Recommended: Citymapper comes to Birmingham

You can recommend something and mean it yet only later realise that you really, really mean it. Usually that’s just because you liked something and you came to like it more. But in this case, I intellectually knew that Citymapper is a very good app for finding bus, train and walking routes – in London. Also New York. Lots of places.

Just not Birmingham where I live. When you launch Citymapper and you’re in a city it doesn’t cover, it tells you. It also says, listen, maybe we will get to your place some day. Let us know that you want it and we’ll see. No promises, but.

I pressed the button adding my vote for Birmingham and I pressed it thinking I’d never hear another word. Did that and went on to test it all out the next time I was in London. It’s very good and I recommended it thoroughly before putting it away and never giving it another thought.

Until this week when the company emailed to say Birmingham is now covered.

So now I’m trying it out everywhere and for everything and I think it’s great. Go read my original praising review on MacNN.com and then go get the app.

That’s of course especially if it covers your city – and the quickest way to find out is download it and try – but also if it covers cities you ever go to.

Plus, it’s free.

The fun of dead time

You can’t plan this, that’s the point, but unexpectedly having a couple of hours in which you can’t do anything is great.

Today was timed to the minute for me with rushing everywhere except for one long meeting scheduled for 14:00-18:00. I then had to nip off to another thing for 19:00 and be back on a train for no later than 21:15.

Right now it is 20:24, I’m getting a train in a few minutes and everything is preposterously relaxed. The long meting wrapped 90 minutes early and we all went to a pub. I could stay, I did stay, I couldn’t go to my next thing for ages so I didn’t go to my next thing for ages.

I got maybe an hour relaxing and that on a day I was half dreading for how much I had to get done.

I still have a lot to do but I’m carrying on that preposterously relaxed feeling even as I do it.

So go on. Schedule your day tightly and then enjoy the cracks between than become chasms.

Mind you, I’m glad the train has mains power or it’d be a very boring ride home.

Train runs over iPhone. Because.

Exactly what specific set of technological, evolutionary and/or cultural steps in the development of mankind led us to placing iPhones on train tracks in order to film them?

And then exactly what set of steps led us to now, when I’ve just watched the whole thing and you’re about to.

Travel advice: The Man in Seat 61

Flashback. Only to last night, I don’t flashback very far. A man I’m working with mentions how much better organised train travel is across mainland Europe compared to the UK. I find that a bit hard to believe because – flashback now to last year – I lost half a day just trying to book a series of trains across France.

He told me about a train travel website that would’ve done the job for me in seconds. Less than seconds. Moments. And it would’ve saved me the worry over whether I’d accounted for different time zones at different ends of the journey. And it would’ve probably meant I’d have had longer than six minutes to get across what turned out to be a very big station.

It might also have meant I didn’t get a few hours in Paris on the way there and back again, so that wouldn’t have been good.

But from now on, I’m using The Man in Seat 61. The man is Mark Smith and his site explains why it’s called what it’s called.

Using your travel time

It’s been a long time since I drove very much at all. There was a time where, for several years, I would drive from Birmingham to London and back on a day at least once a week. But that would be a three-hour drive in the morning, leaving around 5am, and a four-hour drive back in the evening.

Plus I’d do eight to ten hours work in the middle.

So that was, what, help me count here: up to 17 hours away from my home office. And all but a ten-minute lunch break of it spent working.

When I got my first book contract, it obviously came with a deadline and I could not afford to lose 17 hours on a London day each week. I also obviously couldn’t afford to walk away from the eight to ten hours paid work, even if I hadn’t enjoyed it. This was Radio Times, easily one of my favourite writing jobs in my career.

But I could reclaim at least some of the travel time. If I gave up driving and instead went by trains or coaches – very often coaches because, wow, the price of trains that early in the morning – I could write. Not all the time. Once or twice on a train coming back I’d take a look at the crowd with me and feel wee bit uncertain about getting out a couple of thousand pounds of computer equipment. And sometimes I’d just be too tired.

Quick aside? The train from London Euston to Birmingham New Street goes via Birmingham International where there is the airport and the National Exhibition Centre. Amongst very many other things, the NEC hosts rock concerts. One night, I fell asleep on the train and woke up with my face pressed against the window.

And on the other side of the glass were a group of AC/DC fans pressing back and grinning at me.

Anyway.

I forget how long this went on for but it was probably three months. The book was published in November 2012 – it’s BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and I am deeply proud of it, I feel honoured that I got to be the one to write about that – so this would be late 2011, maybe early 2012.

But what I remember with total clarity was that when it was done, when I had delivered the first draft and could go back to driving, I had saved slightly over a thousand pounds in petrol.

Now, that’s not an accurate figure for saving because it doesn’t account for all the money I spent on trains and coaches. But it was a shock of a figure. Shock enough that to this day I refuse to let myself think about all the months of petrol I’d paid up to then. At least ten years with at least once such drive per week. You add it up, I feel ill.

It was also shock enough that I could not go back to doing it again.

So from that day on, I stuck to trains and coaches for my London work. I sold the car, even.

We still have a car: Angela has one and I use it when necessary or when we’re both going somewhere, I will usually be the one who drives us. Gives her a break from all the driving she does in her work.

Today it was necessary. I dropped Angela off at a place this morning, drove to a couple of jobs, then to a Theatre Cuppa gathering in the early evening and back. Then Angela was off to a production meeting for her theatre work (you cannot believe how proud I am that I can say that to you, I just find the very words delicious) and I was off to a Writers’ Guild committee meeting.

My meeting was quite short but it then took me an hour and a half to get home by bus. I’d driven 170 miles in about six hours today, the last 10 miles were a 90-minute series of bus rides. And those bus rides had more adventure in them. I got to see stand up rows between passengers and drivers, I somehow got to see one woman passenger flash another one even as I actually couldn’t quite see why. The flasher was not complimenting the flashee.

But I missed a lot because I was writing. I wrote nothing all day except some notes at the various places I drove to so I was behind. But on these buses, while keeping an eye on timetable information through my various iOS travel apps, I got to write.

I didn’t enjoy that it was 90 minutes, I didn’t enjoy the drizzle as I got off the last bus. But I got things done and so instead of feeling knackered and pointless tonight, I feel I’ve got on with something and that I secretly deserve to watch the first episode of Community, Season Two, which the finest of fine people has just loaned me.

There are 24 episodes in this season. That’s my productivity destroyed for the rest of the week.