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…

 

A Fellow Traveller

The train home. Dr A and I sit in companionable silence, he furiously marking (he suspects he’ll have read about 125 essays by the end of the week), Central Belt Shuffler catching up on emails and social media.

A older cyclist gets on the train. It’s the first properly cold evening of the year, but he’s in knee-length shorts. He has the same fluorescent cycling jacket (slightly larger size) as me, though, and keeps his helmet on through the journey.

Not far out from Queen Street, he tosses words across the aisle at Dr A, ‘You’re a teacher?’

Dr A nods, wearily.

‘What dae ye teach?’ interrogates our fellow traveller.

I explain we work at the uni, and what my subject area is.

Dr A admits to teaching English.

‘Brutal,’ our interlocutor replies. It’s hard to know whether this is condemnation or approbation.

‘Ah’m a teacher too. Chemistry. When ye’re marking it’s easy to see. Is it 9 and a quarter? But English. That’s brutal.’

We realise he is speaking in sympathy at Dr A’s lot, and laugh.

‘Little and often is what my dad always advised about marking,’ I said. ‘He was a school teacher.’

He goes on to tell us about his own love of teaching, his school days in the East End of Glasgow. Tough, working class, Celtic and Rangers and a’ that.

‘Lamb, Spenser, the Faerie Queen, Milton… teaching that tae boys from the East End. But The Big McGonigall!’ He smiles, remembers, some long gone inspirational teacher in his mind’s eye.

‘James Joyce. Ah like the Irish writers. Joyce, Seamus Heaney. Ah shoulda done English,’ he said. ‘But working class boys, it wisnae fer us. The white heat of maths and chemistry, that wis the thing. It can still be like that ah think.’

We agree, and Dr A talks about his experience at university open days, trying to convince parents that English is worth studying.

‘Ah’m reading McIlvanney at the moment,’ he said. ‘The Kiln. It’s very autobiographical. It reminds me of my life.’

The train pulls into the station. We take our bikes off the train and head our separate ways homewards, wishing each other well.

It feels like coming home…

FullSizeRender (6)It’s early, a sunny morning. Central Belt Shuffler is slowly getting back into the return to work. The early alarm for the commuter train, hopping on the bike, the initial speed down hill, and then the push through to the station. It’s an even earlier train than normal today, to arrive in good time for an event.

I arrive at the station well in time, and head into the ticket office. There’s a hipster brass band playing on the concourse, and Scotrail branded cupcakes, celebrating the reopening of the Queen St tunnel. As travellers pass through the barriers on their way to work they are offered cake. Initially, some are wary, thinking it’s a charity collection, but then – as the sun streams through the roof – they realise it’s a small gift, the icing on its top literally buttering up customers after months of extended journey times.

The commuters’ early-morning head-down intent turns to smiles. The girls handing out the cakes dance in time to the band. The boys grin at everyone.

I board my train, and the short journey opens up into the large vistas of the Forth Valley, the dramatic sight of Stirling castle and the Wallace monument heaving into view.

I catch the train home with 10 seconds to spare, hoisting my bike up onto the rack. A familiar movement, but one I haven’t made for a while.

I have my ticket on the table, ready for inspection. The train guard comes by, and I hold it out.

He nods, and smiles, without really scrutinising it. ‘Thank you pal, good on ye.’

The sun shines on the Campsie Fells. A deer runs lazily across a field.

It feels like coming home. It is.

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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.

Back for Good

Yesterday, on the Glasgow-bound train, the inspector asked:

‘Are you gaun a take that n all?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Are you gaun a Take That?’

‘What?’

‘They’re playin, in Glasgow?’

‘Oh right,’ I reply (wondering, ‘Do I look like I’m going to a Take That gig?’). ‘No. I didn’t know they’re playing.’

‘Have ye been busy at work all day?’

‘Yes.’
The city’s gaun a be busy. An this train probably too.’ (The train is currently deserted.) ‘But ye’ve a seat already. Ye’re lucky.’
As we halt at each station, I look out at the platform, trying to guess who is a Take That fan.
The train doesn’t ever get busy. The fans must be in the Hydro already.
Here they are, though, with suitably Glaswegian weather, Back for Good, back in the day.

The Ticket Check

An evening train, heading home. A well-built train conductor makes his way down the carriage, checking tickets as he goes.

One passenger, staring out of the window, doesn’t notice his arrival, and jumps when the conductor asks for his ticket.

‘Ah’m not usually known for ma stealth,’ comments the conductor.

The IndyRef Shuffle

It’s September, and so the regular Central Belt Shuffle starts once more. The leaves on this fine early Autumn day are turning golden, and gently crunch under my bike wheels.

The morning commute, flask in hand, is joined by my colleague Dr A. We discuss the possibilities not of Scottish Independence, but Scottish Renaissance Studies, or rather, Renaissance Studies in Scotland. I cast my mind to Rona Munro’s James Plays, the third of which – with its triumphant casting of Sofie Grabol (aka The Killing’s Sarah Lund) as James III’s Danish wife – I’d seen in August during the festival shuffle period. The play included a direct address to the audience (as well as her court and country) from Grabol. ‘Who,’ she asks, ‘would want the job of ruling Scotland?’ And, even more provocatively, ‘You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck-all except attitude.’ As Michael Billington put it in his review, ‘Even Alistair Darling wouldn’t dare to go that far.’

And as tomorrow the three leaders of the Westminster parties shuffle northwards in one last ditch attempt to woo us, at last fully cognisant that not only might there be something to lose, but that it is (as the polls are telling us) a real possibility, I look out the window on the shuffle home for signs of the debate. I don’t see any large Yes or Nos emblazoned on the landscape (though there is at least one hillside near Stirling showing its political affiliations), and my fellow travellers seem much the same as ever – reading, staring into space, sleeping, yawning, wishing there were a drinks trolley on the train, chatting. But change is coming, very fast, whichever way the vote goes – as this, perhaps one of the most perceptive (and chilling, in its grasp of realpolitik) of the pieces I’ve yet read on the referendum and its aftermath – lays out.

Rural Fox

Looking out of the train window the other evening, Central Belt Shuffler was surprised to see a fox running across a field. Not so much because the country fox is so very rare, but because of the ubiquity of their city cousins. A family of five live directly opposite my flat; one of the ‘types of folk’ illustrated in Alasdair Gray’s Hillhead subway station mural are the ‘Urban Foxes’.

The urban fox feeds on discarded takeaways, ripped-open bin bags, and – it is to be assumed – the odd slow-stepped magpie, or duck plucked fresh from the Kelvin. Central Belt Shuffler once saw one trotting away from the chippie on Great Western Road, wrapped fish supper carefully held in its jaws. Does it have a regular order? And does the rural fox dream of cappuccino and free wifi?