I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains lately. Here I am again, Styrofoam cup of lukewarm cappuccino procured from the station, overnight bag on the shelf above my head, notebook in front of me, scenery (if you can call it that – currently mostly high-rises, factory roofs and a couple of cranes) whizzing by. So because my subconscious today seems to be wired to ‘the bleeding obvious’, my current train of thought (sorry!) has led me to reflect on this, probably my favourite means of travel.
Why so many recent rail journeys? Well for one thing, I’m now bereft of one of the great benefits of corporate life, the Fuel Card. Pretty sure that’s what Joni Mitchell was referring to when she wrote ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’. So for the first time in my adult life (*shame-faced*) I am aware, on a pretty much daily basis (as opposed to every now and again, when driving a hire car or filling up in France or something and dimly noticing it’s cheaper there), of how sodding expensive petrol is. Also, the car is mine now, not The Company’s, so the wear and tear are mine, too (I know, welcome to the real world).
I’ve also had a bit more time to travel around seeing friends (if I haven’t got to you yet, but have promised I will, sorry, I will, and please nag me to do so). This is lovely – socialising becomes more important when you don’t have an office to go into and spend all day talking only to the people in your head.
I work on trains, too, so unlike hours spent in traffic jams, it never feels like wasted time. Quite the opposite, in fact – I work really well on trains. I’ve considered just buying some sort of season ticket and travelling up and down the East Coast railway, never actually stopping anywhere, just to get this book written.
There’s something hypnotic about the rhythm of the carriage. There’s the lack of distraction, especially on a quiet train. And when it’s not quiet, well, as they say, ‘all human life is there’: squabbling children, snogging couples, snoozing old men, all conveniently providing material. Most writers are inveterate people-watchers, and trains are a people-watcher’s paradise.
I think it’s something to do with having to sit still. For me, and for them, the other passengers (who – hopefully – don’t know I’m watching them). I’m fascinated by what people choose to do when they’re in a confined space and have to be still for a period of time. Here are some things that people do on trains and what I think about them.
Doing nothing, just staring into space – what are they thinking about? (also: haven’t they got a book?)
Sleeping – why are they tired? (Or do trains just have the same soporific effect on them as planes, bizarrely, have on me – I’m usually asleep before even leaving the runway, although I get very cross if I miss my meal or the chance of a ‘free’ gin & tonic)
Headphones / Ipad – what are they listening to / watching?
Reading – I love this one, obviously. I’m nearly as nosy about strangers’ reading habits as I am about their front rooms (look, if you don’t want me to look through your curtains as I walk past, close them). We’re told not to judge a book by its cover but don’t we all secretly judge a person by their book? (Just me? Oh dear) Of course, if I ever see someone on a train reading Precocious, I will probably implode with happiness. Or go to the buffet car and buy them a cake, or something.
Working – pah. Bit boring, and often involves:
Making phone calls – why? You know you are going to lose signal, go into a tunnel, etc., and then you will be forced to shout the immortal cliché ‘Sorry, I’m on the TRAAAAAAIN’. Ugh. I have a theory people choose train journeys to make the calls they really don’t want to make, so they have the perfect excuse to cut it off if it gets uncomfortable.
Talking to friends – on a recent journey to Durham, I sat next to two guys (I’d say they were in their fifties) who were obviously at the start of a holiday touring the North East. One was clearly more gregarious (talked non-stop) and had done all the planning, which encompassed an overwhelming circuit of churches, castles and eateries around Newcastle, York and Durham. After about an hour of eavesdropping on their itinerary I was torn between wanting to join them and needing to lie down.
Talking to strangers – on the above trip, the woman opposite me, overhearing the guys’ plans, chipped in with some top restaurant tips because she was from the area. We all had a lovely little chat.
Today I saw a grown man reading a picture book: turning the board pages, opening the flaps, following the (few) words with his finger. It was moving, and intriguing, and when I’m moved and intrigued, stories are born. You don’t get that if you don’t go anywhere.
I wrote another 2000 words of the novel, wrote this blog and had a little snooze. You probably shouldn’t do any of that in a car. Trains – love ‘em.