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 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.

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…

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…


Laidlaw the Shuffler

LaidlawReading William McIlvanney’s recently republished Laidlaw, it would seem that the original Glasgow detective is also a shuffler. And, at that, one who sees both the rich (sometimes black) seam of humour in public transport, and also how it lends you insight into human nature – including that of the murderer.

Laidlaw, with his new sidekick Harkness, are on the bus (much to the latter’s surprise):

‘A car is psychologically sterile, a mobile oxygen-tent. A bus is septic. You’ve got to subject yourself to other people’s prejudices, run the risk of a mad conductor beating you to death with his ticket-punch. Two twenties, please.’

‘Now have ye thought about this?’ the conductor said. ‘There’s still time tae get aff. We stop for tea at the end o’ this run. Ah usually like tae go berserk at least once before ma tea-break.’

Laidlaw and Harkness laughed.

‘Ah’ll pit yer name in for a Ministry of Transport Medal then,’ the conductor said.

When he was gone, Laidlaw said, ‘Of course, the Underground’s worse. Then you’re sealed off in a revolving tube with everybody else’s hang-ups. Like laboratory specimens.’

Harkness shook his head.

‘And here was me thinking you just liked the view from upstairs on a bus.’

‘There is that,’ Laidlaw said. ‘I like sitting up at the front and playing at being the driver.’

Laidlaw lit a cigarette.

No more smoking on the bus, but – as Laidlaw urges Harkness – make yourself a traveller and not a tourist. Take the bus.

The Socialist Train

Today, Tony Benn has left us. A towering political figure of the left, a powerful rhetorician, and a deeply humane individual who constantly reminded us of collectivism.

CentralBeltShuffler had the privilege to see him in action more than once: a magnificent, inspiring lecture on Thomas Paine twenty years ago at UEA; and then some years later in ‘national treasure’ mode at the Oxford Literary Festival (although if that’s national treasure, give me a whole museum and we can curate – and create – a better, fairer world).

Luckily, so much of his career has been documented (not least by his own capacious writings), that we have no excuse not to remember him, and his socialist analysis of 20th and 21st century politics. In the digital, 21st century, we also have instant resource to the power of his rhetoric via YouTube.

Here, his critique of the damage wrought to the fabric of our nation by Thatcherism ends in high-style, and with reference to a commute. See here (from c3:20, though please listen to the whole thing), or in transcript, below:

RIP Tony Benn. May we keep your politics alive.


‘I had one experience the other day, which confirmed me in my view that she hasn’t really changed the thinking or the culture of the British people.

‘I don’t know how many people travel as I do, on trains, but I go regularly on the trains, and I see all the little businessmen with their calculators, working out their cash flow, frowning [at] people, looking and glaring at each other.

‘Thatcherite trains, the train of the competitive society…

‘I was coming back from Chesterfield the other day, and the train broke down. [Benn has earlier discussed the evils of privatisation.]

‘And the train changed. Someone came in and said, ‘Have a cup of tea from my Thermos.’ And they looked after each other’s children. A young couple talked to me, and I said after about half an hour, ‘How long have you been married,’ and they said, ‘Oh, we met on the train,’ they said. And a woman said, ‘Will you get off the train in Derby and ring my son in Swansea, because he’ll be worried’.

And by the time we got to London, we were a socialist train. Because you can’t change human nature.

‘There is good and bad in everyone. And for ten years it is the bad, and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out of touch, cloud cuckoo land, extremist and militant. That’s what the party opposite has done.’

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…’

Are books his bag?

BooksaremyBagOn exiting from the subway station, Central Belt Shuffler overhears a snippet of conversation, between a pretty young woman and her fresh-faced counterpart – new undergraduates both?

Her: ‘… a Japanese writer.’ Pause. She continues: ‘Do you like reading?’

Central Belt Shuffler walks on, not hearing his response.

Young man, if your answer is a yes, you are guaranteed a lifetime of mental stimulation. And possibly physical too.

(Though this blog argues otherwise.)