down by their partner. There were quite nasty injuries to the neck.”

“That’s horrific,” I say, “were they young?”

“40s, 50s…”

I talk about how people jump in front of London Underground train quite frequently and how blasé the delayed train announcements are about it as a result of the frequency. But that they offer drivers counselling, which makes me ask, “Do they offer you counselling?”

“Yeah, when we’ve had a bad job they do a debrief session and offer you counselling as well.”

I change the subject, “do you have a special driving test to drive an ambulance?”

“You have to have a category one license to drive the ambulances. It’s to do with the amount of seats and weight. The A&E vehicle is about 3.5 tons.”

“What makes up the weight?”

“Two cylinders of oxygen, a life-pack for monitoring heartbeats and shocking patients who go into cardiac arrest. Then there are drugs… a scoop to scoop people from the floor to the stretcher, chairs… a special chair for getting people downstairs without having to lift them…”

“Do you want to do it forever?”

“I haven’t made that decision yet. Some days it can be the best job ever, and others it can be quite stressful. It’s a very demanding job and I do worry about my back. There’s a lot of manual work involved and there are so many people in the NHS who have had to retire early because of back problems. It does freak me out, that there could be one day when I lift somebody at the wrong angle or the other person doesn’t lift from the other side properly and all that weight would go on my back and that’d be it. But I’m happy with it for now.”

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Radiation Dosimetry Head’s Mandolin | Conversations on the Train

Head of Radiation Dosimetry

Head of Radiation Dosimetry

I’m sitting on the train to Bristol Temple Meads thinking about Conversations on the Train. A man with a case, which in my musical ignorance I mistake for a ukulele case, gets on. He stows the case on the luggage rack above his seat and sits down. Shortly afterwards, I hear the word ‘Southbank’ followed by ‘I had to tell someone.’ Brilliant, I think. It might not be my conversation, but the polite man next to him has nodded before reinstalling his headphones in his ears. It’s my conversation now.

I tap the man on the shoulder and ask, ‘what’s that about Southbank?’

‘Oh, I’ve just got a gig there, next weekend,’ he says.

‘What is that?’ I say, pointing to the small case on the luggage rack.

‘It’s a mandolin.’

I’m excited by this, probably, embarrassingly, only because I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a few years back.

‘Perhaps you should get it out and play!’ I exclaim.

‘No, you get in trouble for that.’

My face falls. He takes the mandolin down, but only to show it to me.

‘I play on platforms you know, but sometimes, on trains, people want peace and quiet. Nobody wants to listen to you getting it wrong and starting again. Do you play at all?’

I tell him no, that my grandmother was a violin teacher but when I tried to play, it sounded like I was murdering a bag of cats.

‘It’s so unfair that they give children a violin as the first instrument they learn to play,’ he says. ‘You have to have such a good ear and such precise fingering, it’s like giving a kid some oil paint and saying, ‘right, do me a Mona Lisa.’

I think this is perhaps a slightly over-exaggerated allusion.

‘Mandolin is great because it’s exactly the same tuning as a violin,’ he continues, ‘The point is, when you play the mandolin it doesn’t matter where you put your fingers because it sounds the same, whereas if you misplace your finger on the violin it sounds terrible.’

I look at the mandolin, ‘So how did you get this gig at the Southbank then?’

‘I got a call from the organiser saying they were putting on a gig at the Southbank as part of the festival.’

‘I’ve heard about this,’ I say, ‘don’t they have a giant fox made of hay?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘It’s the beach, the beach. We’re playing in one of the beach huts. Come, come, next Saturday, two o’clock. I’ve hopefully got the most hilarious caller, she’s a punk girl, she wears plastic breast plates of different colours, and a big cockatoo-like headdress, which occasionally she replaces with motorcycle crash helmets as she makes noise with a scaffold spanner and implores the audience to get up and dance.’

‘Where did you find this girl?’

‘In the circus, I work in the circus.’

‘You play the mandolin and you work for the circus?’

‘No, no. I’m Head of Radiation Dosimetry in a hospital, those are just things I do on the side. I’ve got a proper job. I’m a physicist and I play the mandolin.’

‘How do you have the time?’ I ask.

‘Exactly the same as the girl who sits next to me in physics and plays bassoon in the Brunel Orchestra and does an aerial circus act, you know, where you climb up and wrap silk around yourself.

She’s one of these phenomenally clever girls from Royal Martin Hospital. She’s absolutely a brain-the-size-of-a-planet type of character. There’s about three other people in the department who can juggle. And all of them sing in choirs.’

‘Physics Department of where?’

‘Of the Bristol Royal Infirmary.’

‘So the circus is…’

‘The circus is the Invisible Circus.’

I know the Invisible Circus well. I’ve been to many of their shows in Bristol and highly recommend them, I tell him.

‘The invisible circus is still going strong,’ he says. ‘They’re in delicate negotiations for the space at the moment.’

‘Yes, I hear there were plans to build a youth centre in their current space.’

‘Well, everything a youth centre could want the Invisible Circus have in spades.’

He puts on a mocking voice and describes youth centres who make claims of teaching kids pool and techno music. Then talks about having seen kids coming to arts centres and sight-reading music and truant kids who like theatre.

‘I mean all of my kids can juggle, daughter rides a unicycle,’ he says.

I laugh.

‘I taught at Circomania…. And, how sad is this, I was treasurer of the European Juggler’s Convention in Slovenia – which is the world’s largest juggling convention.’

We pull into Bath and he gathers his things together and stands to leave,

‘So look, if you’re around on Saturday, come and watch us at the Southbank Centre, just by Queen Elizabeth Hall.’

Sophie Collard on Google+

And then he recites his mobile number aloud to the entire carriage.

The Estate Agent From Huddersfield | Conversations on the Train

The Estate Agent

The Estate Agent

It is the weekend and I’m headed to Manchester for a conference. Anyway, to make my trip cheaper, I’m staying in Leeds where my friends live.

Leeds is really close to Manchester. I take the 10.42pm train for under a tenner on both Saturday and Sunday.

On the second night, a very friendly man gets on a couple of stops after mine, plonks himself into the seat next to mine and says, ‘Right, I’m charging you with keeping me awake until Huddersfield or my wife will kill me.’

I laugh, “Hello,” I say, “Why would she kill you?”

“Well my brother fell asleep on the train once after the Grand National at Aintree. Race was finished at 3 o’clock, he got drunk, got back on the train, woke up in York went to turn round and woke back up in Aintree, so it was 4.30 in the morning when he left and he got home at 6am. His wife divorced him.”

“That’s crazy, why?”

“She thought he’d been up to no good.”

“But surely when he explained he’d fallen asleep on the train she would have realised that was stupid. I don’t believe it.”

“Yes but you seem like a reasonable person. She wasn’t.”

“Did he remarry?”


“Did he have kids with her”

“Yeah two sons.”

“That’s sad.”

“And two with his new wife.”

“And is he happy?”


“So it’s good then?”

“Yes, but I have a son and a wife and I really, really would like to see them again so please make sure I get off this train.”

I laugh, “what are you doing in Manchester then?”

“I was coming for my tea.”

“Your tea?” (he means dinner, but I say tea too)

“Yeah with some colleagues. Got the 4.01 and had some beer and a bit of tea.”

“How many beers?”

“Let’s see, from 4pm…Nine? I was in this really trendy bar in Manchester and this footballer’s wife came over, Liverpudlian accent, ordered four cocktails then when they were done said, ‘this is meant to be made with crushed ice, not ordinary ice, I won’t drink them’ and the guy had just spent seven eight minutes making these cocktails and he just stood with his mouth open, and I was like – I’ll have them.’ And I got talking to this woman and she says she won’t go out with anyone who earns less than a million pounds and I said, ‘I’m from Yorkshire and your attitude would mean nothing in Derby, but thanks for the free drinks.’ One of my colleagues ran for cover. So we had those and we had a few beers.”

“Where do you work?”

“I own a chain of estate agents and we have some in Manchester, some in Yorkshire, ten in Lancashire, one in Derbyshire… We’re the twelfth biggest firm in the north but we’re a bit buggered at the moment because no one is buying any houses.”

“What’s the deposit percentage at the moment?”

“25%. Do you have a house?”

“No, I’m too young,” I say, though I know I’m not.

“I got my first house when I was 21, left school at 16 had my first place at 21.”

“How far is it to drive to Huddersfield?”

“About 40.”

“40 miles?” I ask.

“40 piles?”

“No, miles.”

“I was gonna say, you wouldn’t be able to sit down if you had 40 piles.”

I laugh a lot.

“I did take my wife and son on a Thomas the Tank Engine train journey this morning too.”

“Did you?!” I say, excited by this revelation, “where’s that?”

“In Huddersfield it’s called the Kirklees Light Railway and about three of four times a year they have a themed Thomas the Tank Engine trip, they bring the Thomas and the Percy and the Gordon, they’ve been doing it a long time.”

“It’s really amazing living in Huddersfield,” he says, “because it’s right in the middle of everything. People say, ‘I’ve come from Leeds’ or ‘from the South’ and are really not used to going very far to get what they want if you know what I mean.”

What, to a nearby city?”

“Well, have you been to London?”

“I live in London now,” I say sheepishly.

“I’m 38 in July and the only time I’ve been was when my sister, about 5ft 2, 7 or 8 stone, tiny little woman, was an international coach driver. She drove these big 50-60 seat coaches all round Europe, and the only time I’ve ever been to London – she was on her way from Huddersfield to London and broke down on the A1. She rang me at about 3pm and said, ‘I’ve broken down, I’m on my way to Paddington, can you come and pick me up and take me to Paddington?’ So I decamped from work drove down the A1, picked her up, drove her to Paddington, got her suitcase out the boot of the car, deposited her in Paddington coach station then drove back to Huddersfield. That’s the only time I’ve been down to London.”

“Really? How did you find it?”

“I followed the signs,” he laughs, “we came in at Marble Arch and I thought ‘oh that looks nice,” he laughs again.

“Although, I’ve got a son right?”


“And what I’d really like to do is take him to the Olympics but he’s only six.”

“I think if you did you, you’d have to go after all the beginning bit…” I say, “It’s three grand to go to the opening ceremony.”

“Wow, so the point I’m trying to make is do I register for tickets when he’s only six?”

“You could sell them?”

“No, no I’m not bothered about that; will he remember it, is there any point?”

“What do you remember from when you were six?” I ask.

“Well I remember in 1978 when I was three but I don’t think I’d remember Usain Bolt shooting through the finishing line.”

I say, in terms of big things you remember as a kid, I remember Diana dying and that I was in Swanage and that it was near New Year.

He says he’d just woken up in bed the day he heard Diana died. It was the day of his Dad’s funeral.

“The whole world stopped because she died and I thought,

So what? My Dad’s just died.”

Sophie Collard on Google+

The Nursing Student and the Teacher | Conversations on the Train

The Aussies

The nursing student and the teacher

A while back I’m sitting, as I often am, on the train from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington. As I sit there, I overhear a conversation two Australian girls were having behind me.

“Did you know they call them crisps here?” says one to the other.

I laugh.

We reach the first stop and a couple who’d been sitting on a table to my left get up to leave. The girls move to the table. I strike up a Conversation with them. They are called Philippa and Alesha.

“I’m Philippa one ‘L’ two ‘Ps’ but anyway, I don’t like the name Philipa because when I answer the phone it sounds like I’m saying Sylvia, which is my grandma’s name and I mean I love her but… so anyway I change it to Pip but Alesha’s family are the only ones that don’t call me that.”

“We don’t call her that,” says Alesha.

“But we’ve just been in Italy and they say it fil-eep-a and spell it with an ‘F,’ which I think is much prettier, so I think I’m gonna go back to Phillipa.”

Alesha asks me if everyone in London is depressed then says,

“We missed the doors closing on the train we wanted to catch by ten seconds and they wouldn’t let us on.”

“Yeah…” I don’t really know how to respond to that and say, “ So how come you’re in London then?”

“We’re on holidays,” says Philippa, “Alesha is here till February, I’m just here for a bit. We’re from the Central Coast, and we don’t know why it’s called that because it’s not central.”

“It is central! Central New South Wales,” says Alesha.

“Okay… Philippa says, cutting her off, “I’m on school holidays, I’m a Special Ed. Teacher.”

“So you’re both on holiday?” I ask.

“You picked a complicated story,” says Philippa.

“Yeah, it’s complicated,” Alesha agrees.

“Alesha is one of five siblings, the eldest one and her husband live in West Hampstead,” explains Philippa.

Then Alesha draws a family tree in her notebook to show me how everyone is related. She explains how five of the six of them have spent a few months here. I ask why all at the same time. She says they planned to meet up at Christmas.

“Because my sister lives here we all sort of used her as a point of reference to go in and out of the UK to places in Europe. Like yesterday Philippa and I got back from Italy.”

“You were in that Italy recently?” I ask.

“Yeah – yesterday we were in Venice.”

Then they tell me they’re off to Egypt the next day.

“What do you do, Alesha, are you a student?”

“Yes, I’m a nursing student.”

“If you’re a nursing student that probably means you can come and live in the UK right?” I ask.

“Well yes, when I qualify.”

“That’s how we go to each other’s countries really. Otherwise it’s really complicated,” I say.

“Yeah, I got offered a green card in Italy. All I’d have to do was marry this guy, and I was like ‘hell yes, I’d love a European card.’”

“did you even like him?” I say.

“Oh, he was nice. So anyway, it ended up with about seven of us having Christmas together in London which was really, really nice. I’ve had two months and I really don’t like that dropping into a city for a day thing. So I feel like I’ve done London, done Berlin…”

“And Switzerland?” Says Philippa.

“And Switzerland yes. Lets say the Swiss Alps, let’s not say Switzerland.”

Then they talk more about Australia and draw a little map. Alesha explains, in her own words, the fight between Sydney and Melbourne, which culminated in Canberra being named capital.

“If somewhere is somewhere you don’t like you call it a hole, and Canberra is literally and geographically a hole.”

“That’s harsh, it actually has a good art gallery – but that’s only because it has to because it’s our capital,” Philippa says.

“So where in Australia have you been?” I ask.

“Well I’ve never been to WA…” says Alesha.

“Have you done the Daintree?”

“Yeah, love the Dain,” Philippa says.

“And Fraser Island?”

“Yeah – and I found a cockroach on Fraser Island that was the size of two tic-tac containers,” Alesha says.

“That’s massive,” I say.

“Yeah it is,” says Philippa.

I ask if I can take the girl’s photo.

“Sure,” says Alesha, “I actually got this dress from a shop yesterday, because we were going to Bath.”

“Why did you need a dress for Bath?”

“Because it’s Bath! We were on a Jane Austen Pilgrimage.”

The Restaurant General Manager | Conversations on the Train

The restaurant manager

The restaurant manager

I’m on the 7pm from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads. It’s the first off-peak train of the evening. On a Friday, it’s often so busy that if you don’t have a reserved seat, you’ll be standing until Reading where the commuters get off. It‘s these factors which lead to my standing next to a rather talkative Dutchman. He tells me about a corporate event he’s been catering at. For Coca-cola. He mumbles something about rotting teeth. I tell him I’ve never liked fizzy drinks.

“I’m temping at the moment, while I’m between jobs,” he says.

“And what were you doing?” I ask.

“I was general manager at a restaurant.”

“A big restaurant?”

“Yeah, about 90 seats. Had a butcher shop out the front. It was called the Butcher and Grill… in Wimbledon.”

“Is it shut now?”

“No, I just moved on.”

“And now you’re temping… Are you going to become general manager of somewhere else?”

“I hope so, got a few things in the pipeline. Was talking to Heston Blumenthal’s manager yesterday. You know, the Fat Duck, the three star Michelin restaurant?”

I nod.

“It’s outside of London though, in Maidenhead. I don’t want to be out of London again. I opened a restaurant outside of London once. Moved to Ireland for a bit. Want to be here for a while now.”

“A lot of people go to Ireland for food-related work,” I say.

“Yeah well I ran away from it, left my marriage, left the country. Although there are bits of the country I love.”

“Did you marry an Irish lady?” I ask.

“Yeah, and her family….”

“Did you have a kid?”

“Yeah, six years old.”

“So the six year-old lives in Ireland?”

“Yeah – we talk a lot on Skype.”

“Do you never go there?”

“Every ten weeks or so…”

We talk about where we’re both going now. He’s off to see his girlfriend, I’m going to a friend’s kid’s first birthday.

“It’s important isn’t it, to the parents?” I say.

“Well, if you’re not the parents you probably don’t give a monkeys but the funny thing is when you have kids yourself, you realise how important these things are. In hospitality I’ve had to deal with a lot of kids.”

“Especially when they throw stuff on the floor?” I ask. I’ve worked in cafés before.

“Gosh yes – in the restaurant you had very city-wise aspirational parents and they didn’t seem to know how to bring up kids any more. There’s a marked difference in how kids behave now in relation to how they behaved when I was general managing ten years ago.”

“Really?” I say.

“Huge. I mean I’m not trying to say they should be kept on some ball and chain but just you know, the parents are sitting there gloshing wine – not all of them but more than before – and the kids are just running amock and you know, someone could drop a hot dish on them and then all hell would break loose.”

“Has that ever happened?”

“I have seen it happen once, yeah. The worst thing is when the kids get upset but the parents don’t actually do anything. That’s when I think, ‘had you actually considered what being a parent would mean or is it just something you were told to do?’”

“Do a lot of people bring kids in the evenings?” I ask.

“Mainly the daytime and weekends.”

“Is there a regular amount of temping work?”

“Loads of it, London is just so engulfed with corporate functions. It’s not as well paid as it used to be – five, six years ago it was ten pounds an hour – now its gone right back down to minimum wage. There are just so many people lining up to work in London. Every time I go to the agencies there are just queues of people waiting to register.”

“I wouldn’t want to work in catering. Aside from anything else I’d drop the plates,” I say.

Sophie Collard on Google+

Carl Arnheiter on Performing at Sing Sing | Conversations on the Train

Carl Arnheiter

Carl Arnheiter


I’m with a comedian who talks a lot. So I’ve divided his Conversation in two. This is the second part. We’re headed to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line, from where Carl will fly home to the States. He’s been in the UK doing a series of comedy tours of museums entitled Fancy Meeting You Here, with his partner Dave Hill.

“You went to Dave’s gig last night?” I ask.

“Yeah I did. What was great was I paid £7 to hear Dave tell the story of the show we did in prison.”

“A show you did in prison?”

“Yeah, we did Sing Sing Penitentiary last year,” he says.

Sing Sing is a maximum security prison just north of NYC.

“300 inmates,” he continues.

“That’s a lot,” I say.

“Yeah, and intimidating.

“How did it go?”

“They started letting the inmates in just before the set. These three guys who looked like they were from the Sopranos come in. They came right over to us and this guy just says,

‘you better be ‘f*****g funny,’

And I say, ‘that’s the plan.’

And the guy says, ‘nah we’re kiddin,’ we’re here to have fun! We’re here to laugh, this is gonna be great!’”

“Then what?” I ask.

“So Dave starts the show off, and just nails it – he wins the audience over in a second. Then, because I have long hair, I get auctioned off for a pack of cigarettes. Dave and I both have what I consider our best sets that day. Dave kills the opening and I have the confidence.”

“One to remember,” I say.

“They filmed the show for security purposes but we weren’t allowed to…”

“Have the tape?”

“Or take pictures,” he pauses, “so there’s no record of what we did really.”

As he tells me more about this undocumented brilliance, I sort of think it’s nice they don’t have it on record.

“I never wanna be there,” he says, “For a lot of these guys it comes down to one really bad decision. They were all maximum security, so they’d done despicable things, but we got the sense they were all making changes and working really hard at it… All they wanted to talk about was the Masters in Divinity they got, or the degree in Sociology.”


“Did you find out what they were in for?”

“We weren’t allowed to ask them what they did to get in there, but we could ask them how long they had till they got out. They all knew it to the day. It would be like, ‘I’ve got five years, two months, three weeks and eight days.’ Every single one of them. It was incredible.”

“Did you change the show for them?”

“Yeah. Anything you could say to make it specific to the inmates or the prison, they loved. I won’t go into the horrible graphic sexual slang we had to learn that we filtered through our set. You pepper that in and you win them over pretty quickly.”

“Any conversations you had that particularly stood out?”

“Dave and I said to one of the inmates, ‘so seriously, what are our chances here?’

And he replied, ‘you would last a week.’

And I said, ‘ would it happen in the shower?’

And he said, ‘yeah probably.’

And I said, ‘oh, it really happens?’

And he said, ‘yeah, it happens,’

And I said, ‘would it hurt?’

And he was like, ‘yeah…’

I dunno, that statement alone is what keeps me out of prison.”

Sophie Collard on Google+

Carl Arnheiter | Conversations on the Train | Part One

Carl Arnheiter

Carl Arnheiter

I wait for Carl Arnheiter at Russell Square tube station. I’m going to ride the underground train to Heathrow with him. He has short brown hair and looks a bit the sad clown. Probably because he’s hungover. Once through the barriers, he produces a Cornetto from somewhere and offers it to me. It’s 9.15am. I laugh.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer and a comedian. I write for an ad agency. I write comedy. It’s a very exciting life.”

“Why are you in London?”

“We came to London to do those two shows for  Fancy Meeting You Here (comedy tours of museums & galleries) – at your fun cultural institutions. My partner Dave and I thought it’d be good.”

“Your partner?”

“My partner in comedy… and in life,” Dave Hill.

“How long have you been doing Fancy Meeting You Here?” I ask.

“Two years in March.”


“The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.”

“How often?”

“Every six weeks, it’s been a really interesting show to do. I think the turn out was really great here.”

“Are you going to do it in other places too?”

“Yeah that’s the goal. I’d love to come back here. We want to do other museums in New York too – the Met is probably getting tired of us… I mean they tolerate us but… we’ve also organised to do show at a college back home in April. We’re writing that now.”

“How long does it take to put together?”

“Not long… I mean it helps if we can see the artwork beforehand. You can do a formulaic piece – but it’s really fun when you write site-specific stuff. And it’s great for comedians because they have to flex that muscle they have but don’t necessarily often get to flex.”

“How did you get into comedy?”

“I started doing improv – believe it or not because of the British Whose Line is it Anyway? My tastes have changed now, it’s too gamey for me, and I always…I always… I dunno that’s gonna sound terrible… but I always liked making people laugh. I realised I’d been doing it for a while but I didn’t have any direction with it. So I started doing shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. It’s an amazing theatre in the basement of a supermarket and you can go there and any show is five dollars and it’s guaranteed to be great. It’s been a launching ground for a lot of people. Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Zac Woods from the office… Amy founded it – you used to be able to catch Amy and Tina there when they had their show there. And I do a show called Inside Joke there, which is a talk show about the craft of comedy. All the greats have done shows there. It’s you and 140-150 other people for five dollars you might catch Mike Myers. So it’s a great place and that’s where I started.”

“How long ago was that?” I ask.

“I started improv in 2001. So I’ve gotten almost nowhere in ten years. Which is fine.”

“It’s not too bad though – I mean you get paid to do it?”

“Well we don’t get paid at the Upright Citizens Brigade – nobody does. But that’s not why we do it. I do get paid to go and do shows elsewhere but it’s not my sole source of income.”

“Where do you get your money then?”


“So before 2001 what were you doing?”

“I was a journalist. I was a music journalist among other journalists – I wrote features and reviews. Writing is such a whorish business, as you know, you just write for whoever is willing to pay you, and it felt like that for a long time – going from place to place writing.”

“Who did you write for?”

“I wrote for CMJ (College Music Journal) I was on staff at CMJ. There was a great magazine I wrote for here in the UK – a very small sort of underground thing called Thalamic Terrascope and I really loved them. But that was the great thing about being a music journalist – you could write for who you wanted to write for and you were writing for a like voice and a like mind which I really liked. Thalamic Terrascope really liked obscure 60s bands before those Nuggets Box Sets really took off. Thalamic Terrascope was running interviews with bands like The Mumps or in New York, there was this thing called The Big Take Over – written by this guy Jack Rabid, who was music obsessive. His apartment was like a record store it was incredible… The magazine is like 300 pages long and it comes out once a quarter. And in those 300 pages there’ll be like 1500 reviews and painfully extensive interviews with bands, in incredibly small print. It was great to write for those two magazines. It didn’t pay any money but it didn’t matter, because I was writing for who I wanted to write for and I was a part of what I thought were really great magazines. I learned how to do what I did from working with musicians. And that was the point of meeting people here, you know, really interesting people who I’d wanted to meet for a while.”

Kurt Vonnegut

“When I was a journalist I wrote some stuff for ABC news, when they did something called The Century Project. I wanted to sit down and chat with Kurt Vonnegut because I loved him. I had to call him. That was a weird experience – we were on the phone and I was like,

‘Er, I’m sorry Mr. Vonnegut, did I catch you at a bad time?’

And he says, ‘A little, but I’ll call you back at 9 O’clock tomorrow morning.’

Sure enough, right on the dot at 9 O’clock the next day he calls and says, ‘Hey Carl, this is Kurt Vonnegut…’

I lost my mind. He invited me over the next day and made me lunch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – and we sat in his living room and we talked about everything. He had stopped talking about his books by then, because he said everything there was to say about them had already been said. And that was a great relief.

So I had a regular conversation with Kurt Vonnegut about things Kurt Vonnegut wanted to talk about. We talked about World War II and being of German descent.

I said, ‘What was it like going back? To the Germans who had done these terrible things but were really your people,’

And… and he used to be a car salesman – Saabs I think, but they would explode, the engines would essentially melt to the body and Kurt had to sell these pieces of s***t. And I just remember those stories. He had this great laugh, infectious laugh with just a touch of emphasyma to it – and I just wanted to hear Kurt Vonnegut laugh. That was ‘99 before I even started doing comedy but even then I thought – I gotta get this guy to laugh. And I have the tapes from that conversation and he actually laughs a lot. That to me is a great memory. And then when I left – there was one flight of stairs up from the ground floor to the entry of his townhouse and I’d put on this suit because I thought it would be disrespectful not to. And there’s a great movie adaptation of his book Mother Night with Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell W. Junior, the last free American, and it’s an amazing book but the movie is really well done too – it’s by Keith Gordon and Bob Weide – Robert Weide – and there’s a scene where Howard Campbell freezes – he doesn’t know where to go – and he stops and he’s just standing amongst this crowd of people and it’s a beautiful shot, with people walking by in very slow motion, and he’s standing there for hours then Kurt Vonnegut comes into frame and they sort of lock eyes and then Kurt just turns around and walks away.

So I leave – and there’s another scene in the movie where we had the exact same exchange of dialogue – Kurt’s at the top of the stairs, I’m at the bottom of the stairs and I turn around to say goodbye and there are people weaving between us – he’s still at the top of the stairs with his little dog and he just raises his hand and says, ‘aufwiedersehen Mr. Arnheiter.’

And I just say, ‘Aufweidersehen, Mr. Vonnegut,’ as these people are passing by, and we’ve got this staircase between us and Kurt just turns around, walks inside and then his little dog runs inside and then he closes the door. And I must have stood there for a good five minutes just staring at the door thinking, ‘Oh my God we just had that Mother Night scene. It was incredible.’ And it was those moments, that although very few and far between, kept me really wanting to talk to interesting people.”

Carl’s website is:

Sophie Collard on Google+