The prose of commuting


Every now and again a story resurfaces about a man who had used his daily commute to build a multi-million property empire which would allow him to commute no more and spend more time with his children. Good for him.

This week I total just short of 100 miles round trip a day. As an open and friendly person, I don’t mind sharing with you what preoccupies me on my travels. One thing for sure, no financial gain is in sight.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Seasoned pub quizzers will recognise this line well ahead of the semicolon. It’s up there with ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’and ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ in the Opening Lines of Famous Novels category.

For the non-quizzers, the line comes from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

First time I heard it, I thought it was one of those too clever by half quotes, which manage to dress up lack of depth in a stylistically contrive, rhythmically pleasing cadences.  I am now willing to admit that I might have got this wrong, and I feel a bit foolish for underestimating Tolstoy’s genius.

I return to this line whenever I find myself in the middle of yet another gut-wrenchingly miserable domestic violence case, surrounded by yet another unhappy family.  It seems I am not alone; a while ago a prosecutor in a domestic assault case borrowed it as an opening line when addressing the jury.

This week’s case, which I am not allowed to talk about as it involves children and therefore, ‘reporting restrictions apply’, has made me revisit the quote. I wanted to make sure I remembered it correctly, so I googled it, only to find that the quote has become ‘an actual thing’ as my daughters would have put it.

It turns out the quote is widely referred to as Anna Karenina Principle and it is used to assist in explaining a variety of scientific and social phenomena, including reasons why relatively few animal species have been successfully domesticated. Failed Domestication Theory based on Anna Karenina Principle is, again, a thing, I kid you not. It describes the exact reasons why bisons are failing as farm animals and why squirrels do not make great cuddly pets. Anyway. Back to unhappy families.

What Tolstoy meant, and what had slowly grown on me, was that for any given family to be truly happy, everything needs to fall in place. Feelings, health, finances, beliefs, morals, goals and outlooks need to be aligned to secure complete happiness. What are the chances of that happening, ever? I dropped maths at the earliest opportunity so I would not know where to begin working out the number of possible permutations of all factors, and it only takes one flaw for the family to fail the happiness test.

This week’s case is about addiction and violence, betrayal and revenge, all within the four walls of a marriage, with 2.4 children present. It is about a family damaged beyond repair, destroyed, finished. The family whose dramas are being methodically dissected in court by a group of twenty odd people, give or take, day in day out, hour after another lingering hour.

Anna Karenina is a multi-themed novel, 800 pages of it, first published in 1878, some say it is literature at its very best. I read AK twice before.  First time I tackled it in my early twenties. It awaited its turn among the James Joyces, and the Henry Jameses’  of this world, a perfect expression of student intellectual snobbery. I remember the boredom of endlessly rambling passages, the minutiae of life celebrated at the level of detail we simply do not indulge in any more.

Second time it was an absent-minded beach read, interrupted by bouts of day dreaming that seaside tends to bring on.

Third time is now. An impulse lunchtime buy at Waterstones on day three.

AK is about many things, and one of them, fittingly, is railway travel. Trains and train stations are the backdrop of major plot milestones. In fact, the main story begins and ends at a train station.

The pace of the book is even slower than my milk train rocking me westwards via Richmond, Twickenham, Feltham, Staines, Virginia Water…

I am really getting into it now. The journey is no longer a drag.

There is a multitude of reasons why I am not utilising the abundance of my commuting time for the creation of a commercially viable enterprise, most of them to do with my personal traits and limitations. I am, however, choosing my fondness of Tolstoy as the one flaw that makes me fail. Another good use of Anna Karenina Principle.


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