Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Travelling Late - Two Poems About Uncomfortable Train Journeys

Over the past few weeks, I've had reason to commute home from Leeds. This in its self is nothing new - indeed, more hours of mine have been spent on trains, and quite a few of them heading in and out of Leeds City Station - than almost anywhere else on earth. Travelling to or from the city of one's birth is always a reflective experience.  About ten years ago, at a time when I was again living in that city, I wrote this poem drawing on my thoughts on an outbound journey:


The old bridge with its large iron rails like big brackets
deep enough to hide between is gone.

My grandma’s flats are still stacked up
like rows of soldiers trenched and battle scarred.

Gentrification hasn’t reached this far
but further on through city streets the station beckons me -

and across the tracks shuttling northwards or to London
and its otherworldly newness, it’s panorama meets the eye:

glossy offices and clocks, rockeries of hills, a weedy rail-side
lurching out to slip roads and the motorway,

industrial estates, and the dictatorial brow of Leeds Parish Church,
bearing on us like the glare of some Victorian Headmaster.

The city  glowers at me from behind, in all directions,
and even straight ahead there are reflections.

The poem above describes an afternoon or early evening journey.  More recently, my interactions with the station have been nocturnal, often on the later trains out of the city.  This, as ever, has been a demoralizing experience, and often quite a dangerous one.  Saturday trains are not much fun these days, and by the time it gets to five or six o' clock you can be sure that every carriage will be stuffed to the brim with bellicose drinkers, determined to prove they are enjoying themselves.  The guards stay away, the conductors give them a wide berth and remain secluded in their cabins - strongly implying that payment for travel is voluntary.  As the night wears on, the greater the hubbub and the more uncivilised the train becomes.  Without exception, the worst offenders - the noisiest, most obnoxious of all - are those within the 50-65 age bracket.   The young, either priced out of partying, or possessed of better manners, are scarcely present, and where they are, rarely compete with their belligerent seniors in terms of yobbishness. The emergence of this newly predominant, thrusting class of drinker has not come about overnight.  These middle-aged delinquents and elderly Hell-raisers did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to wreak havoc on the nation's trains.  They are, rather, the remnants of their own younger generation's city-going boozers. The same folk who, twenty or thirty years ago, propped up the bars of Yates' and The Feast and Firkin, never stopped, so that those who once painted the town red with Lambrini and Skol, are now simply painting it grey.

As the train juts into Leeds, it is filled with abrasive packs of short-shirted blokes hoarsely bellowing out-of-tune chants, communicating in strange, monosyllabic and monotonous dialects unknown to human tongue.  Like British Donald Trumps, confidence inflated by that bombastic narcissist's ascent to power and the fake legitimacy this ascribes to a Stone Age code of conduct that had, for a time, seemed buried in the recent past, they hold court, with burning red faces and bulging checked shirts.  With roaring football chants and desperate grins, they ache for the illusion of belonging and contentment, shrieking and guffawing sadly and with thinly concealed bitterness, as if as much to persuade themselves as anybody else that this brief escape from the flatness of their lives really has served to fill the holes within them.  Leaving town, and burrowing into the dim-lit decay of Armley, Bramley, miles of estates punctuated by scrubland and the deserted bathos of empty car-parks and abandoned forecourts, the trains are even rowdier - wobbling stages for the final acts of grotesque comedies played out by lonely, fat and balding bigots embodying every embarrassment of Britain's past, scared and uncertain of its future.  These drunken trundles back to the terraced eternities of Wortley or the battered backstreets of Bradford, are their only chance to shine - time capsules where casual racism is the norm, where sexist jibes and language banished from the modern workplace might be met with furious but warm-spirited ripostes from equally inebriated middle-aged women.  These tired purveyors of old jokes, and their brash female counterparts, seething with venemous tongues and unleashing tirades of invective as the bottled-up frustrations of the decades come tumbling, spluttering and cursing from their mouths, rule the roost - subject all and sundry to their transportational imperialism, and no doubt in the morning, deadened with hangovers, have completely forgotten the vast majority of what was said and done.  They will join workplace jeers about "disruptive teenagers" or "bloody immigrants,"  drowning once more in the myopic muddle of Daily Mails and the maudlin logic of the tap room.

A couple of years ago I wrote the poem below, and its content could easily be applied to my more recent experiences of the late train out of Leeds.


Night-encircled spidergram
of steel, wires, concrete gangplanks
stretched between rails
which look like strips of DNA,

this box of blackness
jazzily sashed
with electric light
rumbles, rocks, erupts
into riots of testosterone,
walkways throttled by stampeding feet,
and in a jungled brawling of discord
revisits Babel on a city's spew -
bulbous lubbers
stumbling on board,
stinking of KFC,
bellies full of booze,
as if whatever thoughts
coagulating in those thick, brick brains
can only dribble out in grunted spit or beery guffaws.

All meaning has been neutered,
individual opinion shredded,
on this swamp of a train
where every man's reduced
to slumped and muggle-headed
slanging bouts, 

each carriage drips in death's greased grime
as the stench of cheap-fried flesh
permeates like disease.

As we stumble, judder out of town
through scrawls of streetlamps,
beetle abyss-bound
into a morbid vortex of thick black,
a midnight etched in threads of passing trains
as bars of light meet bars of light
and fizzle fleetingly through windows
framing dark expanses of post-urban waste,
empty pitches,
dim-lit stations,
cemeteries whose thin grey graves are filed
like tax returns or love letters,
a cold and lonely coffin of a world
within whose shadowy, ill-lit peace
I begin to slowly feel at home.

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