18 September 2014

Notes from an English train

At Paddington I buy a one-way rail ticket for Great Malvern for a sum that would have allowed me to stay in in an air-conditioned room in Pahar Ganj for more than three days, and board after a not-excessive wait. At a stop further along the line a young guy takes a seat next to me. His lower right leg glows with a luminous-red cast and he manoeuvres his crutches awkardly as he sits. I ask if he's done his achilles in. He shakes his head and looks slightly sheepish.
 'Wrecked my ankle at a party,' he says, admitting the injury's self-inflicted. 'Guess I'll be a bit more careful how much I drink in future.'
Inevitably, he asks if I've been travelling and the conversation turns to India.
  'I'd love to go there,' he says, and sounds as if he means it.
I encourage him, suggesting he try to make it a long trip -- months rather than weeks. We chat all the way to the next stop, where he leaves the train. We wish each other good luck, and I'm sorry to see him go.

England -- so many names that could only be found here without sounding out of place. At Kingham station, for example, a sign says 'Change here for buses to Chipping Norton', and at Moreton-in-Marsh another sign lists Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and, incongruously, Broadway.

The English countryside slides past, almost stereotypical in its elegance -- rolling hills with copses, hedgerows, neat fields -- and I wonder why I don't feel more elated at seeing these things I'm so familiar with from my boyhood, when many of the books I read and TV programmes I watched about wildlife and nature were focused on Britain; when most of the spectacular books and programmes about New Zealand wildlife and nature, or even the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world, had yet to be produced. Even while still a boy I could identify most of the British animals and birds, and their charm and that of the landscape they inhabit still delights me.

But, as I look out this window, something seems to be missing. The feeling's inchoate, intangible; I can't put my finger on it. I think perhaps the landscape's too neat, too ordered, but when I pay attention to that I see I'm wrong -- some of what I'm seeing does seem wilder and less kempt than I'd expected. I like this; I like the knowledge that even in what must be one of the world's tidier landscapes, pockets of wildness thrive.

Perhaps I've simply become too used to the energy of India. The urge to compare, which so often interferes with appreciation of where you are, proves irresistible. Where are all the people?

A roe deer (or is a muntjac?) feeds in a field; further on I see another. A group of rabbits occupies a corner of a rough paddock. They look greyer and leaner than the rabbits of New Zealand. Those books about British wildlife weren't just abstract knowledge for me; many of the most common birds of the New Zealand countryside are descendants of those brought there by homesick British migrants. Around my own house in the Pohangina valley the most common birds include yellowhammers, chaffinches, house sparrows of course, blackbirds, and song thrushes, and from time to time I see many more, like goldfinches, redpolls, and greenfinches. Perhaps the familiarity of much of what I'm seeing from this smooth, fast train makes me feel as if my journey has already begun to end?

But the magpies and crows remind me of India, and even though they're not quite the same, they still look like old friends. What suddenly shocks me, though, is seeing a small herd of cattle and realising these are BEEF cattle. Am I really that accustomed to India? Maybe I now know some parts of India better than I know the England of my boyhood perceptions? I've certainly spent far longer there than here.

A hare sits, grey and upright and alone among crows in a stubble field. Hares have been part of my life forever; I can even remember as a very small boy asking my uncle how to tell a hare from a rabbit. Not many memories pre-date that one. The sight of a hare always thrills me; it does so now, too.

Finally, Great Malvern. My aunt sits, waiting at the station. Neither of us can believe I'm here.

Ten days at Great Malvern. I can't write about those days, other than to say two months of sometimes hard travelling caught up with me and I couldn't have been in a better place, nor better looked after. The timing was uncanny.

Shortly after five in the morning we sit on the hard bench at the end of the platform and don't talk about goodbyes. The inadequacy of partings: how do you say what can't be said? The train finally pulls into the station and I begin to leave England.

At Worcester Shrub Hill a young guy boards my carraige. He wears a suit, the jacket open, and the anxious look of someone going to a job interview. The inspector takes his job seriously: another young guy, casually dressed, gets a ticking-off for not having bought a ticket before boarding, and another passenger gets questioned about whether that's his bag in the overhead rack on the opposite side of the aisle.

When the dawn lightens enough so the tinted windows no longer reflect my disconcertingly tired and drawn face, I begin to scribble notes more frequently. Someone once said writing's easy, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you; he then added that it's the occurring that's the hard part. Maybe so, but movement and the sense of journeying help, and trains are one of the best forms of travel for facilitating that occurring of ideas. Besides, not all writing has to be about ideas; simple description has many virtues, and this morning I have plenty to scribble about in the little cahier.

The silhouette of a long-tailed bird sitting on a power line -- instantly I think 'drongo' even though I know it's ridiculous (it's a magpie). Perhaps even now, part of me still hasn't left India. I think it never will.

A fox sits on its haunches and watches the train pass; later, another trots through earthworks on the embankment with such an air of self-assurance that I admire (and probably envy) it just for that (as well, of course, for the sheer beauty of the animal and the elegance of its lope). Had it known of my admiration, the fox would have laughed, of course.

Deer in misty paddocks; lone trees in precisely the right place in empty fields -- the geometry of a thoughtful history of cultivation. The bone-white and grey moon, upside down and just beginning to wane; high, tiny vapour trails following the bright speck of planes I long to be on. I think of the two senses of 'flight' -- one literal, as in the flight of birds; the other figurative, as in flight from something or somewhere -- and wonder which best applies to me.

Wood pigeons -- surely they must be more intelligent than they look?

As the train fills, everyone I see seems to enter their own world -- newspapers; laptops and tablets; phones; kindles; i-pods, earbuds and headphones. Some, plugged in, have their eyes closed. No one writes anything by hand. A disconcertingly large number of people wear suits, and anything not a suit looks freshly purchased for a large sum. I probably look like a hobo. Perhaps this is partly why I feel more crowded here than crammed among the millions in Delhi, although even there on the Metro many people manage to stay tidier than me. Whatever the reason, I think perhaps I am the odd one out -- no, I AM the odd one out. Yet, in Delhi I stand out almost everywhere except among the tourist spots, to which I seldom go. I don't understand why I feel this way; I just feel I don't belong here, despite its attractions, and I wonder whether I'd ever grow accustomed to this environment. When I've thought of how I might achieve that state of feeling at home wherever I am, I've never thought it might be this hard here in the land from which my ancestors left (although admittedly this is neither Scotland nor Ireland).

The sound of one keyboard tapping. No koan here, but perhaps enlightenment might arise from contemplating the sound. What is he writing? A report? A presentation to a corporate meeting? The horror! The horror! I have left that world and cannot return, even if I wished to, which I do not. Whatever lies in store for me will be elsewhere.

Again, though, I question my perceptions -- always a useful thing to do. Not everyone has disappeared into their own world; I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation further back in the carriage, and a few people, like  the anxious young guy, seem slightly uncomfortable, as if they too find being here uncomfortable and haven't fully accepted they want to be part of this world. Others seem more resigned than accepting -- 'hanging on in quiet desperation'. What can they do, though?

At Paddington a helpful ticket-checker gives me clear, precise instructions about where to catch the Underground to Liverpool Street, and thanks to his help I'm on way in just a couple of minutes, standing with the strap-hangers, most of whom look tired or dour or both. Liverpool Street arrives; I make my way to the train and find I'm in time to catch an earlier one. Another journey; more gazing out the window, watching England slip away. On a bank of a slow river, a man sits with his fishing road set up and his basket and a little table beside him, and I'm struck by the apparent wonderful pointlessness of his inactivity. Fishing's been described as many things -- 'the art of prolonged anticipation'; 'a jerk on one end of a line, waiting for a jerk on the other', and so on -- but one way of thinking about certain types of fishing is that they share much in common with meditation. This man certainly appears meditative, but even if his thoughts have wandered all over the place, I have no doubt he'll return home refreshed, even if fishless.

The train arrives at the dreadful, giant warehouse that's Stansted airport, where my last impressions of England are about as far removed from the gentle, beautiful countryside around Great Malvern as Delhi is. In the previous post I pointed out how people and places are inextricable, but I know now that if I return to England, the only draw will be a few close friends. Perhaps in the attempt to feel at home wherever I am, I have learned only that I have not yet succeeded, and the affinity I once felt for this place has begun to fade. Aspects like my friends, the birds and other animals, and the distinctive beauty of the English countryside still delight me, but maybe the result of my striving has been to drift further away from a home I once thought I might have had.

1. '...the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world...' Not including seals. I never want to see another documentary about the breeding habits of any kind of seal. Ever.
2. 'The bone-white and grey moon, upside down...' Look closely if you visit the hemisphere opposite the one in which you usually live.
3. 'The horror! The horror!' Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness.
4. '...hanging on in quiet desperation..' ...is the English way, according to Pink Floyd.
5. '...a jerk on one end...' The main title of the late Robert Hughes' wonderful book. Recommended reading.

1. Quintessential English garden at Great Malvern. Home to many birds and other animals, including badgers.
2. Dragonfly in the same garden. At Slimbridge the day after I arrived, I watched a hobby hunting dragonflies.
3. Wood pigeon at Slimbridge.
4. English robin at Great Malvern. Not a great photograph, but they weren't cooperative. Still, I trust this captures something of the character of these little birds.

Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Home is both a state of heart, and a place to put it. They are not separate.

Typical Englishman, not at home in England, in love with India, lives in the Antipodes. But I joke.

Relatively Retiring said...

Crack goes the whip and off we go!
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing;
Goodbye, goodbye to everything.

(Farewell to the Farm: R.L.Stevenson, just in case you don't know)

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, ha! One thing I'm certain of, though, and that's that I've never thought of myself as an Englishman. Agree about state of heart and place, too -- well put.

RR, thank you -- I'd never heard that before.

Zhoen said...

I had no idea, until we moved into our house, how much I needed a place for my sense of home. That I thought I had, more than sufficient, with someone I love. Profound difference, completely unanticipated.

Ruahines said...

Kia Ora Pete,
I find a real sense of continuity in these posts. Looking forward to the book e hoa :) ....we miss you here but don't hurry back. Another 3 years of National awaits...might have to head straight for the Ruahine. Kia Kaha.

Richard Collins said...

Kia Ora Pete.

Thanks for another fine piece of writing. It was a particularly poignant post for me – I grew up in Ledbury, just the other side of the hills from where your Aunt lives.

And though I’ve been this side of the world for approaching 20 years, that rail journey from Paddington is still the one I know best.

The gradual emptying-out of the train the further it got from London, a glimpse of the spires at Oxford, the lines of Sycamore trees. And so on. Most vividly for me though, its the moment you emerge from skirting the Cotswolds and can see right across the Severn and Avon plains – all the way to the line of the Malvern Hills.

Nearly home at last. Or what was home at any rate.

By that stage of the journey, I was usually thick with fatigue and a bit wistful after a 24 hours plus flight. Felt like I’d wandered into a Larkin poem. And even if the geography and era is all wrong the ‘slow stopping curve southwards’ from the Whitsun Weddings is the line I usually found myself murmuring.

I enjoyed reading about your journey very much – so thanks again.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, I'm intrigued by your discovery. Onece, I'd have thought the same about not needing a place; now I'm increasingly coming to agree it's at least important, and the weight of your experience strengthens that. Thanks.

Kia ora Robb. I'm very much looking forward to a long and great evening with you and Tara (have I already said that?!). So much to talk about, and not just the usual stuff about what such-and-such a place was like. Much more interesting things (I trust). And yes, the Pohangina headwaters in particular are calling, although I might need some time before I'm fit enough to handle a good trip. This journey has been hard (but good). E noho ra, e hoa.

Richard, kia ora for that wonderful comment. It means a great deal to know the writing's appreciated by someone who knows the journey so well. I must read some more Larkin, and this time I'll have a new appreciation, thanks to your comnent.

Relatively Retiring said...

Richard: I appreciate your comment to P.Pete on the journey from Paddington. Oh, the joy of the train emptying at Oxford, and the gentle ramble through places like Honeybourne until the greater joy of the silhouette of the Malverns.
The reverse journey doesn't have the same effect, does it?