As you can tell from the date of the picture I took from the train window just over a week ago, this post is a little behindhand. I was then, and am now, heading south on East Coast rail. What a lot has changed in one week! The temperatures have soared, high pressure has established itself over the whole of the UK and the train Wifi is working for once! I’m conference-bound today, with all the lightness of heart that good weather brings. Here’s what I wrote last week:
I’m on the train to London again, for the first time in quite a while. It’s just after 7 a.m. and broad daylight – a luxury that I haven’t experienced on this journey at this time since last October. It’s chilly: the fields are damp, still drying out after the rains, and a low mist rises from the earth as it warms up for the day. The sky is oyster-coloured and fretted with a complex pattern of clouds that seem to form the shape of the skeleton of a whale, or some long-dead prehistoric beast; I see a dog running across the grass, but can’t spot its owner. Mostly the land in this area is flat and arable, but occasional huddles of cows or solitary horses tethered in a paddock, grazing peacefully, flash by.
As usual, there is a problem with the train’s WiFi, but mercifully the electrical sockets are working, so I can still use my laptop. This is just as well, because, try as I might, I’m struggling to find my fellow passengers interesting. Opposite me sits a burly man reading the Metro newspaper. He licks his finger to get a purchase every time he turns the page, an unhygienic habit that I’ve always found irritating (particularly when employed by bank tellers counting out notes that I must then grasp). I wonder how much newsprint he swallows each week? The man sitting opposite is slenderer, younger and quite geeky. He’s wearing square, heavy-framed spectacles and is immersed in his iPad. I can just see that he is reading the Financial Times (and can tell that he is familiar with East Coast – he’s downloaded the paper before getting on the train!). At least there’s not much prospect of his sucking on his thumb and index finger as he scrolls down the articles!
Looking round, I see that all my fellow passengers are men. The ones behind me, each seated at a separate table, are all reading documents and making notes: weekend work that didn’t get done, I guess.
Now the train is approaching Newark Northgate. The sun is riding quite high in the sky, but is still watery and pale. Newark is this train’s last stop before King’s Cross. Quite a crowd of people is waiting to embark, but again not a woman in sight. Smarter than I, perhaps – they’ve managed to stay at home to enjoy what promises to be a bright early spring day.
Breakfast arrives (I’m travelling first class, though on a very cheap ticket, because I ordered it weeks ago). It’s a smoked salmon omelette. Porridge and fruit compote, which was what I really wanted, has apparently ‘sold out’. I’m sceptical about how this could happen on a Monday morning. Someone forgot to fill in an order form, perhaps? The omelette is OK, but the half-bagel on which it sits looks tough and rubbery. I decide to give it a miss.
All of this, I’m sure you’ll agree, is quite humdrum. The journey is one that I’ve made scores of times before, usually, but not always, with more promising travelling companions. (I’m hoping that the rest of it will be as uneventful and that the train will arrive on time, as I have only forty minutes to cross the city to get my connection at Victoria.) But my spirits are lifting. I feel the old magic that I’ve always associated with train journeys since I was a child. It’s been dulled by the dreariness of winter, but today it has returned, in full strength.
It’s 8.10 a.m. and the sunlight is streaming through the train window, flinging a glare of orange across the computer screen so that I can hardly see these words. Spring is here. When I arrive in London, spring will be burgeoning there, too. It is the beginning of March and at last it seems as if the year has really started. There is the whole of the spring to sip at as if it were a delicacy and the almost-certainty that it will be followed by the feast of summer. It will be eight whole months before we shall arrive at the end of October and watch with dismay the withering of the trees and the light as winter approaches again.
Today, I am travelling to London, then on to Eastbourne: an ordinary work-day expedition. But it is part of a much bigger, more exciting journey: my odyssey into 2014.
Today, I am travelling to Brighton, where this year there will be no heaps of snow on the promenade and I’ll be interested to see just how little the storms have left of the West Pier skeleton, which I wrote about and photographed twelve months ago.
Have a lovely week of spring weather, everyone.
Last week I visited Brighton for the first time in perhaps ten years. I was there because The Old Ship Hotel had been chosen as the venue for the annual academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I organise the speaker programme. I discovered that there has been an inn on the site of The Old Ship since Elizabethan times. Originally just called The Ship, it acquired its venerable epithet after another Ship hotel was built nearby – this one a mere stripling dating from the period of the Civil War. Hotels in Brighton can be evocative places. I have also stayed at The Grand, both before and after it was wrecked by the IRA bomb, on both occasions to attend the Booksellers Association Conference (I liked it better before than after) and one year spent several days in a seedy little guest house when the company I was working for forgot to book until the last minute and all the hotels were full.
Brighton itself has not changed much in ten years, although it looked very odd when I arrived, because the streets and seafront were covered in grubby snow. A moderately heavy snowfall on the day before seemed to have caused a local catastrophe in which everything – public transport, the highways, even restaurants and cafés – ground to a halt. I concluded that they’re ‘nesh’ in the South of England; we clear away snow like that in half an hour in Yorkshire! Or perhaps Brightonians – if that’s the right word – are just staggered to see the white stuff at all and it therefore strikes them down with a sort of horrified inertia.
Anyway, by midday, although it was still very cold, the snow had melted and I ventured out from The Old Ship to meet my former English teacher for lunch (more about this on another occasion). Before the conference started, I also managed to take a walk along the promenade and was saddened to see the hideous buckled corpse of the West Pier, still rising up out of the sea like a squashed daddy longlegs. The structure has suffered terminal damage since my last visit.
After presentations, drinks and speeches, dinner, more speeches and more drinks, I went to bed. I was rudely awakened at about 4 a.m. by the noise of a huge crowd outside. I exaggerate only a little when I say that it sounded like the storming of the Bastille! I began to realise that my de luxe room, with its fine view of the sea, came with mixed privileges. Looking discreetly out of the window, I saw a gang of perhaps forty youths running about on the seafront, many of them braying obscenities. And they didn’t move on – they just stayed there! Brighton has obviously degenerated since the days of Pinkie Brown, who was a better class of yob altogether.
Since it was obvious that I would get no more sleep until the mob dispersed or was moved on, I adopted my usual all-purpose tactic for dealing with adversity and took out a book. It was The Mistress of Alderley by Robert Barnard, not a novelist I’d read before. Under normal circumstances, it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d have especially enjoyed. Although the setting is meant to be contemporary, the characters seem to belong to a time warp. The mistress of Alderley herself, a retired actress called Caroline Fawley, seems to me to be straight out of the set of Brief Encounter. However, under any circumstances I should have enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Leeds which number among the novel’s strengths and, while the fracas outside continued to roar, I found the descriptions of Caroline’s genteel rural life quite soothing. The icing on the cake was that it turned out to be a sham, a pretence laid bare by the murder of Caroline’s slippery millionaire lover.
I had almost completed The Mistress of Alderley by breakfast, by which time the louts had melted away and a rosy dawn was launching itself above the dead pier.