Posts Tagged ‘Trains’

Travelling and waiting

June 11, 2010

I was cycling across London the other day when rain suddenly pelted down. There were all of about three warning drops and then – kaboom – I was under a power shower.

The only thing worse than being out in the rain, is cycling in the rain. One gets about three times as wet, one’s vision is severely impaired by the water flying diagonally at one’s face, and braking suddenly becomes a fair bit skiddier.

So, as I was in no particular hurry, I hopped off the road and decided I’d wait it out under a leafy plane tree that was conveniently offering shelter by the roadside. I stood there and realised I had nothing to do other than wait. It would have looked a trifle eccentric to read a book on the street corner (mind you I probably looked a trifle eccentric in any case), and I didn’t really want to phone somebody up for a chat in the middle of the afternoon just to tell them I was marooned.

Waiting was rather pleasant. I watched cars zoom past; traffic lights change colour (many times); a disgruntled Asian gentleman sheltering under the newsagent’s awning opposite; a woman whose blonde hair had turned brown from all the water, marching determinedly through the monsoon; a couple of men carrying two crates of beer, semi-running, semi-hopping down the street, squinting through the downpour.

It occurred to me that it is very rare, really, to be on a street corner in London with nothing to do other than have one’s eyes upon the street. (Jane Jacobs take note.)

It reminded me of being somewhere else, somewhere foreign, on holiday, travelling. It was partly the severity of the rain. It was like an Indian monsoon, in which stepping out in it means getting soaked to the bone, so, when I was in India during the rainy season, I whiled away many hours doing not very much in various cafés. But it was also not being in a hurry, being able to just idle around for ten minutes or so.

Part of the whole travelling ‘experience’ is learning to kill time – to sit and watch people, or a street, or nothing much at all. But the place where most time is spent looking out at the world drift past must be on a train.

I’ve just read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, his account of travelling all over Europe and Asia by train. It’s a very funny book, not least because he is clearly a complete and utter (sorry, I hate to use this word) twat. His manner of observing and casting judgements upon people, places, sometimes entire nations, is at once unbelievably patronising and stuck up but also rather astute.

Take this passing description of Bangkok:

Bangkok, a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels, required visitors. The heat, the traffic, the noise, the cost in this flattened anthill make it intolerable to live in; but Bangkok, whose discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents, is a city for transients. Bangkok has managed to maintain its massage-parlour economy without the soldiers [from ’nam], by advertising itself as a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid. So it prospers. After the early morning Floating Market Tour and the afternoon Temple Tour, comes the evening Casanova Tour … As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.

It’s an outrageous description: ‘Preposterous, anthill, intolerable, discomfort, massage-parlour economy, a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid, smells of sex’. Ouch. But he’s got a point. Bangkok does thrive off its sex industry, and mostly thanks to tourists turning up for its sex shows and brothels. I suppose at least it doesn’t smell just of death, like Calcutta apparently does.

Anyway, I digress. What really struck me about Paul Theroux’s book, other than how he manages to be rude and funny and insightful at once, is how little he does. Life on a train consists of sitting around in a sleeping compartment and sitting around in a dining car. Occasionally there’s a ‘lounge car’ in which one can also sit. While sitting around, one can read, converse with fellow passengers, eat, drink, and look out of the window. Well, at least those seem to have been Paul Theroux’s options in the seventies. Nowadays one could probably spend a twenty-hour journey completely absorbed in various apps on an iPhone.

Theroux recounts conversations and drinking with other passengers – especially the brilliant Molesworth, who only drinks alcohol aboard a train, reserving his single bottle of Perrier for brushing his teeth. But he gives the distinct impression that he’s not the friendliest of passengers, not often keen to chat. This encounter with a Mr Radia is reasonably typical:

I saw he was trying to read the cover of the book I had opened. It was The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a parting gift from Mr Gupta of the Simla ashram.

‘Are you interested in yoga?’ asked Mr Radia.

‘No,’ I said, studying the book closely. I wet my finger and turned a page.

‘I am,’ said Mr Radia. ‘Not the physical side, but the mental side. The benefit is there.’

‘The physical side is the best part.’

‘Not for me. For me it is all mental. I like to exercise my mind with debates and discussions of all kinds.’

I snapped the book shut and left the compartment.

Theroux spends a great deal of time sleeping, occasionally reading, writing (of course), but mostly not doing very much at all.

I had to stop cycling, stand still, and look out at a perfectly unremarkable scene to remember that travelling can be as much about staring vacantly at not very much and letting one’s mind drift onto higher (or lower) planes, as getting from one place to another. And when it eventually brightened up and I got back on to my bike, just in time for a viciously steep hill, to be beeped at by a grumpy taxi driver and nearly taken out by a car turning left without indicating, I remembered that, when cycling, one usually does need all one’s concentration just to get from A to B.

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London, from the Overground

May 24, 2010

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ So begins L.P. Hartley’s magnificent The Go-Between … and probably several hundred GCSE English essay titles, followed by the word ‘Discuss.’

But yesterday, as I entered Haggerston Station, excitedly about to embark on one of the new London Overground’s virgin journeys, I also felt like I was in a foreign country. And I was stepping into the future, not the past.

Balloons arched over the station entrance to celebrate the line’s official opening. The ticket man was giving out free one-day travelcards, complete with a small chit of card stating: ‘Issued to mark the opening of the new London Overground line between Dalston Junction and West Croydon on 23rd May 2010’. Cool train-geek memorabilia.

The station itself was spacious, clean, other-worldly. Perhaps it did feel slightly brutal, slightly communist, but then perhaps that’s appropriate – bringing transport to the masses seems like quite a utopian, communist idea.

And then, instead of getting escalators down into the smelly netherworld of London, we walked up the stairs, out into brilliant sunlight above. The platform is the perfect spot for a bit of voyeuristic snooping. While waiting for the train – which was remarkably unBritishly punctual – we had a brief chance to peek at nearby residents’ balconies, and peer through huge glass windows into a few snazzy flats.

The trains themselves are beautiful. Instead of being spliced into carriages, they are single long vessels, wonderfully wide, and air-conditioned. It’s the first time I’ve ever put on an extra layer of clothes on the tube. It was clean, spacious, and the doors beeped rather dramatically when closing.

The whole experience was so foreign, so new, so much better than the rest of the tube. I knew we weren’t in Tokyo, however, because of the familiar tube maps glued on to the edges, the robotic voice announcing (in English) that the next station is Hoxton and the seats, which look markedly similar to the ones that were on the old District Line.

And then the train took off – it really feels like flying. It hurtles through the skyline, charging across the Regent’s Canal, bending, curving gracefully between tall converted warehouses and new-build apartment blocks. And this is the true piece of disorientating magic. Here is London, laid out at one’s feet, here are the landmarks that one knows and loves, here are the crowds of people swarming along Brick Lane, and buses, and cars, and trees. The train flies through the city showing one all these things, these places that are absolutely, resolutely, fundamentally London. And yet this new view, this new route is almost enough to make it somewhere else entirely.

It is eye-opening, fascinating, thrilling, to fly through East London on this new trajectory, linking places together in ways that can’t be done by road. In fact, I was so intrigued as to where the railway actually went, which roads it crossed over, where exactly it curved, that when I got back to my laptop I looked on Google and Bing maps to trace the precise route.

And that’s when I really felt I’d been in the future, or a foreign country. The internet maps, of course, are photographic. But they’re not particularly up-to-date. The new trainline isn’t yet on them.

I looked for Haggerston Station in vain. The new bridges, dropped in over the Regent’s Canal and Great Eastern Street, are missing. Instead there is a long thin green scar running parallel to Kingsland Road – the ghost of an old trainline, the shadow of what is to come. (Iain Sinclair has a somewhat more cynical view.)

According to these maps, the London Overground doesn’t yet exist. So I can only conclude that yesterday I really was in the future, in a foreign country. And, mulling over L.P Hartley’s words as I went between Haggerston and Canada Water, I was proud and impressed and happy to find that yes, they do things differently there.