I knew John Hein through some rather entertaining Usenet posts over the years. I'd formed an image of a large red-haired Scotsman who lived in a Glasgow tenement and had a bizarre fasciation with trains and telephone systems. As it turns out, I was wrong: he lives in Edinburgh.
It was Edinburgh where I was invited to go and celebrate Hogmanay 2013. Arriving on the 5pm train, my hosts quickly whisked me off to a pub where we started off the evening in the manner we intended to continue. Come while around 11:30pm, we staggered into one of Edinburgh's gay pubs which had two particularly notable features:
A wide range of well-kept Real Ales and not the undrinkable industrial pish usually found in such venues; and
A large red-haired Scotsman talking about trains and telephone systems to a nun sat next to him.
And that is how I first met Pastor Best of the Order of Perpetual Indulgence, or after my booze-addled brain connected the dots, “Hey, are you the John Hein who wrote something called railtrack.pdf? That was highly entertaining!” to which I was informed that indeed he was, it is now a book, and yes he would quite like another beer.
Wait, a book? This should be good.
I finally got round to ordering “Railtrack and Other Letters” back in July, and with Royal Mail being staffed by the kind of time-serving mail-pilfering government employees that are given both barrels in the book, I received it a mere three weeks after it was posted.
But first, a simplified explanation of UK company law. Companies House maintains a database of unique company numbers which are assigned to the company on formation and remain with it until its dissolution, and company names which can be freely chosen by the company so long as they're unique and not offensive or misleading. There is a one-to-one mapping between name and number, and when a company changes its name or is dissolved, the old name becomes available to others. The company's assets and liabilities follow the number, and any new owner of the name does not take on the liabilities.
The basic premise of the book is that John noticed that Railtrack plc—an infamous badly-run company that eventually became insolvent—had changed its name to Network Rail Infrastructure Limited as part of the bail-out, and the name “Railtrack Limited” was now available. So he registered it.
Anybody who is lazy and/or incompetent when doing a Companies House search for “Railtrack” when looking for who is responsible for the UK rail infrastructure will thus find the wrong company. If they are greedy as well, they'll send threatening letters to the wrong address. At which point, the book practically writes itself.
Except in a handful of cases, the letters are not published, probably for copyright reasons. Besides, stodgy legal waffle that goes on for pages is not a good read.
The responses are published, and contain enough detail to infer the contents of the original letter. The first few are short, professional business letters that basically tell the sender to get stuffed. Then it becomes clear that John is fed up with being nice to these idiots and the responses become much more entertaining. John has a great talent for letter-writing and trolling, combining business and legal jargon with the somewhat forthright language expected of a feisty Scotsman, with dry sarcasm and abuse, and adding in enough random and apparently deranged postscripts and other comments to both confound and wind up the recipient. Particular scorn is poured upon government departments that really should know better, especially those who write back to Railtrack Limited to complain about the bad language used by what they believe to be a low-level minion of Railtrack Limited, only to get a similar robust response from the board. And sometimes the anger is made more real, such as when John was roused from his “monthly bath” by some Sheriff Officers serving documents.
I'll share a single paragraph, sent directly to a claimant in response to a letter from their ambulance-chasing solicitor:
Thank you for your letter of the 9th inst addressed to our Managing Director in which you narrate that you recently slipped on ice in the entrance of the above named tunnel. We are sorry to hear that you resultantly spent several hours in Casualty and had to have several stitches in your face. We must admit that we dropped a few ourselves when we read your letter.
That paragraph seems unnecessarly nasty and cruel when taken out of context, but it was the one that pushed me over the edge into giggling after reading the rest of the exchange. However, if you feel that kind of response is highly inappropriate whatever the context, this book is probably not be for you.
This is an ideal book to read in the toilet. Not only does the short letter format lend itself well to being read in small chunks, but it's the best place to be when you're pissing yourself laughing.
The book itself was clearly expected to only be an electronic publication and only grudgingly made available in print. It is available for a very reasonable £2.99 for Kindle and a somewhat more hefty £9.56 as a paperback. I bought the paperback as I refuse to support DRM on books. While the book appears to be print-on-demand, and published directly by Amazon, it is a high quality perfect-bound paperback. Sadly, the infamous terrible typesetting that is characteristic of Kindle books has been brought over to the paperback: it is set throughout in the same font and the sentence or two of explanatory notes preceding each letter is alone on its own page, wasting a lot of paper, and there is no table of contents, index, or even page numbers.
On getting towards the end of the book, one may have a taste for more and wonder if there might be a sequel. Do remember to put down any cats and coffee before reading the name of the newly-registered name in the Companies House certificate on the last page.