An article on the radio several days ago caught my ear: the poet Helen Mort on her work inspired by northern train journeys. In and out of Manchester’s Victoria Station, where the trains ride north and north-west bound. It caught my ear because that’s “my” station, where “my” train, the one of my week-day commute to work, ends and re-begins its journey.
Helen Mort was commissioned to write a poem on each station stop from Manchester to Hebden Bridge (in Mort’s native Yorkshire), with the completed work entitle There & Back. The poem can be seen on display on a wall at Manchester Victoria (which is a hulking, handsome devil of an early Victorian building, by the way). Mort described train travel between starting point and destination as “That limbo time when no one can make you do anything.” She noted how writers, poets in particular, have used this time, to watch, to be inspired, and to make social comment. She gave the examples of Phillip Larkin and John Betjeman, with well-known work directly influenced by the intrinsic experience of the train itself (such as Betjeman’s Night Mail) or what they observed of life through its windows, passing by, (Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings).
Though a different line from my own, Mort’s journey shares a similar landscape, out the city through suburb, through a series of northern former-industrial and semi-rural towns and villages, long, sooty brick tunnels running through hills, and snatched glimpses of open moorland. (Not to mention that same greedy corporate transport company, who annually hike the fares without visible improvement to travel conditions – yes, that’s you, Northern Trains!)
I’ve written before of my attempts to use profitably the precious ‘limbo’ time of the commute: reading books I’ve offered to review, editing… Though easier said than done when you’re on a clapped-out diesel, squeezed onto a bench seat, heavy work bag balanced on your knees. Might have been better in Larkin and Betjeman’s day, on a first even second class ticket, the last days of glamour in train travel.
Still, would it be too much to find some poetry in that journey? There are days in spring, when I have set off in the dark but seen the sunset through the rattling windows and it amazes; and in autumn when the trees along the line, threatening always to slide onto the tracks, caramelise to golden-brown. Usually though, it’s chin down into a Kindle or a newspaper or some reading for work, the occasional shifting of a buttock to allow another ample bottom to settle next to yours, the subtle war over elbow room.
We know writers find inspiration in many places and from many media. For some it’s other people, often observed in public spaces. In fact, writer Judy Blume said “A good writer is always a people watcher.” And I think there is this expectation that writers will be life’s observers, turning a chance encounter with a stranger at a bus stop into a story.
Maybe that explains a lot, because I’ve come to realise this isn’t me. True I usually have a notebook with me for when an idea strikes, or when I hear something of interest – think I must be more aural than visual. But I rarely take time to observe what is around me. I accept I may have been missing a trick and was up to give it a try.
I am no poet – and this is no poem – but my notebook content from a return journey includes the below. In context, we’re having an unusually warm May, for northern England, and it was the end of a long, somewhat humid day.
Listless passengers like wrung out cloths, limp in their seats. Inert, literally ‘riding it out’ to get home.
Unappetising seat, its nap aged into bald spots; springs shot; looking sticky.
The base notes of the train’s thrum reverberates in the bones of my backside.
The smell of my seat-mate’s sandwich, sharp with coriander and onions, but better than the old dust and stale must of the carriage.
‘Red brick’ is more than one colour: it’s rose, rust, barn-yard…
Weird welcoming gloom-cool of the tunnels.
Broken free of suburb; outside wiped clean of buildings and dirt.
Trees unwisely but pleasingly close, snowed under with may blossom.
Massed green at the trackside, a bosky bath for the eyes.
Gathering speed for the first time; wishing we could always go this fast, the noise of rush though open windows.
So still not much about people! And this is not necessarily stuff that can be used. It’s a practice exercise to see if I can train (no pun intended) myself to observe more carefully and articulate better what’s going on around me. I will try this again, hoping to improve. And if nothing else, it reminds me I live in a lovely place. One worth the commute home.
To see some of Helen Mort’s work and for information, see http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/helenmortpage.html
PS I once had to communicate with Helen Mort when helping to organise a cultural event – despite being an admired ‘up and coming’ poet, I don’t think she could have been nicer or more human.