Archive for June, 2013

Islands in the Clouds


This is another piece that I wrote for “Direct Current”, published in 1992. Of all the rail journeys I’ve made over the years, this is the one that I look back to with the most fondness.

I don’t believe this is happening. Someone tell me it is. Brief flash of lights in the dark on the other side of the window. Must be Winsford. This is really happening. After having the idea only a week ago, here I am. It was David Craig reading his poems at College that had done it: talking about the Highland Clearances; the scenery of Caithness and the islands; how it’s the playground of the rich and their tax-free trees. Yes, I said, I’ll go. And here I am, still in disbelief. I opened my wallet to look at the ticket. Yes, it was there: Alsager to Thurso, out and return. More lights flash by. Hartford. I adjusted my headphones and leant back.

As the tape played, I stared into the back of the seat in front. There’s something about travelling at night that sets it apart. The succession of towns blur into uniformity: lines of neons, white glare of factories, and the shimmering light of distant places. In remoter areas, just the odd light here and there; a farmhouse, perhaps. The titanic shapes of hills brooding in the darkness; the night sky a lighter shade of black above them.

The tape had finished, but I didn’t change it straight away. I closed my eyes and listened to the roar of the tracks below, and the clatter of the odd point, muffled by the air conditioning. The only sensation of speed was a slight swaying, which was more startling if you looked down the gangway into the next coach as it rocked from side to side and bounced up and down alarmingly. I looked up, and decided on something to eat. I resumed my thoughts a little later as I munched a donut and sipped coffee from a paper cup. I listened again to the voice of the tracks; their usual steady, comforting hum. It was alright, they were saying, just relax and enjoy the next thirty hours. It was good advice. I finished the coffee, wiped my hands and changed the tape. We were at Carlisle. Soon be in Scotland.

Glasgow Central, just after quarter past nine. I had plenty of time to cross to Queen Street, so I looked around before descending to the low level platforms. I cast my mind back a couple of months to when I’d been here last. I’d planned to spend a week travelling on various Scottish lines while they were still loco-hauled. It wasn’t to be, however, for I was compelled by illness to return. And that seemed to be the end of my hopes. That is until I heard David Craig…

I reached Queen Street by ten, and had just under two hours to wait. I stood at the platform ends and watched anonymous headlamps appear from the Cowlairs tunnel, and listened to locomotives as they roared up the gradient; the sound reverberated back even after the red tail lamp had disappeared. I saw the distinctive push-pull sets arrive and depart, various locals to and from Dunblane or Cumbernauld. After a class 37, Loch Rannoch, had taken out the Fort William – London sleeper, I boarded my train, the overnight to Inverness. I soon came to the conclusion that I would sleep very little, so I decided to stay awake. Curling up on the seat proved too uncomfortable in any case. I must have snatched some sleep, however. After the Perth stop, where the Edinburgh portion of the train was attached, I remember little until four am.

The train had stopped at a signal in the middle of nowhere. I later found out it was probably Tomatin loop. I went to the door and looked out. A strong smell of pine greeted me, and the sharp morning air woke me with a start. Not far away, I could hear a stream rustling, invisible in the darkness. Above, the sky was cloudless, the crescent moon impassively grey, while nearby Venus glittered a dazzling blue. After ten minutes, a freight passed the other way, and we were off again. The long descent from over 1000 feet to sea level at Inverness and a two hour wait for the next stage of the adventure.

I was glad to find that the stock for the train was already in the platform. Adjacent were two others: one for Aberdeen, and the three coach train for Kyle. Snug in my thick jacket, wedged into a corner, headphones on, the time passed more quickly than I thought. About quarter past six, the Kyle loco arrived, followed closely by the Wick/Thurso: a local class 37 diesel named Highland Region.

At 06.35 the four hour trek up to the railway John ‘O’ Groats began. The train was still cold, and despite being on the move took some time to warm up. It was early November, and wouldn’t be light until about eight; so for the first ninety minutes or so, I was travelling blind. I saw the lights on the new A9 bridge, and recall the 10mph restriction over the swing bridge at Clachnaharry. A brief glimpse of the lights in the cosy box and it was on into the darkness. Dawn was beginning to show herself; overhead, the sky was still dark blue, tinted orange by the sleeping city.

Drizzle at Dingwall had subsided by Invergordon, where I was surprised to see several oil platforms standing together in the estuary; strange giant machines waiting patiently for some command. Mist had enveloped us after Ardgay, and by Invershin, the scenery was hinting at what was to come. The open fields and distant hills of Alness had closed in. The hilltops stood above the mist, floating islands, with their lower slopes hidden. After a rock cutting, we reached Lairg and a fifteen minute stop to cross the 06.00 from Wick/Thurso. I stepped on to the frosty platform to photograph it as it came to a stop, glad to let the cold air revive me. Sleep was catching up.

The sun showed itself for the first time at Brora, followed by a run alongside the North Sea for several miles. At Helmsdale the line swings inland into a great loop to reach Wick via Forsinard and Altnabreac. I felt wistful, sad almost, as I looked out. Helmsdale was one of the places I’d planned to stop on my earlier abortive trip: the vast expanse of the sea on the one hand, and the mountains on the other…Between here and Georgemas the scenery is at its best. The line winds between mountains, for the most part bare, bleak, almost. I much prefer this, though I saw signs of change in several fir plantations. The trees were still small, but in ten years, the place will look totally different. Forsinard. There were about two houses and a building that looked like a hotel or pub; a scattering of leafless trees behind. The disused signal box on the platform was still in good condition, albeit without its lever frame.

The summit of the line is at County March, 708 feet above sea level and marked by a blue and white board. Just before it, I noticed a crumbling stone cottage whose roof timbers had collapsed into the shell. We were passing through open moorlands covered in heather. A few yards from the line, was a long fence that appeared to be made of old sleepers, some rotten; we followed it for a several miles.

At Georgemas Junction, the train divided. Highland Region took the front two coaches on to Wick, while Scottish Hosteller the rest to Thurso. Then, at 10.43 on a Wedenesday morning, four minutes early, I finally arrived. Some eighteen hours and 600 miles after I’d set out the afternoon before. And I still had to get back.

Not a particularly good photo technically, but one I love as it strongly evokes that whole journey. Taken on the return journey, near Kildonan.



Disarmament: A Policy Whose Time Has (Finally) Come?


I recently watched a documentary about the 1983 general election. One of the Labour party’s main policies was unilateral nuclear disarmament. With the Cold War long over, it’s perhaps hard to understand the passions of that debate. This was a time of American nuclear missiles being deployed in Britain (how prophetic, then for George Orwell to call Britain “Airstrip One” in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four), of the womens’ protest camp outside the Greenham Common airbase, of CND marches and rampant Thatcherism. You want to use a UK base to launch an attack on Libya Mr President? Feel free. The polarised world, with a fear of nuclear war lurking in the background, fuelled by such TV dramas as Threads. It all seems such a long time ago.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament should be re-visited. The Trident system, bought by Thatcher so controversially in the 1980s, will shortly be due for renewal. The cost for its replacement will number in the tens, maybe hundreds, of billions. In a time of austerity and savage cuts to public services, the fact that the government is even considering this is obscene. We don’t need it, it’s a weapon from a different era. If the Russians really wanted to bring this country to a halt, all they need to do is turn off the gas. Their presence here hasn’t stopped rogue states like North Korea developing their own Bomb, so exactly who or what is it supposed to defend us against?

The fact that we have it is a sad reflection on the mentality of successive British governments since 1945. They seem unable to accept that we are no longer one of the great powers, and having our own Bomb gives us the illusion that we are. The world has moved on, and we need to accept that. Trident should be phased out when it becomes life-expired, and not replaced. We cannot afford it, nor do we need it, if we ever did. Sadly, I can’t see this government or the so-called Labour Party ever doing so.

The Old Gits


There they sit, flat caps pushed back,
Woodbine and pint in hand
They set the world to rights,
Eye up the young women,
Complain about youth today,
It wasn’t like that in their day.
I’m sure, if they saw me
They’d class me as young
And grumble about me too,
Though I wait my turn in queues,
I don’t barge in with sticks
Or handbags waving,
And I’d probably agree
With their complaints of youth.
I’m sure when they were young
(Were they ever young?)
Old guys looked at them and
Shook their heads and muttered.
You become your own granddad
And tut tut in your turn
At the liberties they take these days,
You wouldn’t have dared try to take.
Was it really so good
In your day as you’re so fond of saying?
Or is it simple envy
At freedoms never had?
I suppose, should I live that long
I’ll be just the same:
I’m already starting to think that way,
Have already come to believe that old phrase
So simple, so true:
Youth is wasted on the young.

Good Manners Cost Fuck All


The world is full of arseholes
And they’re all out and about today,
Pushing in queues and swearing,
Refusing to give right of way.

What’s happened to politeness?
What’s happened to a little respect?
Noone gives a damn these days,
But who could seriously object

To good manners when they cost so little,
When in fact they don’t cost a thing?
You’d think that would be obvious
But instead you have to wring

Politeness from people,
It’s worse than pulling a tooth,
I don’t understand their problem,
Why they all have to be so uncouth.

So the world is full of arseholes
And they’re out and about every day,
Pushing in queues and swearing,
Oh take these rude bastards away,

To somewhere a long way from here,
Teach them some manners and sense.
Hammer it in if you have to,
Prevent this constant offence.

Wash out their gobs with carbolic,
Make them say “thank you” and “please”,
Reinstill some good manners,
Make them get down on their knees,

And say, “I’m sorry, I beg your forgiveness,
“I’ll be polite from now on I swear,”
Send out a loud, clear message:
If you forget good manners, beware!

The Unready


Am I ready for anything?
That’s too much to expect,
But perhaps I’m

Ready to complain
At the next management decree
That will never work,

Ready to rage
The next time the bus doesn’t turn up
After waiting in the rain,

Ready to yell
At the next self-service checkout
That tells me to insert cash,

Ready to scream
At the next politician in the TV
Oozing smarm and spin,

Ready to hurl
The next computer to crash
From the highest window,

Ready to smash
The next photocopier that jams
Or runs out of paper,

Ready to kill
The next fool who asks a stupid question
Anyone with a brain could answer.

Oh I’m ready…
Ready to go back to bed,
And stay there.



So much for coffee waking me up:
I’m no more lively now
I’m on my second cup.

One Day


One day, when the words drop into my head
Like scree sliding into a lake,
The phrases splashing loud and true
And straight to the heart,
I’ll stir myself
From where I am
(Probably in bed)
And write them down,
Make a poem from them rather
Than thinking “this is good”
And going back to sleep, and let
The words dissolve, as does a dream
Before I’ve pulled the curtain.
How many poems have escaped
This way I wonder?
I really should stir myself.
Perhaps one day, I will, but
I won’t hold my breath.

Find Your Food in Music


The brilliance of music, its comfort, so easy to say yet so hard to explain. The solace it brings, the uplift, the prop and support in bad times and good. Then the instant spark to memory even a brief excerpt can provoke. This is something that never ceases to amaze me. Hear it and it opens the gate to a flood of images that can no more be dammed that could Canute reverse the tide. Memories of the time it was first heard or bought, however long ago. Open the gates, dive into the torrent and you are back there, the old you. Today fades, though not entirely as there will be that painful awareness of just how much time has passed. Usually there will be some unconscious filtering of any unpleasantness, but it will still be present, on the edge of awareness. Worries, stresses, old rooms, old loves, it’s all there.

Old loves, now there’s a tricky subject. Like music, I wonder just how much of old love is ever truly forgotten or recovered from. It’s written into you in indelible ink, carved into the hardest rock with a diamond drill. Bury it at the back of an old filing cabinet that’s full of junk, stored in the remotest corner of a heavily cluttered room where the lights don’t work behind a securely locked door (with a sign on it saying Beware Of The Leopard). A place that seldom receives daylight or clean air. Except when a snatch of music is overheard, and then on go the floodlights. Sharp relief and harsh shadows.

A jumble of memories jostling for space, clamouring for the right of free association. A mass whose component parts aren’t related, link into a mass of non-sequiturs, jump forward then back, forward then sideways and round and round. The weight increases, rock upon rock dropped into an already bulging rucksack. Your knees begin to buckle, feet sinking into the soft ground. Approach memory overload, the system heading for a crash and the inevitable fatal exception error.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that it would help to dive headlong into a bottle. Imbibe to inebriation, soften those harsh, sharp edges that draw blood every time you brush by them. Daggers straight into your mind, knife twists over and over again into the heart. However, the older I get, booze now seems a whetstone, honing those sharp edges finer and finer still so that even to pass it through the air alone will draw blood.

A chain reaction, all started by a song or the briefest snatch of one, a few notes overheard by chance. Persevere and music will bring order even to this. The gentlest of balms as well as the stirrer of strong feeling. These stirrings remind me that I’m alive and still capable of such feeling, when the day to day serves only to blunt it. Music opened the door, sounded loud bootfalls in the memory, but it will also gently close it. A gentle sea refilling that void, washes the sides smooth and carries any jetsam away to the horizon. The soundtrack of my life. Play on.

A Reduction Too Far


I read in yesterday’s Sentinel that the speed limit over the last mile of the A500 near Hanford is to be reduced to 50mph. I’m not surprised at this, but it’s an over-reaction. Yes, there have been accidents, but the lay by where the accidents occurred has been closed for a long time. The other reason given is that this section of the road is unlit. Well, if you join the M6 there, it too is unlit. What next, I wonder, reduce speeds on unlit motorways to 50mph too? Or turn off the lights to save money and reduce the speeds too? At this rate we’ll soon be doing 30 mph everywhere. Slower speeds mean more congestion and so more pollution.

This is yet another example of nanny state interference. We are no longer allowed to use our brains, or apply common sense. They have to do it for us, all for our own good you understand. Actually, no I don’t. This is exemplified by a government proposal to allow councils to apply more 50mph limits on single carriageway “A” roads because of sharp bends etc. They have obviously forgotten something. The speed limit is the maximum allowed, it doesn’t mean you have to drive at it regardless. Take a road like the A534 between Nantwich and Wrexham. This has frequent sharp bends, and the speed limit is 60mph. Yet only an idiot would drive at that speed in those conditions. Of course there are idiots, but I don’t see why the rest of us should be made to drive more slowly because of them.

You can already see this in Derbyshire. They have a blanket 50mph limit on all their “A” roads. If you drive up the A53 from Leek, as soon as you cross the border down comes the speed. And they have plastered “think bike” signs everywhere. My response to this is that bikers should think car: most bikers I’ve seen ride like morons. It’s all for our safety you know, there are signs that say so, so it must be true. Well allow me to retort. Safety is a convenient catch-all excuse. Those in authority who decide these things don’t care about our safety: they’re terrified of being sued. And there’s the nub of the problem. The nanny knows best infantilism of it all repels me. I’m 44 and can make up my own mind about what is safe thank you very much. I don’t need some bureaucrat or do-gooding councillor to decide for me.

The Road to Cape Wrath


While doing some housekeeping on the computer recently, I came across this piece. It was originally published in the EM2 Locomotive Society journal “Direct Current” in February 1995, and is one of a number I wrote for it over the years. The journey described is one I always look back on with some fondness.

It’s a dramatic way to wake up. Especially after, (or inspite of), the sleepless night on the upper bunk, kept awake by the muted roar of the tracks, swaying over junctions and round curves in the mountainous bits. I drew up the blind with heavy eyes to a bleak mountainous wilderness, miles from the darkened neon lit townscape I didn’t go to sleep with. I went out into the corridor, looked out of the open window and gasped at the cold air of the thin misty morning, letting it revive me. The train was crawling up the slope, ever higher, to a summit of almost 1500 feet, the “Highest Point on BR” as the large blue sign says.

The steward brought coffee which I gratefully sipped, black, drawing in the caffeine fumes, the bitter taste on my tongue a confirmation that I am actually here, not still at home, dreaming of journeys away. And this is only the start, there’s still a few hundred miles to go yet. Over the top, a gallop down the other side, another climb then a long drop towards the sea at Inverness.

I had a wait of two-and-a-half hours. A “hot bacon roll” had to pass for breakfast (why is it station buffets don’t do proper breakfasts anymore?) after which I sat on one of the circular benches and opened my paper. In between paragraphs, I’d look up as people and trains came and went; people in suits with briefcases, families, and others with huge rucksacks, lots of those.

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my bag for a minute?” said a voice.

I looked up and saw a woman divesting herself of a huge backpack. I’d bemoaned the weight of my own, yet this was several sizes larger, with numerous items strapped top and bottom, and at the sides. You’d almost need a fork-lift truck to take it on and off!

“Of course,” I smiled.

“I won’t be long,” she added.

She told me she was over from California, and had been travelling for several weeks through Ireland and the rest of Britain. She was en route for the Orkney Islands to see some of the prehistoric sights. I’d been there myself the year before, and could well understand her enthusiasm.

I hadn’t been relishing the long wait, but with someone to talk to, it passed pleasantly quickly. I told her I was heading for Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point in Britain, something I’d wanted to do ever since reading Paul Theroux’ A Kingdom by the Sea a few years before. The chapter dealing with the run to the Cape, using the Lairg – Durness postbus was one of the most memorable of the whole book. The train was one of the ubiquitous two-car class 156 diesel units which soon filled up, and I was impatient to get going again. I felt nostalgic as the train set off, the memory of my first trip five years earlier a constant companion. This time, though, it was a warm, sunny June morning, rather than a freezing November dawn.

I said goodbye to my new friend at Lairg where I caught the postbus for the three hour, fifty-six mile run to Durness. It had clouded over, but was still warm, and there was a heady perfume of gorse in the air: the roadside verges were awash with their golden blooms. Clear of the village, the road was single track with passing places for most of its length, the bus stopping frequently as the driver delivered the mail to the remote houses and farms. For the first fifteen miles or so, the road follows Loch Shin, with the mountains growing gradually closer, though it soon clouded over and began to rain. Despite the narrow road, the driver didn’t hang around, and seemed reluctant to slow down, never mind stop: swerving into a passing place and powering out again as soon as possible! Not quite burning rubber, but not that far away. . .

At Laxford Bridge, we parted company from the Durness road for a while, and deviated a few miles along the Ullapool road to Scourie. “Lax” is apparently old Norse for “salmon”. The road had been following the river Laxford for several miles, and the there were low, rocky hills and numerous small lochs all around. I was glad to finally see it: a glance at the Ordnance Survey map for the area was enough to kindle an interest by itself, and I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from the weather, as the rain had become a torrential downpour. With the map open on my knee, I tried to pick out the features, and I wondered what all the Gaelic names actually meant, and how you pronounced them!

Back on the A838, another deviation came at Rhiconich, a few miles along Loch Inchard to the small fishing village of Kinlochbervie. After a few minutes unloading mail bags, the driver pulled in a few miles back down the road at Badcall, and disappeared for about ten minutes into one of the houses; for a not-so-quick cup of tea we passengers thought. I’d been sitting on the hard seat for almost three hours, so I got out to stretch my legs. It was still pouring with rain, so I didn’t stretch very much!

The driver finally came back, and we started on the last stage to Durness. After a short climb, the road swept gradually down on a long straight, falling from 337 feet above sea level to a mere 26 feet at the foot of the Kyle of Durness, across the Drochaid Mh¢r, or Big Bridge, over the river Dionard. There were mountains on either side, principally the Cranstackie/Beinn Spionnaidh massif to the east and the less imposing Farrmheall to the west, and the ground in between looked soft and wet, with very black soil. The sight of the Atlantic, grey and uninviting under the heavy mass of rain clouds, really emphasised the remoteness of the place: Durness, from the old Norse Dyr-Nes, meaning Wolf’s Cape, where the road, unable to continue northwards having run out of land, turns east; while on the empty ocean, fading towards the northern horizon, there’s nothing until you reach the Arctic ice.

The rain had stopped, but it was very windy. Even so, after over three hours I was glad to get off the bus. Home, in the north-west of England now seemed so far away as to be mythical, but it didn’t bother me; I felt a quiet excitement that I had come so far. Even Lairg seemed further away than its fifty-six miles.

After buying some food, I walked the mile or so to the Youth Hostel at Smoo. The road dropped near level with the sea and passed the beach at Sango with its brilliant white sand, then swung sharply back up again at about 1:6.

The following day, the wind had blown up into a ferocious southerly gale, and there were frequent heavy showers. I had wanted to head on up to Cape Wrath, but the ferry over the Kyle of Durness wasn’t running because of the weather, so I had to amuse myself for the rest of the day. After walking down towards Balnakeil, where there was a large rainbow draped lazily across the bay, I abandoned it as a bad job and returned to the village. I found a reasonably sheltered spot amongst the rocks on Sango beach, and sat and watched the waves breaking. The pub opened at midday, just in time as it had suddenly clouded over and started to rain again. In the afternoon, I sheltered behind a wall near Loch Caladail for a while, where it was unexpectedly peaceful, before taking a look at Smoo cave. The vast arch of its entrance, about 100 feet across and about 50 high, is a mere prelude to the smaller, flooded secondary chamber, into which roars a 70 foot waterfall. You cross a short plank bridge to a sort of balcony, and the spray drenches you before you reach the end.

When I woke next morning, I felt apprehensive as I looked outside, hoping I wasn’t in for another wasted day. It was still blowy and overcast, but the ferocity of the gale had eased considerably. I reached the ferry landing full of anticipation: I looked along the grey Kyle at the mountains on the other side, aloof and impassive as ever, dipping in and out of the passing clouds. Shortly, a landrover pulled up and the man told me that there needed to be at least four passengers to make it worthwhile for the bus driver. So far, there was only me and two women in the car park. The man shook his head slowly and said I should come back at one ‘o’ clock, then he got back in his landrover and drove away. That was almost four hours away, and it was three miles back to the village. I sighed, wondering if I’d ever reach the Cape. . .

I walked back to the car park, and saw some more people had arrived, so I told them the score. Two middle-aged sisters were good enough to give me a lift back up to Durness, and surprised me by suggesting I tag along with them. They seemed to take to me and it was rather like being out with your favourite great aunts!

After a visit to Smoo cave, where the waterfall was considerably swelled with the recent rain, we got back to the ferry just before one. Eventually, the dour man in his landrover came back, donned waterproofs and waded out into the Kyle to bring the “ferry” in: only a small fibreglass thing with an outboard motor! On the other side, everyone piled onto the minibus, which only managed a few feet along the road before grinding to a halt: there was a full load and it couldn’t manage the 1:6 away from the slipway! The driver apologised and asked for six volunteers to walk up the worst of the hill!

The road was a rough, pitted track for the eleven miles. After the sharp climb at the start, it rose over 200 feet in the first mile to take it along the cliffs. There was a fine view of the Kyle sandbanks below, with several seals basking on them. After plunging down at about 1:7 to ford the Diall river, the road climbed back up as steeply and headed inland through the mountains. It was a bleak, rather desolate place of peaty moorland, a feeling only emphasised by the roughness of the road, and it being deserted. The MOD use the entire area as a bombing range, and the frequent warning signs and notices with odd symbols on them add a surreal touch.

The road ends at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1828, and is apparently one the few left that are still manned. “Wrath” is another old Norse word, meaning Turning Point; on clear days, you can see the Western Isles and the Orkneys, as well as looking along the cliffs to the south and east, especially the spectacular range at Cl• M¢r, looming at over 600 feet. Even from a couple of miles away, it’s difficult to appreciate their size.

The Cape is the sort of place you could just sit, staring out into the vast greyness of the ocean, listening to the waves crashing way below you; somewhere to just sit and think, or not; a feeling only emphasised by its remote location, and the way you reach it.

After half-an-hour, the bus started back. The tide had turned, and was rapidly going out, so the ferry couldn’t tie up at the quay as before. The man pulled it as close to the shore as he could, then helped people in, using his booted foot as a step! The sisters gave me a lift again, and when I got back to the hostel, it was like reaching home when I went into the dorm and saw my rucksack by the bed.

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