Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Travelling on trains:
amusements, intrigues and threats

Tired after a poor night - up two hours or more - then the trip down to London and back for meetings. Train journeys are generally somewhat dreamlike, between alertness and fantasy, and I am now in the habit of writing brief notes for much of the way. These may be simply descriptions - I must have seen Ely Cathedral a hundred times and seen it differently each time - or thoughts, or snippets from what I am reading (today it was Jenny Diski's marvellous What I Don't Know About Animals) or a set of absurd fantasies such as:


1. He wished he had an interesting face. He turned his head upside down. Promising. 
2. Two dogs on the pavement in the rain. Where's your umbrella, asks one. Up yours, the other retorts. 
3. The sun was lower than expected, the fields brighter. Life was an altogether different planet.
4. The sense of well-being is a phantasmal condition, wrote the desert father. Come in and finish your damn tea, the desert mother shouted.
5. His nose was growing like Pinocchio's yet he had told the truth all his life. Someone else must have been lying.
6. A horde of lemmings at the cliff edge. Don't worry it's all a cartoon, says one. Go for it, boys! You can walk on air!
7. The secret of long life is dread, he whispered. You can never have too much in our climate.
8. Are those frozen wastes, the stranger asked the goatherd. How should I know, the goatherd replied. Ask the goats.
9. Lugubrious and Censorious were standing at the bus stop when the Tartar hordes arrived, two at once again.
10. A solemn row of lampposts were contemplating the pavement. Life is hell, one remarked. Lighten up, another replied. It's not all lollipops.

I have hundreds of them now. I don't know whether these are particularly good but this is as they came out today. I write in sets of ten, usually very fast. Why do it? I aim to amuse, intrigue and threaten myself.  I cannot quite tell what they add up to but it doesn't really matter now. My reputation is such as it is and ventures into tangential territory won't make any difference to that.  I publish the series on Twitter and Facebook and a lot of people seem to read and like them. More than buy my books in fact. Some will become booklets.  I suppose they are vignettes of a sort, tiny windows onto other worlds that have haunted my earlier poems but were rarely given space to themelves. 

In any case, who knows how long life is to be? Why stand around pretending to be yourself when you could pretend to be someone just as interesting, maybe stranger and more surprising.

I have no great trust in British trains and have often missed connections. The service is not exactly what would once have been called 'third world' but it isn't leading technology either  - nothing like China or Japan - and there are frequent problems with signals. The railway staff remain resiliently good natured as if the whole service were a chummy version of the Blitz. The result is that most travelling is done in the head. 

Meanwhile the train rushes on and I look out of the window or read or do a crossword. I buy a hot drink at Cambridge where I change trains.

- Now then, Mr Norris, where are you going?
- Home, dear fellow. 
- Comfy train? 
- Functioning.
- The world's your oyster then.
- All pearls.

ps In the Tenniel illustration above my avatar is the man with the paper hat on the left.


Gwil W said...

It was night. I was in a compartment for 6 passengers in the last train of the day. There were 3 of us. Two students and myself. At the next station an old woman came in with a red cat in a blue cage. She sat opposite me. That made 4 of us and so we were each in a corner seat. And then the cat came out of the cage and jumped onto the floor and went under my seat. I put the cage on the rack above. Ten minutes later the cat was on my knee. I handed him back to his owner and he quickly went to sleep on her knee. Or it appeared so. Suddenly his ears pricked up. His eye opened and he glared at the compartment door. There was no nobody there and no footsteps in the corridor. Perhaps he can see something I cannot see, I thought to myself. The cat continued to glare at the door. A minute later I heard voices and footsteps approaching along the corridor. "There's no room in there" said a man's voice. And the footsteps got nearer. They came to our door. It was two men. The smaller man was the train conductor in his uniform. He was accompanied by a lugubrious heavy jowled giant of Jack and the Beanstalk proportions. His outline blocked out the light in the corridor. "There's room in here," said the conductor. In our corners we shifted nervously.
The cat glared at the giant as if its eyes were on stalks. And then the giant spoke heavily and slowly. "Um not goan in da" he articulated. "Why not?" said the conductor. "Da is a cat in da," said the giant. The conductor closed the compartment door and the pair moved down the carriage. I sensed sighs of relief. The cat quickly went back to sleep. I smiled at the old woman and she smiled back. I relaxed and glanced at my watch. In 2 hours we would arrive in Vienna.

tomd said...

The man in the paper hat is, among other things, Disraeli.

George S said...

Gorgeous story, Gwilym. Thank you! Always carry a spare cat.

George S said...

Tom: Je est Disraeli.

looby said...

Your last two entries have left me chortling with delight. The girl who hasn't left Attleborough for a while, together, with other memories of anecdotes you've related from that line, make me want to have a holiday, drunk, with a week's season shuttling with the working girls, literary observers, and other exemplars of the teeming life on that line, from Norwich to Wymondham.

Your call-and-response absurdist couplets have also made me laugh, like a shorter version of The Book of ....

Oh dear, I'm sorry, I can't remember now. I mean the book by that Scots poet and writer who wrote a brilliant book of apothegms. If anyone can remember it please say it.

Anyway, a bit like that (as the sense of deflation passes round the room) :)

Thanks George, I got a great deal of enjoyment from this.

looby said...

Please excuse me replying to my own post, but the book I was trying to remember is Don Paterson's The Book of Shadows.