Wednesday, 11 May 2011

They evoke and inspire, the stations of modern pilgrimage

My love affair with certain modes of public transport continues to strengthen and deepen. Not planes of course, those ghastly flying cigars they stuff you into with far too little space for comfort. You only put up with them for the sake of getting somewhere wonderful, like Barcelona or Berlin, and I've been on flights which I'd have willingly left even for Kinshasa or Kabul.

Nor do I mean those other packed cigars, underground trains. But real trains, the overground ones, only occasionally generate anything less than unmitigated delight. Not least for the little gems to which they sometimes lead us.

Take Barnstaple, for instance, where I went last week. You start by taking the main line to Exeter, insofar as the South West of England, as remote as it's beautiful, can be said to be on the main line to anywhere. Then you change onto a branch line on which the only surprise is that the engines aren't driven by steam. You make lengthy stops at various stations to let trains coming the other way go past.

Barnstaple is near the North Devon coast, from where the locals say that if you can see the coast of South Wales, then it's going to be raining soon. And if you can't see the coast of South Wales, it's raining already.

Barnstaple Station stands for an unchanging world.
And has changed its signs to prove it
I didn't see the South Wales coast (I didn't bother to look: it was raining). What I did see was the sign outside the station with its evocation of a bygone, more innocent world. That green, those pleasantly flattened white logos, so much more attractive than ghastly monstrosities such as the symbol of the London Olympics, the very brand name, conjured up memories of my long-lost youth.

'British Railways' it proclaimed. How appropriate in this pleasant backwater, firmly attached to tradition and essentially conservative. Except it was the Conservatives, led by their harridan leader Margaret Thatcher, who did away with British Railways. There is no such organisation any more.

Except, apparently, on the Barnstaple branch line. Showing that not all conservatives agree with the Conservatives. A most ingenious paradox for those who collect such things.

Barnstaple's salute to long-lost British Rail
Because looking backwards isn't always Conservative
This week I was up in the opposite part of the country, both physically and metaphorically, in Hull, or Kingston upon Hull to give it its full name. In the old industrial heartland of the North, in Yorkshire, Hull has known better times and is climbing back towards better times again.

Reaching the station on Sunday, I was reminded of another trip decades ago when I'd forgotten to bring a book for the journey, but a fellow-passenger lent me a copy of The Chequer Board. It was my introduction to Nevil Shute, an appalling writer and outstandng story-teller. For me, Hull is forever associated wth the charm of the book and the bitter frustration of having to give it back when its owner left the train, before I could finish it and long before I'd reached Hull.

But Hull is associated with a much finer writer, the city's best known son, at least since the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Philip Larkin is the poet who wrote those resounding words, 'they fuck you up your Mum and Dad'. Frankly, I can't blame my Mum or Dad for my fucked-up state, and if my sons suffer from any particular fucked-uppery, they can take the responsibility onto their own shoulders and sort it out themselves.

Still I like the poems, and I like the statue of the poet striding across the concourse at Hull station, his dynamic posture underlining his, the railways' and the town's thrusting approach to the future.

Larkin striding out, underlining the dynamism of the railways.
And of course of Hull
Larkin's reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the stash of pornography found in his house after his death, but if you ask me that was just his last joke on all the worthy commentators for whom the discovery made enthusiastic eulogies rather difficult.

A dynamic poet with feet of clay in the North, conservative resistance to Conservatism in the South. Travelling the tracks keep me instructed and amused.

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