How author Dominic Utton's frustration with delays on the train from Oxford to London led to the publication of his first novel

There isn’t much to be grateful for when it comes to train delays: anyone who regularly commutes knows the daily misery the journey to and from work can provoke. But, believe it or not, the dismal performance of the commuter trains between Oxford and London has, in a peculiar way, been something of a godsend to me. They have led directly to the publication of my first novel.

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time was published this month – and if it’s the culmination of a year of writing, it’s also the product of four year’s commuting to the capital every day.

The novel is set on the trains between Oxford and London, and is told in the format of emails between Dan, a frustrated commuter, and Martin Harbottle, the managing director of the train company. What starts as a rant against the constant delays, cancellations and overcrowding Dan experiences each day soon develops into a funny and often moving dialogue between the two men – in which Dan reveals his struggles as a new father and the difficulties he’s facing as showbiz reporter on a scandal-hit Sunday tabloid newspaper (As well, of course, as the everyday quirks of the regular commute).

It is a work of fiction. But it has its roots in my own experiences on that line – and my own emails to the managing director of First Great Western.

Two years ago I started a blog – Every time my train to Paddington (or the train home again) was delayed, I wrote to Mark Hopwood, the MD of First Great Western, and the length of the email reflected the length of the delay. So a short five minute hold-up would warrant a pithy 500-word note – but a longer, soul-sapping half-hour delay would mean a 3,000 word epic.

Somewhat unbelievably, Mr Hopwood wrote back. Over the course of a year I sent 98 emails – and received around 50 replies in return – making our correspondence run to well over 100,000 words. They all got posted on to the blog for anyone to read.

Of course, there’s only so much one can say about any actual delay – and so, with so many words to fill, I shared with Mr Hopwood my opinions on everything from 80s pop music to a (rather good though I say so myself) Marxist interpretation of Thomas the Tank Engine… with rather a lot of Henry Root and Spike Milligan-inspired absurdity along the way.

We built up quite a following: the blog has (to date) been viewed over 120,000 times, and at one stage was receiving nearly 1,000 hits a day. And the reaction I received was almost universally positive.

People liked that I was fighting back, that I had the ear of the managing director – and that once I had his ear, I was making sure I wasted as much of his time as he was wasting of mine. They liked that I wasn’t simply shouting abuse at him, but poking a gentler kind of fun instead; taking the mickey, rather than simply ranting.

Mark Twain once said: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter” – and so I used humour as my weapon. I couldn’t actually make the trains run any more efficiently… but I could help make the man who was supposed to look a bit silly for not doing his job properly.

It turned out that one of the people who enjoyed my blog was a literary agent. And he suggested that I take the format and turn it into something with wider appeal, a comic novel about an everyman character fighting back against The Man.

The result is Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time – which was also written on the train between Oxford and London, over the course of a year or so, in one hour (often more) chunks every morning and evening.

The novel’s hero, Dan, does not keep a blog of his delays, but hopefully, anyone who has braved the peak-time services to London will recognize both his frustrations with the trains, as well as his observations of the peculiar habits and oddities of the regular commuter.

For millions of us, commuting is a dreary, powerless, soul-sapping chore every day – leaving us feeling helpless in the face of price rises, chronic overcrowding and ridiculous excuses for late, delayed and cancelled services. Hopefully my experiences – and Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time – will show that at least something good (or at least funny) can come out of it.

Dominic will be discussing Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time at the official Oxford launch tonight at 7pm at Blackwell's Bookshop, Broad Street. Tickets available from the Customer Service desk in the shop, by calling 01865 333623, or by emailing