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.

Digger, Sergei, Fly, and Big Al

This was a weekend of epic car journeys, taking Central Belt Shuffler far, far beyond the habitual terrain. The journeys – and the regular stops for photo opportunities, snacks, leg stretching, and parking practice – travelled through what must be some of the most awesome scenery in the world – the road north-west of Glasgow by Loch Lomond, through Rannoch Moor and Glencoe, beyond Fort William to the Great Glen and Loch Ness before heading over the Black Isle beyond Inverness, and onwards to Ullapool. (The return journey went via the A9 and a night-time trip to Stirling cemetery.)

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Photo credit: Beth Driscoll

The car journeys were punctuated by a book festival, several fish suppers and ice creams, and an enormous amount of very interesting conversation. They were also bookended by dogs on public transport.

Here’s Digger (otherwise known as Trip Hazard), who travels on his owner’s boat shipping tourists over to the Summer Isles. He skitters surefootedly around the deck as the boat travels over the waves, staring out to the rocks and the seals, keeping an eye out for puffins. He first foots Tanera Mor, before we tourists head off for warming coffee and brownies, to write a quick postcard using the private island postal service, and then to have a quick walk above the scattered houses before we head back to the mainland. (The island is still for sale, incidentally… Crowd-funder, anyone?)photo

Then, back in the big city, waving sadly goodbye in Glasgow Central to road trip companion Dr D, three dogs and their rucksacked owner board the train south. Rescue dogs all, they are called Sergei, Fly, and Big Al. Big Al is very big indeed.

The journeys continue. And so do the stories…

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.

A Better Class

This week, Central Belt Shuffler has headed down the West Coast mainline to shuffle to and fro in the Lake District.

The short walk to the station reveals the aftermath of the recent flooding. Furniture and bin bags are piled high outside the rows of small terraced houses. The remains of kitchen units are piled against the walls. Many of the doors are open, showing men busily working within. The floorboards are lifted up in some of the houses: as well as pouring through the doors, the water rose up from below.

We change onto the mainline, jumping into the first class carriage as the connecting train is about to depart south. We make our way through the carriage to ours, dodging the complimentary drinks trolley. My companion spots the local MP (and leader of the Liberal Democrats) Tim Farron, seated at the very first table in standard class.

On his table, he has a big pile of Christmas cards. The Penguin design was chosen from pictures drawn by local schoolchildren. He’s industriously working through them, signing each one. If he gets them all done before Saturday, he’ll be able to get them in the second class post. Just like the rest of us.

Later in the day, on the way home, there are many more bags outside the terraced houses. They’re filled to the top with rubble. The newsagents is open again, and shining clean. I go in to buy some stamps. They warn me it’s cash only; their card machine isn’t working again yet. I try to buy the local paper, but it’s last week’s copy. They’ll be stocking the papers again tomorrow, they tell me, smiling.

As I continue home, the lights of Christmas trees fill the front windows of the battered houses.

The sound began to fade…

Central Belt Shuffler has been on tour again, as this recent post on Montreal’s public transport described.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 12.13.48To accompany travel in a very different part of Canada, Central Belt Shuffler’s holiday reading list included Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

The book, which is an imaginative recreation of Newfoundland’s first premier Joey Smallwood, details a number of journeys across and around the rugged island: accompanying a sealing ship as a reporter; walking the railways to unionise the section workers; sailing the shores to discover tiny communities lost in time; crossing his home land for the first time in train (a route which is sadly no longer). Johnston’s evocation of Smallwood leaving Newfoundland on a boat for the first time is particularly fine:

To leave or not to leave, and having left, to stay away or to go back home. I knew of Newfoundlanders who had gone to their graves without having settled the question, some who never left but were forever planning to and some who went away for good but were forever on the verge of going home. My father had left and come back, physically at least.

In the lounges, people sat listening to the radio until, about twenty miles out, the sound began to fade. There were groans of protest, but people kept listening as long as they could hear the faintest hint of sound through the static. Finally, when the signal vanished altogether, there was a change in mood among the passengers, as if we were truly under way, as if our severance from land was now complete. The radio was left on, though, eerily blaring static as though it were some sort of sea sound.

Cats on Tracks

Yesterday saw the funeral of the Japanese station cat Tama, attended by 3000 mourning the death of a feline who had single-pawedly saved a rural railway line, and lifted the local tourist economy. She has been made a Shinto goddess, and a successor duly appointed to watch over the station and wear a funny hat.

Credit: Anthony Bale

Credit: Anthony Bale

Apposite news, as ‘Where’s the cat?’, and ‘Where’s the incredibly fast & exciting train?’, are more or less the only things Central Belt Shuffler can say in Japanese (neko wa doko desuka and shinkansen wa doko desuka, respectively). Japan is a world of cat wonder and weirdness, from Hello Kitty to cat cafes, from the movie Rent-a-Cat to cat island, and to pretty much every book that Haruki Murakami has ever written.

But for a little transcultural memorialising of Tama, here’s a picture of a cat patrolling the tracks in rural France, courtesy of a friend. Good night, and travel well, sweet Tama…

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.

The Ultimate Trainspotting Spot?

Bookspotting at HaymarketA sunny day, and a hour’s meeting stolen in between trains on the journey to St Andrews.

We sit on the cafe terrace above Haymarket station, discussing ebook interoperability, hybrid diesel/electric trains, Beeching and (the demise of) branchlines. Below us, the range of franchised trains roll in, halt, and then continue on their journey. One of my companions explains to our overseas visitor the intricacies of Scotrail, East Coast mainline, Virgin, CrossCountry. Behind my sunglasses, I close my eyes and imagine my two-wheeled way into the countryside.

These ten days have the following travel schedule: Glasgow-Stockholm (including the magnificent Arlanda Express)-Glasgow-Birmingham-University of Birmingham-Brimingham-Glasgow-Stirling-Glasgow-Edinburgh-Leuchars-St Andrews-Glasgow-Edinburgh-Glasgow-Stirling-Glasgow-Edinburgh-Glasgow-Bearsden-Glasgow. Important to pay attention to platform announcements and the display panels.

I don’t remember in every station to check out the closest bookish locations, as indicated the Bookspotting app. But in Haymarket, there’s a moment before the next train to find myself in literary terms. The Scottish Episcopal Church General Synod Office is, slightly oddly, the closest location (relating to former-Bishop-now-writer Richard Holloway), but also featured are Caledonian Place (home to Davie in Irvine Welsh‘s Trainspotting) and 160 Bruntsfield Place (Muriel Spark‘s birthplace).

Good job the train is perfect for reading…