Letter from London: A Train of Events

Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Hold the front page. All trains for a moment in the middle of last week from London’s Kings Cross to the north of Newcastle were canceled. This was due to flooding. Hard to imagine the canny River Tyne bursting its banks but I did recall again my returning DFDS ship from Denmark to Newcastle when 11 years old smashing into the pier. It was one of the most exciting things to have happened to me. It was even on the news. I was boyishly buoyed. Presently I was at Kings Cross to meet up with a well-travelled ally and friend by the Hermanos Colombian coffee shop. We were headed to Leeds, south of those floods, and found ourselves gliding through the arriving commuters pouring in from various ‘Brief Encounters’ outposts. People probably take the same train every working day of their adult lives before pulling into the garage of retirement all of a sudden one day.

On the train an hour later, I spotted a lone tree in the middle of an empty field, thinking it clever to have kept its place at a time when there has been a lot of chopping down of trees. I was also observing the increasing number of vast anonymous industrial-type warehouses flattening the landscape. I may even have wondered idly at one point if these belonged to bullish multinationals like Amazon. In my youth, I used to catch East Coast line trains between Edinburgh and London all the time. This was when I was not hitching. Nobody seems to hitch these days. Kerouac has shriveled on the vine. The Dead are considered out of tune. Car locks everywhere. Even Shane MacGowan’s funeral possessed a disappointing air of post-something.

Talking of East Coast lines, I remember plucking up enough courage in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York to tell American novelist Kurt Vonnegut about traveling on this very line. I may have said this before but I told him I had been reading Breakfast of Champions. (We had also talked about how in 1944 he had been famously captured by the Nazis.) I said I burst out laughing at the moment in the book when he elects to tell the reader the length of each male character’s member. I said there had been an elderly woman sitting opposite for whom I had already fetched one or two cups of tea from the buffet car. She said she loved hearing people laugh and wondered if I might read out to her what I had just been laughing at. At that very moment, the Vietnam Vet barman at the Algonquin stopped drying the champagne flute in his hand. (I couldn’t believe how many people were listening to our conversation.) ‘Did you?’ asked the writer, eagerly. No, I had to tell him. To be fair, he did seem relieved. Good call, he might even have said. Isn’t it strange how easily fused memories and trains are? Only rain can compete with trains in this regard.

Proving this, our train to Leeds continued in a northerly direction by now rattling with memory. This time I was revisiting in my mind again travelling north with two of my five sisters when three or four years old and we didn’t really know where we were. People were looking at us oddly, constantly checking us out, not helping in any way, just wondering why we were traveling unaccompanied. It was a good question, but not one for today. There are many children with far worse childhoods than my own. I had been watching news footage of the children in Gaza before leaving for the station earlier. What did it matter if as a young boy I liked walking up and down the train that time like I was walking the length of Britain? Mind you, crossing the border in total darkness into Scotland was up there. Nowhere can I think more happily as in a train, wrote AA Milne, one of the flavors of the day?

At Leeds, my ally and I were met by two remarkable people doing incredible work at uniting various dynamic communities across the area. Some people still remembered proudly cross-cultural co-operation a number of years ago when the Bradford Reform Synagogue faced uncertainty, but rather than closing, as seemed likely, a fundraising effort was begun by members of a nearby mosque, along with others from the large Muslim population. This inevitably forged what is still today considered lasting friendship between Bradford’s followers of Islam and Judaism, though the recent bombings of Gaza and the killings in Israel cannot have helped. The four of us sat down to lunch in a tall Leeds dining hall where everyone seemed rapt in conversation, including a couple to my left. Leeds, a city of approximately 536,300 people, is a happening place. One of our hosts, who had come in from neighboring Bradford, had once studied in Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. This was two years after I had spent time there. I mentioned to him the old, now long gone, Deans Hotel. Our principal host meanwhile is a person of immense quality and I was keen to hear his guiding thoughts on conflict. It is a shame our media seems intent on sowing division when there is so much going on in terms of unity.

After lunch we traveled to an area on the fringes of Leeds where times were visibly tough, but where people were of course conspicuously and charmingly friendly. I was there to meet members of a particular African community and had been looking forward to this all week. One of the people had recently flown out of their country after passing one military checkpoint after another. I went on to hear from her of a struggling mountain community doing badly right now, too. Discussions in the room then gravitated towards the need to get aid into certain areas, though logistics were proving difficult. A man from a neighboring country not at war meanwhile reminded everyone of the closeness of the two nations. Time and again I have been rendered speechless by other people’s generosity of spirit in dealing with the hell of others. Theirs are such difficult tasks and I cannot compute such resilience, human spirits generally, when placed in circumstances beyond comprehension. To know there is such a thing as people in this world actively seeking war is borderline unrecoverable. Such support in the face of cruelty may be overwhelming but the cruelty continues. When I left that meeting with my colleague and we traveled back to London, I felt a mixture of elation and frustration. Elation at meeting so many great people. Frustration that life was still so unbearably vicious.

The lights inside the returning railway carriage had a weird orange hue to it. No memories of childhood. No flashes of Kurt Vonnegut. Just this strangely confectionary hue. Today, the East Coast Line covers 936 miles. Trains travel all the way north to the granite city of Aberdeen. (The flooding in Newcastle had gone down by now, by the way.) Strange to think I should be on another continent next time I file.

Peter Bach lives in London.