Volumes of Memory

img_2751-2Two nights running a reader has sat in the same spot across the aisle from Central Belt Shuffler. He is immersed in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and is halfway through.

Last night the train stopped for a while outside of Croy, with no explanation forthcoming. This is the sort of situation that such a book is born for, although I occupied myself with marking.

His immersion made me remember when I read the same book. I was an undergraduate, in that odd period just after coursework and final exams are finished, but before the results are out. I recall sitting on a concrete step overlooking the university lake (60s buildings and lakes, with wildfowl attached, obviously hold some kind of attraction), while I worked my way through the tome, anxious about my results, thinking about the future, but pleasantly distracted by the novel.

In twenty years’ time will the reader, coming back to the book, remember the 2016 Stirling-Glasgow commute? Will the fabric of the already-aged Scotrail seats come flooding back into his memory? Proust wrote in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu how the madeleine brought back volumes’ worth of memory. But sometimes the volume itself can do that too…


Fibre on the Tracks

photo (13)Central Belt Shuffler has headed out to the South Side for some contemporary art. (See travel notes below*).

photo (10)It’s the Glasgow International Festival and Central Belt Shuffler is over at the Tramway. There’s fibre in the tracks, softening the industrial vestiges of the former tram works into a riot of colour. Trams are going nowhere. Trolleys sit in the tracks, too.

Monkeys climb the crumbling, arch-modernist buildings of Chandigarh. Its furniture is shipped round the world, restored and sold at high cost in auction houses. On the other side of the screen, a film shows the film being sold at Christie’s.

The industrial production of iceberg lettuce and pearls are surreally looped.

photo (9)The QE2, built on industrial Clydebank, has been digitally returned from Dubai (where in reality it still awaits its transformation into a luxury hotel) from Glasgow. On the journey back, it picks up some refugees. Broken in two and reconstituted as the QE3, it arches across the M8 motorway. It’s an art school, with one side for student accommodation. All the students are on full grants. The shipyards are no longer. The old Glasgow School of Art still burns. The crucible of industry has turned into one of creativity.

A woman sits and looks at her phone, to all intents at a bus stop.photo (3)

*Central Belt Shuffler mistakenly bought a ticket for Pollokshaws East rather than Pollokshields East.

The ticket inspector comment, ‘It’ll have cost you more.’

I nod, regretfully.

He adds, ‘As long as you know where you’re going.’


It didn’t seem like a day for setting out on foot, but Central Belt Shuffler’s journey today is a triangular one, out to the office and on to Edinburgh before setting back home again. Despite my umbrella, I’m already soaked by the morning rain as I reach the subway station; glad, at least, that I’m not on my bike. I see someone cycling along the path on the other side of the river, and think they must be much more determined than me. The rain has the quality of that in a Hollywood movie, but none of the joyous grace of Gene Kelly tap dancing along the pavement edge, flirting with the lamp posts.

At the other end, the wait at the bus stop is lengthy, the number of people growing by the minute. Some huddle inside Greggs, but the staff inside make them leave, explaining that it’s a fire exit. There’d be plenty enough rain to put any fire out. Eventually several buses arrive at once, and the scrum to get on fills each with the smell of wet coats, condensation, and students checking the time on their phones, already 20 minutes delayed for lectures.

The delay gets worse as we head to campus. Roadworks mean the traffic crawls along Causewayhead Road at slower than walking pace. We are, at least, out of the rain.

I arrive late. Everyone who comes in is dripping, and breathless from the conditions. Umbrellas are doing little good, and a walk across campus is inadvisable in this weather.

In the afternoon I get a text from my parents, checking I was not affected by flooding on the way to work. I look online; the motorway was flooded, and the southbound carriageway closed. Some days, despite a wet start as a pedestrian, it’s definitely better not to drive.

Mid-afternoon, I set off to catch the train to my next destination. The river races fiercely under the bridge, sweeping around the tree trunks, churning brown. The sun comes out, briefly. The view across the valley is spectacular as the storm clouds are chased by the sun, a kiss-chase of the weather. The elevated train tracks become a temporary causeway, running above lower-lying land. Water surrounds us on both sides.

Looking out of the window, I think of causeways around the country. The roads that link the islands of the Outer Hebrides, that one day I plan to cycle. The causeway to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, which requires visitors to plan their journeys carefully to avoid staying longer on the island than they had intended.  Burgh Island in Devon, to which you can walk over the sands to the Art Deco hotel.  Even the cheapest rooms (Shrimp, and Dorothy Button) are prohibitively expensive, and I’m not quite sure I could manage the glamour of the black tie/ball gown dining requirements, though I suppose I could give it a go. I remember The Bay of Fundy in Canada, which has the highest tide differentials in the world. One summer I ran a watery (and muddy) 10K across its ocean floor, on the appropriately named Not Since Moses run. I think of Kirsty Logan’s recent novel The Gracekeepers, which draws a vivid picture of our dry world overtaken by the waters of the floods, an imaginative rendering of the future of climate change.

The wind turbines are spinning fast on the broad plain of the Forth Valley. The fields below are sodden, covered with the water of today’s rain, not dried out from their previous soakings. The floods of the past couple of months continue to be visited upon us, making journeys unpredictable, homes ruined, the skies dramatic. The main train route south from Glasgow to London has been cut off since New Year’s Eve, and looks to be so through February and possibly March. A viaduct has been badly damaged by the rising waters of the Clyde.

It is raining again. At each station, people are huddled together under cover, standing closer than they might normally. When they step on the train, water falls off their coats, their hair lashed slickly to their faces.

The contact I’m meeting in Edinburgh apologises for being late. A chimney stack has fallen from the rooftop onto a bus, causing road closures and detours.

I still have another journey leg to go.

Kugelhopf Train Christmas


IMG_3455Here’s a merry Christmas Kugelhopf cake!

If you look closely, there’s an engine pulling its carriages through the snowy forest around the bottom of the cake.

A very fine piece of engineering. Delicious, too. (Thanks Becky.)



Seasonal Scaffolders

Inside the train station, high-vis clad scaffolders are labouring. It’s nearly 10pm, but despite the hour they’re merry, joking with each other as work on the scaffolding above the late evening travellers. They’re from Yorkshire, and – as I head home – their accents jolt me from the Central Belt norm.

Then, above my head, two of them begin to sing. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

It still sounds as I cross to the other platform, and I rename them, in my head. Dasher and Dancer; Prancer and Vixen; Comet and Cupid; Donner and Blitzen.


Peter and Wayne

Two mid-sized pigeons, standing on a train

One called Peter, one called Wayne

Ride away Peter, ride away Wayne

Getting the Bishopbriggs train home again?*

*This doggerel was inspired by the sight of two pigeons standing on the roof of the Dunblane train as it pulled out of the Queen Street platform into the tunnel. Riding high, like a cowboy atop a train in a Western. John Wayne, perhaps.

Just for a moment…

CoveParkCowThis evening, just for a moment from the homewards train, Central Belt Shuffler sees four Highland Cows in a slim triangle of field abutting the train tracks.

It is entirely possible that I haven’t been looking out of the window at quite the right moment, concentrating on polishing off a few end-of-the-day emails or reading some paperwork. Maybe they’re always there, horns pointed down to the grass, eating pacifically.

The sight of them jolts me back to a few weeks ago, when I’d shuffled on over to Cove Park for a week’s writing retreat. Cove Park, among its many virtues, has its only little troupe of Highland Cows, who bathe in the pools in front of the accommodation, and stand in the pathway of the residents. Whether they seem to be doing so in welcome or in challenge depends largely on your familiarity with these big beasts.

Back to the train, following on the tail of this pastoral reminder, I see lambs skipping, then flying: all four limbs in joyous springtime bounds. A fox runs diagonally across a field. And then, a reminder of a literary journey on the Trans-Siberian Express: a couple of horses threading between the birch trees. Time slips backwards, forwards, and I start to write.

Writing on the Shuffle

A little over a year ago, inspired by many a commute and one particular pre-Valentine’s Day happening, Central Belt Shuffler began this blog, much of which – if not quite all – is actually penned while travelling.

And now, an author friend has drawn my attention to news of a plan being hatched by Amtrak to give free rides to writers in the US. They’ve done a couple of test runs, and it looks like they might actually be rolling out on-board writers’ residencies.

In interview with The Wire, who reported on this admirable development, the first author to undertake a residency talked about the train as a ‘”unique environment for creative thought”‘, which ‘”takes you out of normal life”‘. This description is one that accords with that given by Guy Garvey over on his recent BBC Radio 6 Music show devoted to trains.

A L Kennedy, in her witty perspective on the author’s lot, On Writing, discusses writing in trains, retaining the most praise for US and Canadian train writing:

I can particularly recommend travel from New York to Montreal – the journey takes around eleven hours for no really good reason, beyond a type of shyness that will leave your train hiding, loitering and then simply fainting to a halt at regular intervals. When you are travelling north it will wait like a faithful lover to meet and be passed by the southbound train, and when you are travelling south it will also wait. You will do a great deal of waiting. But you will also be beguiled by the autumn foliage (should it be autumn), the picturesque wetlands and gentle vistas – all slightly distracting if you’re trying to write a sex scene and are already freaked out by your somewhat intrusive surroundings and the fiddly technical matters you have to consider. But you will be able to spot great blue herons and egrets and red-tailed hawks aplenty, as you wonder who should do what to whom first and from what angle.

(from A L Kennedy, On Writing)

Thanks to Amtrak and the powers of social media, it looks like writers in the US are going to get the opportunity to write on trains on a regular basis. Central Belt Shuffler has two thoughts as a consequence:

  1. Book a flight to America (or, in true A L Kennedy style, a transatlantic boat cabin) to take advantage of this great opportunity, and/or
  2. Petition the UK train companies to set up something similar. Yes please!

Update! See also Writer on the Train (First Great Western) and this Poetry Train Workshop, starting from Norwich. Let’s make that Scottish train companies (well, Scotrail) needing to set up something similar.

The dramatic entrance

Glasgow 1901From the opening of Glasgow in 1901, by James Hamilton Muir, which is Central Belt Shuffler’s current bedtime reading:

‘It must be accounted a pretty piece of stage direction on the part of the genius loci, that a traveller usually enters his strange city in the company of nightfall. As his train slows down and outskirts sweep out to meet him, then, whether he is entering a town of old romance, whose ancient monuments waver past him one by one like gestures of emaciated hands, or whether he finds his dark carriage “lit dreadfully” from beneath by flaring furnaces which march with him to remind him that his journey’s end is an unknown black heart of the provinces – it is night, transforming all outlines and fusing all colours, that prepares the dramatic quality of his entrance.

‘Dusk is falling; the train from the South is pounding on through the Black Country of Lanarkshire, past an endless procession of dour little mining villages, shot into heaps of waste rising from stagnant pools; on, past green fields blanched in the smoke, with bare little roads that scurry off to a fugitive horizon, over which the hills seem to cock their ears for a moment and sink back suddenly into the wilderness. And over the face of the land the evening sky is reeled off in an unending, monotonous ribbon by your flying train. For hours you seem to have sat in your corner, lulled by the narcotic of droning, insistent wheels, of cinders pattering on the roof of the rocking carriage pounding northwards along the black trail. Then the fields grow rarer, then suddenly cease; suburban stations swing past with steady rows of lamps and groups of blurred people. The houses mount higher and higher on either hand; down you go into a sudden gut; out goes the last of the sunset, and descends night’s curtain with a sudden run. Your train is gliding now through the squalid heart of the city; then it slackens speed, as you yawn and collect your wraps, it rumbles out on a bridge, the darkness lifts again, and for a moment of time a vision lies before you, seen through the twinkling lattice of the girders. It is of a short reach in a river, of water coloured a faint greenish bronze, of a dusky West Highland sunset lingering overhead, where shreds of clouds are drifting into nests for the night, of huddled silhouettes of vessels moored in the mid-stream or coaling at wharves, of brown smoke and sudden lights blinking out along the quays and dulling sky and water to the mellow chiaroscuro of an old painting. For a moment it hangs before you, dreamy, yet work-a-day, instinct with the modern poetry of night fallen on unended labours. Another moment and your train rumbles over the bridge, and a swarming, nocturnal city leaps up on every hand to welcome you.

‘It is the Clyde you have seen…’