Causeways

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.

Is it Saturday?

photoCentral Belt Shuffler sometimes reports on the (lack of) busy-ness on the rush hour train home. But earlier this week, it being Scottish half-term, the normally full morning train looked like this.

For a brief moment, I wondered if I’d mistakenly set off for work on a Saturday.

Large, and orange

  

A variation, today, on planes, trains and automobiles.

Central Belt Shuffler boards the habitual morning train, stows the bike. Another bike (from another Glasgow-Stirling commuter) is leaned against it.

Then, a kayak.

A kayak comes on board the train, after some discussion with the conductor. It wants to go to Perth, the stop on from Stirling.

The conductor says that, technically, the train shouldn’t really be taking a kayak. It’s over-sized, and won’t fit into the luggage holders. (These are – it has to be said – under-sized for the amount of luggage on the train on some occasions. This time, though, he has a point.)

The conductor lets them on, telling them to stow it by the bikes, upright. It is large, and orange. It’s packed with luggage, and, it transpires the train tickets. There’s a lot of discussion about whether it should be upright or on the floor, and whether it will impede the passage of the trolley. Vertical, horizontal, vertical again. The younger man – a teenager – sits down, holding the kayak with one hand. Or, more precisely, resting his hand against it, while the other hovers over his smartphone.

His attention switches, and his hand hovers over the kayak and touches the screen. The train bumps over the points. The kayak starts to tip. I am in its fall line.

I put my hand out. The teenager too. The train steadies. The boat stays upright.

Stirling. Two bikes leave the train. One sea-faring vehicle remains.

I hope it made it to the Tay.

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.

A Shuffler’s Manifesto

img00124-20110625-1850.jpg‘The car is freedom,’ Prof A asserts.

Unbound, I suppose, by timetables, stations, and stops. By the demands of onwards destinations and over-weight baggage. By the weather, and the occasional need to stand all the way.

But what do you learn of human nature in the car, other than that of your own emotions? Something, perhaps, if you listen to a good radio programme. But otherwise, a very limited range of expression: road rage and idiocy; courtesy and control; patience.

Patience can yield its rewards, though. As the cars slow down, you have more time to see your fellow car drivers and, in a favourite motorway traffic jam game, take an absurdist guess at their occupations. The amusement of the game doesn’t detract from the fact, though, that you’re gridlocked. And that you’re making it up.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a car. It sometimes even gets driven to work. It’s very convenient (apart from around MOT time). But, essentially, it’s a bubble. You’re visible, you can see out, but the experience is muffled. If you get too close to another car, the bubble bursts. You crash.

The train is sometimes far from convenient (though four trains an hour from Glasgow to Edinburgh isn’t bad), costs more than it should do, is over-crowded. But it allows something the car does not: the opportunity – if you so view it – to encounter the full variety of human nature. This includes those you will meet in the car (aggression, politeness, patience). But also a whole range of other emotions and modes: passive aggression, banter, helpfulness, fear, selfishness, generosity, humour, love. People rubbing each other up the wrong way, and the right way. Perhaps I wouldn’t think this if I were a south-east of England shuffler, but the Central Belt Shuffle is just fine.

Oh, and shuffling is also much better for both writing and reading, of course.

Common sense is being applied

The Flask of Invisibility?

The Flask of Invisibility?

An announcement from the train manager on the morning commute:

‘Any alcohol carried must not be visible’.

In July 2012, ScotRail introduced a ban on alcohol on trains between 9pm and 10am. ScotRail’s website reassures that ‘Common sense is being applied’, and that no bag searches are taking place.

Invisibility is all.

‘We need future plans’

Live tweets from a morning commute:

There are Waterstones staff on the train frantically scribbling on ppt print-outs with graphs and tables. Not sure this bodes well.

Although they might be mature students preparing for a simulated business case presentation. In conclusion, ‘We’re doomed.’

They seem to be trying to find reasons why they haven’t hit their targets. Hmmm.

[Why don’t I just ask them if they actually work for Waterstones, a Twitter correspondent wishes to know.]

They’re VERY busy. ‘So this is December, the high street was down 10%…’

One of them is staring out of the window at the snow. The others, ‘Fiction up, children’s down’, ‘2%’, ‘what’s the comparator year’?

Besides, I can’t say to them, ‘Do you really work at Waterstones, or are you pretending?’

Perhaps they’re my students, but have changed a lot over the break?

‘This slide is pretty good’, ‘We need future plans’, ‘Here’s a James Daunt quote’.

Ah, I either know about forthcoming staff reductions at Waterstones now, or I’m spreading nasty rumours…

I’m afraid I can’t report the future of Waterstones as I’ve left the train… (In case any of you were on tenterhooks.)