One Day Without Us

headerToday saw a day of action to celebrate the contribution of migrants in the UK. Central Belt Shuffler, away from home turf, joined colleagues in solidarity at another university outside the students’ union.

The day before, I’d been travelling to my temporary home in the Midlands. The Sunday afternoon train was packed with people returning from half-term holidays, shopping in the big city, and heading onwards to the airport at the end of the route. Large suitcases and bags stuffed with new purchases were blocking the aisles, and several people were standing. Families and friends were separated, picking single seats where they could.

When the overcrowding on the train eased a little, a quiet, turbaned train guard checked our tickets. Then, from the other end of the carriage, the food and drinks trolley started to make its way, pushed by a dreadlocked man. He made it through to the vestibule area, which was still blocked by scattered suitcases, mine included. In a cheerful manner, he started to rearrange people’s bags to make more room, lifting smaller bags to the overhead racks, and fitting the larger ones into the spaces at the end of the carriage.

He talked good-naturedly while he did so, his intonation inflected by his Caribbean accent. He came to talk to our few seats, making all the passengers laugh with his explanation of how stacking luggage wasn’t his job, but he needed to make the passageways clear so he could sell from the trolley. He explained his father had always told him to do a decent day’s work. His dad had been a farmer, and he would also work as a farmer, and a builder, before he came over to the UK from Montserrat. He’d watch his goats, and plant during January to April: dasheen, sweet potato, blue peas, cucumber. His father would grow enough for him and his family, to give some to neighbours, to sell some. He couldn’t farm in the UK, and had tried building work for a while, but his hands couldn’t take the cold. So he was working on the trains. He was heading home to Montserrat for a couple of weeks’ holiday soon. He was looking forward to it.

As we approached the next stop, a larger city where lots of people got up to leave, he asked everyone to sit back down again to make way for the train guard as he came through to open the doors. The guard smiled wryly as he went past. Our trolley man sang us a bit of Bob Marley.

As we left the train, each passenger got a hand down with their bags, including my very heavy suitcase.

I smiled at him as I left the train, and thanked just one more of the individuals who come to make their homes here, and thereby enrich our lives, help us out, share their stories, and spread the love.

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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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.’

Going Abroad

photoCentral Belt Shuffler has been away for the weekend, celebrating that very non-Central Belt Shuffling American tradition of Thanksgiving. The weekend was spent in Yorkshire, and as well as liberal doses of turkey, potatoes both roast and mashed, parsnips, carrots, stuffing, succotash, Yorkshire puddings (for a local twist), mashed sweet potato topped with marshmallow, pumpkin pie, wine, whisky, rum and coke, there was a lot of weather. Wind, rain. Rain, and rain. And then some more rain.

Undaunted, we headed out into the countryside for a big walk before tucking into our dinner, and then (for this group of celebrants) the obligatory game of ‘Who’s in the Bag?’ (aka The Name Game). (As a travelling aside, Philip Pullman was explained as a kind of railway carriage, rather than a children’s writer.)

The following day, Central Belt Shuffler boarded the train back from Gargrave to Glasgow. The route was not that taken on the way down (the Carlisle to Settle route), but on a local train through to Morecambe. As Central Belt Shuffler prepared to step out of the train, gazing apprehensively at the horizontal rain heading down the Lancaster platform, the following interchange took place:

Yorkshire train guard, to Central Belt Shuffler and another woman who is getting off: It doesn’t look very nice out there.

Central Belt Shuffler: No, it doesn’t.

Yorkshire train guard: That’s what happens, if you go abroad.

A warning indeed to travellers daring to go outside of God’s Own Country, Yorkshire.

The train guard’s warnings proved prophetic. At Lancaster, all the trains north were cancelled due to fallen trees on the track beyond Oxenholme. The likelihood of getting back to the Central Belt looked slim (confirmed by a later message on the National Rail website, to the effect that, ‘Buses have been requested to run between Preston and Carlisle however Virgin Trains are currently unable to source any.’). Using a bit of local Lake District knowledge I headed for the local bus service over to Kendal, where I bedded down for the night (and got my underwear speed-washed by my mother). The following conversation took place:

French mother: What I don’t understand is why they have trees so close to the train line anyway. You think they’d cut them down.

English daughter: This isn’t France, mum.

French mother: They do that when they built the TGV lines.

English daughter: As I said, this isn’t France, mum.

The next morning, I set off from Kendal to Edinburgh, for a morning meeting. Two middle-aged female passengers who boarded at Carlisle discussed the pressing matter of chips.

Cumbrian lady 1: I don’t mind oven chips.

Cumbrian lady 2: I really prefer them in fat.

Cumbrian lady 1: Yes. In lard.

As the train pulled through the snow-topped hills to Edinburgh, I reflected that travelling the North of England – be it Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Cumbria – is every bit as rewarding as Central Belt Shuffling.

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…

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.

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.

Platform Change

Platform change.

An evening rush hour crowd heads over to the newly designated platform, at the far end of the station.

Arm aloft, a member of staff gestures the crowd to follow them. No tourist crowd this, though, tightly packed around the umbrella, looking about them at the wonders. No, his pose is more leader-of-men, hastening them to the barricades.

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.

Training for the Train

On the train, a man has several A4 pages printed up with differently patterned dots. He runs his pencil along each line, occasionally striking through one of the sets of dots.

Is he teaching himself Braille, but visually? Is this a new form of Sudoku, fending off Alzheimers?

The trolley arrives. Everyone shakes their head, and the trolley passes on. But the attendant notices the pages of dots, and addresses the man: ‘Are you going for train driver?’

‘Aye,’ he replies. ‘I went for it last year and I passed all the tests, but I failed one part of the interview. I’m doing it again, but they’ve changed it, and so I have to do it all again.’

She nods, and passes on.

‘So what is that?’ Central Belt Shuffler asks.

‘It’s a concentration test, to be a train driver. It’s got nothing to do with driving a train, but you have to do it.’

He goes on to tell me about the challenges of becoming a train driver, and how they seem keener on taking people from offices than existing train staff (a man who used to be in insurance; and then a marine biologist who ‘wouldn’t be told’ because he had a degree).

The train arrives. ‘Good luck.’

‘Thanks. I need it.’