Archive for July, 2013

A Long Goodbye


I’ve written several times in the past about the decline in my railway interest. How it dipped as I saw changes I didn’t like, and how later something would cause a revival. A good example was during the early part of 1991, when I wrote the following rather rough piece on train between Crewe and Liverpool:

Crossing the Weaver
(on the 1454 to Liverpool)

It’s been a long winter outside,
But I’ve come in now.
Sun gleams on wind-whipped water,
Trees on the hillside
Welcome me back.
I’m glad to be back,
I hope I’ll stay this time.

I did nothing in the arid months,
Shivered in wind and rain,
Lost touch with an old friend..
Abandoned memories
But they’re forgiving.
I’m glad to be back,
I hope I’ll stay this time.

Now I believe it really is too far gone for anything like that to be possible.

Virtually everything I liked, and that got me interested in, railways – train types, journey experiences – has gone, and I’ve travelled over virtually every piece of railway in the UK. That doesn’t leave very much does it? The railways today have a blandness that is truly generic. Where is the variety? Passing my driving test in 2010 has also played a part: most journeys I take are now by car. And I don’t miss the train journeys on the whole. Not only are they more and more expensive, but having to make them in badly designed, uncomfortable carriages that are usually overcrowded, with over loud and over frequent tannoy announcements makes the whole process just too unpleasant.

So just what is left of the once dominant interest? One that gave my life some semblance of meaning and purpose? (I’ve long given up trying to explain that, too many piss takes over the years, including from people who should know better. It meant something to me.) What remains is mainly historical, and my collection of books and DVDs has grown. Lines that have close closed or ones I know or knew; ones whose remains I go in search of, seeing which are passable on foot or which have roads running along them; looking into old photos and wondering if it’s possible to be nostalgic for a time before I was born; the occasional railtour or even more occasional visit to a “heritage” railway. Occasional as both these last are far too crowded for me to properly enjoy them.

A few still-glowing embers from a once mighty fire. Not much heat now and certainly not enough to cook with. It’s not the last goodbye, more a wearied long one. And the void it leaves, I’ve no idea how to fill that. They don’t make polyfilla tubes big enough.


A Day Of Heat and Flirting


Late evening, with the last vestiges of daylight a rapidly deepening blue away in the distance. Not far enough north for it to remain in blue twilight all night. I sit and listen to the soft rain falling through the trees and remember standing out in the yard during a thunderstorm twenty years ago letting the downpour cool me. This is softer rain, pattering past leaves as it falls. At the end of another day of heat, of driving with all the windows open, getting chatted up on a petrol station, of walking beside a canal full of yellow lilies, damsel flies and fish, the sun hot on my pasty white skin. Of going home and dozing in the muggy afternoon, thinking of the woman from the petrol station. Not often (never more like) that things like that happen to me. How often do dreams become flesh? They don’t and it didn’t here. “What’s your number?” she said, but I smiled and drove away with a wave. And if I had given her my number, what then? Who knows, but I’m sure she was just flirting. Still, it may have meant nothing, but it was flattering all the same. And she’ll be in my mind as I drift off to sleep to the soft rustle of rain.

More Regional Accents Please


There’s an article by Alison Graham in this week’s Radio Times about regional accents in the media. She thinks that you need to ditch your accent (as she has done) otherwise you will alienate the audience. The piece is a riposte to a recent one by business correspondent Stephanie McGovern in defence of her own northern accent, and I profoundly disagree with it.

I want to see more regional accents on the media, not less. They are one of the things that gives the English language richness and colour, and the media should reflect this. It should not be promoting a homogeneous dumbed down version of RP, or worse, the now seemingly ubiquitous “mockney”. If you have a coarse accent you will be judged by your audience says Ms Graham. Well, that says rather more about the audience (and Ms Graham). To label an accent “coarse” is not only lazy, it’s insulting. Who says it is? That, surely, is in the ear of the beholder. Statements like this also demonstrate an ignorance and snobbery that people should be educated out of, as well as a southern bias. If such accents are disliked by folks “darn sarf”, I would retort as follows: their own accent is hardly melodious, and I fail to see why the media should pander to it. And the cause is done no good at all by northerners like Ms Graham ditching their accent the moment they come south. More power to you Stephanie!




Something from my student days

And do those trucks in modern times
Pound upon England’s mountains green?
And are the unholy PCBs
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And does that ugly face
Scowl forth on our polluted hills?
And was the motorway builded here
With those great vibrating drills?

Bring me my bag of chemicals,
Bring me lead pipes and rusty wire,
Bring me my car, O fumes belch out,
Bring me my coal of filthy fire.

I will not cease to have nuclear
Nor shall I leave the nuclear band
Til we have built Sizewell B
On England’s black and dirty land.

Ire and Loathing in Peterborough


Stanground. Shit. I’m still only in Stanground. That doesn’t have the same ring to it as Saigon does it? In a hot, stuffy hotel on a road of unresting traffic, where the bangs are from the occasional unseasonable firework rather than a grenade. I’d rather be in Saigon though. I’d rather be anywhere than this loathsome place.

Until recently, I’d worked in Stoke council’s benefits office for several years. While not top of the class so to speak, it seemed reasonable to assume I had at least a fair grasp of what was required.

So when Stoke became too unpleasant a place to work, I applied for a similar job at Peterborough. This would be working from home, with, they assured me, only occasional attendance at their offices in Peterborough for training etc. This seemed reasonable, so when they offered me the job, I accepted with alacrity.

Things went wrong immediately. Never mind the past, Peterborough is a foreign country, they do things very differently there. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, but they don’t distinguish between a typo on a letter and a serious financial error. They also have their own incomprehensible interpretation of the rules, and a completely different IT system to Stoke’s. I’d been there less than three days and they had a go at me for not picking things up quickly enough! And this was after the promised training didn’t materialise.

The occasional attendances became anything but. Another summons, and I again found myself away from home, in a hotel room in a town I loathe. I had to keep my sanity and temper somehow, so as I’d done on previous visits, I went for a drive after escaping the humiliations of the office. Along the A47 to Guyhirne, ruler straight and level for mile after mile. All I had to do was rest my hands lightly on the wheel as tarmac and road lines vanished away towards the horizon, and Norfolk. Norwich 75 the sign says. What an appealing thought to just stay on the road and keep going: Wisbech, Kings Lynn, Dereham, Norwich, Great Yarmouth.

At Guyhirne I turned off, away from the dense, unyielding line of thundering trucks onto a much quieter road. Still straight, but rougher, with frequent fairground bounces where it had subsided. Again, the huge fields and skies, the tent grey today with scarcely any flash of blue to cheer up this prisoner. In this duller light, the skies seemed even larger. The whole landscape took on a bleaker air… That’s not really the right word as it wasn’t oppressive or despairing. My favourite landscape is that of the northern fells and moors, and I prefer them under grey skies: the place acquires an even deeper presence.

After a few minutes, I passed Murrow, which I remembered from last time as I tried to find the site of the station. The only hint is a road called Station Avenue although this didn’t lead to the station. In fact I think there were two stations as two railways met here at one time. Surprising for such a little place out in the Fens. The Midland & Great Northern ran east-west and the Great Northern & Great Eastern ran north-south. The former closed in 1959 and the latter as late as 1982, though the station closed much earlier.

Several miles later and I passed the long closed railway at French Drove. I’d driven past here last time and noticed a narrow, overgrown lane running parallel to the trackbed. I only walked a short way down it then, to photo the two concrete signal posts that still stood. This time, I braved it in the car. As well as narrow, it was pitted and potholed and had the tallest grass I’ve even seen growing along the middle of a road. How long had it been since someone had driven along here, I thought, and how long would it be before someone did again?



I noticed another lane coming in on the right, then saw a shape emerge from the undergrowth: a large hare. Before I could stop and reach for my camera, he was off in a flash of white tail at surprising speed before vanishing back into the long grass with a rustling crash. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve seen many rabbits, but few hares: this was probably only the third time I’ve seen one, and the closest too.

It was quiet. Very quiet. The sort of deep, beautiful silence I often yearn for, and that it is so difficult to obtain. From nowhere, a skylark started to sing, and more distantly, a yellowhammer requested his usual snack of bread and no cheese. There was a narrow but dense band of trees on my left, and a field of oil seed rape to my right. Some of this had escaped the field and was growing by the road, amongst the long grass and cow parsley. I was suddenly a very very long way from anywhere, and it suited me fine. I even didn’t mind being away from home, and all the anger and impotent rage faded. It didn’t just fade, it vanished completely. Enjoy the silence. I did, and let it permeate right into me, flowing through me along with blood, part of it. Part of me.

A little further along the road and the trees closed in on both sides. And then something strange: a rough clearing to the left, partly blocked by an improvised “wall” of earth and gravel, and at the far end of it, a CCTV camera. Someone obviously does come here then. Fly tippers perhaps, even out here. Dirty bastards.


After this brief adventure, it was a relief to be back on a proper road. I took a circular return to the hotel, reluctant to head straight back. At Thorney, I crossed the A47 and carried on into the village. The Midland & Great Northern Railway had a station here, but the site has disappeared under new housing. I was pleased to see some reminder though: by the road close to the site a pair of level crossing gates. Probably not original, but good to see all the same. The church was impressive, with a large pale stone frontage with many carvings. I believe it was a former abbey church, like the cathedral at Peterborough. There was another impressive building nearby, a tall tower of the same stone that can be seen from several miles away. I’ve no idea what it is.

The road, after a couple of sharp turns, ran straight across the fen. That strange, man-made landscape where everything is straight, angular. There were several pill boxes along here, and I wondered just what they were supposed to defend. I had visions of Dad’s Army manning them. The road soon crossed the river Nene, adjacent to large sluice gates and close to the delightfully named Dog-in-a-Doublet farm. After the olde worlde charme of Thorney, Whittlesey was a dump. Dominated by the chimney of a brick works and three huge wind turbines. And I mean huge. This was the closest I’d ever been to one. I know many find them ugly, and I’d seen numerous placards today protesting against them. I’ve found them elegant, and this close pass did not diminish this.

Back into Peterborough, and the road crossed what looked like a large new development, on a greenfield site. There were many “for sale” boards and others proclaiming “development opportunities”, while the road was a near deserted dual carriageway. There’s clearly money here. A sharper contrast with home wasn’t possible.

The next day brought more humiliations. Safe to say that my resentment and anger grew and I could hardly wait to flee onto the road again. Or better still, home. It was my apprentice moment: Lord Sugar will see you now. And yes, I got fired. Not up to the job apparently. Never mind that I had done it at Stoke for over ten years, or that the statistics they used to prove my error rate were based on a vanishingly small sample. In a month when I had worked on over 200 cases, they use less than 5% of them to convict me. I love a fair trial. I was at least spared the light in the face or being yelled at by a leather coated Von Heseltine.

After leaving for the day, I went to French Drove again. I parked beside the New South Eau, one of the many straightened water courses round there, that runs between two fields lush with cereal crops. A short way off was a metal bridge that once carried the Great Northern & Great Eastern railway that closed 1982. Apart from a short piece of embankment, the bridge was the only trace. I recalled the phrase used by railway people to describe track, ballast, sleepers etc: the permanent way. I suppose it must have seemed that way once.


While my fascination with this country remains, I missed the hills of home. While most landscapes are man-made to some extent, this one is more so: drained marshes with waterways straightened and enclosed in dykes. Though it has a weird beauty all its own, it’s still artificial. As I stood there in the late evening sun, I wondered what it had been like before the fens were drained and the land enclosed, when places like Ely and Crowland were islands. I just couldn’t picture it.

And so to the end. Two more days working at home, where I made sure I did as little as possible, then the last journey over there. I received a terse email on the second day, advising me I would receive an “exit interview” when I arrived. What fun, I thought, just what I want after a two and half hour drive on awful roads. As I pulled into the car park, I saw the manager leaving for lunch. She didn’t see me. After I’d struggled up the stairs with the PC and monitor, someone told me the manager would be back soon. Ah, so I’m expected to wait am I? I don’t think so. I dumped the box and left.

In contrast with most of the journey, the road out of Peterborough is a good dual carriageway. I must admit I do like driving fast along such roads, especially with roof and windows open, and I did so then. The rushing air and my car’s smart acceleration was exhilarating. While that lasted I was able to park my anxieties. And I did the same after I got home. There would be plenty of time to worry in the next few days and weeks. But not tonight. Tonight I was going to relax.

The End. Or An End?


So it’s over. I made my final trip to Peterborough today, and now I’m home, seeking musical solace in the Prom concert, and wondering what the fuck to do now. With my life.

It’s a grim thought, to realise that I’m now out of work. Unemployed. Or in the contemporary lexicon, an unperson, a nobody. I thought I had escaped that world, one I got to know uncomfortably well in my twenties. It certainly isn’t reassuring to be facing it again in my mid forties. At the moment, my main emotions are an almost toxic mix of resentment, relief, anger and bitterness. Behind this is the softly spoken spectre at the feast, terror. One whose voice will grow louder as the days pass. Terror and an overwhelming feeling of loss; of being at a loss.

For this evening at least, I can put it off. Tomorrow, and for the next few days, I’ll absent myself from thought and worry for a while. And perhaps go away. Try and rebuild my fractured confidence. Rest.

You Must Not Meekly Think Of Flight


I had the idea for this recently, using Dylan Thomas’ masterful “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a template. This is the second complete draft, but still needs some work I think. (Thanks to my former tutor Geoff for some suggestions). My first attempt at a villanelle.

You must not meekly think of flight
Nor run and run until you die –
But seethe and burn against others’ spite.

You’re no rabbit caught in a headlight
Though your mind may go awry,
Do not yield when you know you’re right.

To shout and scream, no aim in sight
Creates no cause to edify
When you should burn against others’ spite.

When the world is full of those who indict
You of crimes you’re forbidden to deny,
Hold firm for you are in the right.

You must keep silent, plan before you fight,
Take slow aim with careful eye
Then burn anew against others’ spite.

Don’t speak in anger nor in haste write
But keep your head and never cry
For you know one day you’ll be proved right
After years of boiling against others’ spite.

The Voices


If someone tells you you’re stupid
For long enough, eventually
You will believe it.

You might think you’re not
But the voices insist,
You will believe it.

Try and resist, shut out the sound,
Slam the doors on it, useless:
You must believe it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid,
Everything you do is wrong,
Believe it, believe it.

No, no, no, I’m better than that.
No you’re not, you’re stupid,
Believe it, failure, believe it.

We are right, not you,
You know nothing, stupid,
You will believe it.

The voices might stop
Their work done.
I believe it. Yes.

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