A letter to Northern Rail

Dear Northern Rail,

I have been using your trains for several years now. For a time I used Transpennine Express, which was fine, but since a station opened in Buckshaw Village I’ve been using Northern Rail. It has not always been a pleasant experience. Some of the trains have been rather tired, a bit worn and draughty (much like myself) and there have been times when the trains have been parlously late, the service less than satisfactory. There’s been a swath of (doubtless necessary) engineering work. I am sure I told you about those things at the time.

What I haven’t told you about is all the times the service has run perfectly, picking me up and setting me down exactly where I want to be at just about the time I want to be there. Sure, in the morning the train is generally a couple of minutes late and in the evening too, but a couple of minutes can be the time needed to purchase a ticket and in the context of an end to end journey of around an hour and fifteen minutes a couple of minutes here and there are barely worth mentioning. I could lose that, or gain it, by walking a little faster or slower to and from the station. Let’s just say the trains largely run on time.

I haven’t mentioned how the train carriages are improving, the upholstery being replaced, the old carriages replaced by new. I haven’t mentioned all the times the train carriages have been spotlessly clean, the temperature just about perfect. I might have mentioned overcrowding but I probably haven’t mentioned that I always get a seat, morning and evening and that the trains are as comfortable as you can expect a train to be.

And I haven’t mentioned before how unfailingly decent the people who work on the trains are. How there is always a smile, often a kind word, and whilst I imagine that checking tickets and dealing with the doors and grumbles and missed connections is perhaps not the most satisfying work one can do, this never deters the men and women who walk the aisles hour after hour, checking and smiling and being kind and humorous, doing a great job.

Thank you, Northern Rail. Thank you to every person who has made an effort to make so many journeys go smoothly, to get people to their destinations on time and without incident. Thank you to every conductor who has carried out their job with a smile, to the cleaners who make the scruffy mess generated by disinterested travellers go away. Thank you to the drivers for their attention to safety and the smooth ride which makes looking out of the window at the passing scenery a relaxing pleasure. Thank you to everyone who has worked behind the scenes doing whatever it is they do that contributes towards a good quality, if often underappreciated service.

Thank you.

From this day forth: a manifesto

I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that 2016 has been a pretty appalling year. Political discourse no longer exists, how terrifying. Instead we have political statements, pronouncements, slogans backed up with nothing and people are so fed up of everything – the austerity, the poverty, the destruction of communities, the way people have been blamed for their own demise, of seeing others living the high life, behaving terribly and getting away with it and years of being told ‘if only you have x, life will be better’ – that it’s hardly surprising that people want change, but the direction we’re heading in feels disturbing. I have spent the past few days wondering if this is how people felt before the war, as they watched the world change slowly and then faster and faster and if they felt, or believed, that things would recover, that it was nothing really to worry about, not able to see how everything would fall so spectacularly apart in just a few short but destructive years. Knowledge is no longer respected, knowledge which, to me, is the only thing worth having (provided it is used for decent purposes and, most importantly, shared) because knowledge is what allows us to undertake nuanced thinking. Little did I realise that nuance is dead too, or perhaps just sleeping. One can hope. I find myself considered the ‘metropolitan elite’ despite living in relatively rural areas my whole life, living in the North-west, having been brought up by a Dad who was a blue-collar worker (electrician) and a Mum who was a Mum, a cleaner, a sandwich maker, a machinist, the person who dishes out change and checks the machines at an amusement arcade or whatever paid a little and she could fit around the job of parenting which she did, thanklessly, 24/7. The only person in my family who went to university was my brother. But still, I believe in peace and I value my European citizenship and I believe in choosing the hard path of compromise rather than the easy one of rejection, and so I am an ‘elite’. Who knew? If only I could go back to my child self and choose ignorance…but no, of course that is not a choice I would ever advocate. And I’m not sure anyone ever really chooses ignorance either. People choose for a range of reasons, but we only hear the voices of those who have the platform to be heard.

The fact is that I’ve become complacent. I’m no ‘elite’ but neither am I beyond approbation. We can all, always, do better. After the recent news which doesn’t need to be mentioned here, like many people I felt despondent and confused. And this whole year has been a year of despondency and confusion. I’m fed up of feeling beaten down, and I’m fed up of complaining. It occurred to me that what the world needs now is a bit of loving kindness, people reaching across the gap to appreciate instead of denigrating each other. We need to reinvigorate dialogue. The way it’s been working doesn’t actually work. We’re all at fault here, myself included. It is easy to make pronouncements and condescend or insult other people based on their choices, but what we need more than anything else right now is understanding. And it needs to start with me. I can’t expect anyone to understand me if I’m not willing to understand others. This has always been the value, to me, of reading and movies, but it occurs to me that the very nature of those mediums means we only hear one type of story – the ‘elite’ story. Most writers, particularly now, have been to university. You have to be able to write a ‘certain way’ to get published. Does this mean that there’s a massive trench of experience we simply don’t read about? I think it’s possible, and I think this is why books like Sventlana Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer and Life As We Have Known It compiled by Margaret Llewelyn Davies are so powerful, because they give voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost. Perhaps there is work to do after all. Maybe we’re only hearing one story, and those whose stories are hidden have had to shout really loudly in order to be heard. It’s always the shouters that are blamed: women who decry rape culture, people of colour who decry racism – the level of abuse hurled at these people always disturbs me and it’s unacceptable. They all suffer for trying to be heard, for trying to make people understand their position, and it’s wrong. Maybe we need to change that dynamic, for the benefit of everyone.

Complaining is another issue. We all complain, every organisation I know has a complaints department but how many have a compliments department? Anyone who uses social media will recognise how much those platforms are overwhelmed by trolling and abuse and how many of the posts are ones which complain or express negative sentiment. I am as guilty of this too (though not the trolling or abuse, I try not to lash out at people on social media). Comments sections on newspapers’ websites are to be avoided at all costs. We have become a generation of angry whiners, and frankly I’ve become one too. Even this blog entry is a long moan, but perhaps it will be the last one. Or that’s my intent, anyway. It occurred to me as I stepped off the train, out into the Northern whipping rain, that I would be quick to complain if the train was late but when it’s broadly on time every day what do I do? Nothing, that’s what. The people running my train service know only too well what the response will be when something goes wrong, but when it goes right it’s an expectation. But imagine how powerful it could be to thank people for their kindness, for their diligence and good service as a matter of course. Kindness, in my experience, rubs off. People who have been kind to me, I am more willing to be kind to. If people are kind to me, it reminds me to be kind to others. If anger is self-generating, maybe kindness is too. And politeness and recognition of peoples’ good qualities as well as their flaws. When I thought about it, I thought particularly about my train service. The staff at my local station are exemplary, they are efficient and friendly. When the ticket machine isn’t working they go to extra lengths to make sure that everyone gets their ticket before the train arrives. If it’s quiet, they have a chat, taking an interest in the customer. When I think of thankless service, I think of them. They are blamed if the train is late and blamed when the don’t have information. So maybe they need a little acknowledgement, and I can do that. And just thinking about thanking them made me feel good; I thought about all the nice things I could write and it made me feel better about life just acknowledging the ways in which other people make my life easier. It’s a little step to thank them, but an important one.

I decided I needed to make some changes. I need to make those changes to benefit myself, but also to benefit others. I need to think differently, I need to live with greater kindness and empathy. Instead of being angry about things, I need to try to understand them. And I need to commit to it to. So I’m committing to it. I will listen more, I will share more, I will see the good in people and recognise it and I will share that recognition. It’s a short manifesto, but I think it will help me be a better person in the world.

 

Perseverence

I like to think that I have a good level of perseverance, that I can cope with many things and can endure and push myself to finish the job, whatever the job might be. I have persevered in my work, despite circumstances which might rightly send me running. I persevere with books I don’t like and I persevere with the stubborn bunnies that don’t want to go to bed when it’s raining and dark outside. I persevered with cycling to work, until I didn’t. I persevere with my walking and writing, despite the lack of a noticeable return.

I like to think that I have a good level of perseverance, yet I’m as flighty as a dying leaf in autumn. One of my friends, a perceptive one, once mentioned that I am brilliant at starting things and not finishing them. This was a surprise to me. I have been in the same relationship for 22 years, and I’ve been with the same employer for just about the same length of time, and despite all the ups and downs that come naturally with any long-term relationship I am still there and I still enjoy it (well, my marriage anyway). Yet I start things and stop them. I am, for all but the most critical things, not in it for the long run.

I have started learning Japanese and stopped. I have written poetry; I actually got half decent at it, then I gave it up. I tinker at writing. I can just about crochet a straight line and I can only knit because I learned when I was younger. I have a high level interest in everything and depth in very little. I’m a tinkerer, an intellectual butterfly (and equally lightweight), I’m the bee that flits from flower to flower never settling. As soon as I get close to something, that’s exactly when I start to waft away.

That I have come to recognise this is a good thing.

I recently started the NHS Couch to 5k running programme. I’m not a runner. I’ve never been good at running for long periods of time. I have flat feet; I’m not supposed to run. I have tinkered with running before and I am tinkering with running again. I am up to week 4, though I have been running for 6 weeks. This week has been the worst yet. I haven’t run since Sunday (it is Thursday). I was supposed to run yesterday, but it was cold and I was tired and kind of hungry so I didn’t run. Today it was windy. I didn’t want to run.

I got changed into my running gear. I came downstairs and strapped on my phone, only to discover that the week’s podcast had not downloaded. I tried to download it: it wouldn’t download. Fifteen minutes later it downloaded. I hovered by the door. I didn’t want to run.

I went for a run. It was cold and I was tired. My knees hurt. In parts I felt like my breath was being squeezed through a tiny, burning hole in my throat. I ran for three minutes, then five minutes, then three minutes, then five. Breaks in between. I didn’t want to run, but I did. I persevered.

It’s easy doing the things that we love. It’s easy, too, doing the things that we have to. Work, family: they’re not exactly a choice (except they are a choice). Perseverance comes when we do something hard that we don’t have to, when we push through a barrier of pain and don’t give up, when we keep going even though keeping going is hard, even if it means just putting one step in front of another or living another shitty day or coping with a difficult relationship or situation that really we want to escape from. I am not good at persevering. I think, sometimes, that if I was a person on the Titanic when it was sinking that I’d go down with ship because fighting to live in those circumstances is much harder than giving in. If I was sent to a death camp, I’d die in the first week. If there was a nuclear attack, I’d run into the burning light. I’m terrible at being sick, I dread degenerative illness. Going on when it’s hard, that’s a kind of endurance I don’t have. But maybe I can learn.

I did my run. I didn’t want to, but I did it. This is a commitment, a small one but one worth making. Afterwards I was proud of myself. I didn’t have to run but I did. I’m not very good at it, I’m not very fit. But I can get better. I will get better. I will not give in. Well, perhaps I won’t give in on this.

Knitting

One of my overriding memories from childhood is my Mum sitting in a chair, her needles clicking and the shape of a woollen garment – scarfs, jumpers, cardigans – emerging like magic row by row. As a teenager I, too, learned to knit. It was something that we just did, creating objects from loops of wool. I started with a knitting doll – those strange wooden objects shaped like a person with a hole running through them head to toe, and four little spiked rods on the head like a crown. I used to make long woollen ropes which I spiralled around into a coaster shape, and these coasters graced my room and others until I left home. Later I moved onto booties and mittens for my eldest sister’s babies, and when I grew more adventurous I made tiny little jackets and impractical little trousers, all from fine baby wool. I wasn’t a great knitter; I couldn’t cable or make lace though I did progress to making little holey patterns in the jackets. I could follow a knitting pattern and I grew dextrous enough with the needles to be able to knit without looking. But I was never as good as my Mum.

Now it is autumn, and my mind turns to knitting again. I want to knit a blanket, construct something unique and personal by making little knitted squares which I can patch together into a soft blanket. I have made forays with knitting before, but it has always fallen by the wayside after one thing or another, often because my visiting Mum has completed the project for me before I had chance to even say ‘wait a moment’. But this time is different. I have found my needles, a ball of soft chunky wool and I am reminding my fingers how to make the stitches. It is awkward. My hands don’t work like they used to. I drop stitches by accident and my tension is all over the place. Yet a pattern of knitting emerges. It is not special, it is not even half-good, but it is mine. I have made it. I examine my stitches, wrought from my awkward little hands, and I feel proud. I am making connections. I connect with the wool and I connect with my younger self. I connect with my mother, who was probably about my age when I first remember her sitting there knitting in the chair. I imagine how she must have felt, how different her life was to mine, and yet somehow the same. We are connected. The needles click. The stitches grow and grow.

Comfort

It’s a cold, grey autumnal day, not typical of autumn but one of a type. There’s a sharp breeze that shreds the yellowing leaves from the trees and penetrates to the bone. It is a day for staying indoors. The light is dim outside; it darkens early partly due to the time of year and partly because of the thick cloud that hunkers down close to the earth, creating a depressing feel. In my house it is warm. I wrap myself in a thick cardigan and think about making large mugs of steaming chocolate and think about how that makes me sounds like a character from an Enid Blyton book. The sound of the tumble dryer spills from the utility room and if I look up, out through the window, I can see the soft white bodies of the bunnies huddled together against the cold, and I wish I could bring them indoors without the experience terrifying them but I can’t. I can, however, place an extra layer of straw in their little bed-chamber, making a cosy warm hole for them even though its outside. I want candles and soft throws, chocolate (how unlike me) and warm tea, a book about something cosy. I want to huddle up against the dark with my family, enclosed in soft light like that from a fire or from candles. I want it to be colder. I want them to want to come to me: their warm, comfortable Mum.

Ten things seen from a train window

  1. A curve of water cutting through grass; in the distance, the motorway.

     

  2. Fields, recently ploughed; the brown earth darkly glistening.

     

  3. Faces, faces, faces, faces, faces, faces.

     

  4. A crane towering over the city, its limbs painted purple. By its side, a naked new-born bridge.

     

  5. Golden autumnal light spilling through the trees.

     

  6. A disused factory.

     

  7. In the valley below, a cluster of houses. People wait at the bus stop.

     

  8. In the tunnel, it is dark.

     

  9. Busy streets, rows of gleaming cars gathered on roads.

     

  10. The sky everywhere.

Dream

Last night I dreamt I was in a city, a strange city in the way that all cities are strange in dreams. It was like nowhere I’d been before and like everywhere. The buildings were unfamiliar but not improbable. It was early evening and we were heading to the top of a tall, broad building which stepped downwards like a half pyramid, curved on its longest edge. We were heading for the top floor, the highest point, a single floor which poked out above the rest of the city. We entered the building, somehow, and then entered a lift. It was a large lift, industrial in style with a single door which slid across, sliding into itself and then back out again. The light was like every lighting you’ve ever seen in a gritty detective / crime drama, that slightly sickly under-lit tone that evokes corner shadows and a morgue somewhere in the depths of the building below. The lift was large enough to take bodies on stretchers and a team of suited detectives, if you know what I mean.

When the lift door closed, that’s when I experienced my first bout of vertigo. I am a vertigo sufferer. It has grown worse as I’ve become older. It is not simply a matter of heights, in my case, but also one of layers. Layers and space and exposures. Mezzanine floors are a trial; stairwells too. Anywhere where I can see one surface and a vacant space beneath it or between it and another surface, those places make me weak at the knees.

I do not get vertigo in lifts, not even in glass ones. But in my dream I experienced vertigo. It began as the lift doors slid closed and in my mind I could see the top of the building, a balcony stretching all around the outside of the top floor with a chin-height wall and the lights coming on across the city. The sky was low-lit, the way it is once the sun has fully disappeared but the earth has not yet fully turned from the light and a slice of it still cuts through atmosphere. It was pretty, as cities are, but the vertigo killed all of that. All I could feel was the weight in my stomach, the dragging-down sensation, and my knees fizzing like pop. The lift doors were still closed.

I was outside. I don’t recall how I got outside. Somehow, despite it being the tallest building in the city, the land sloped around the edges like the building had been constructed on the side of a cliff except there was no cliff. There was no time to register the change in perspective, though it is something I picked up later, afterwards, when I was awake. A little inconsistency. The vertigo sensation was gone and then it returned. I sank to my knees, I saw myself sink as though I was watching from outside myself, from another position around the corner from where there was a woman sinking to her knees with vertigo, two men standing beside her grasping her arms. Then I woke.

It is not the first time I have experienced vertigo in a dream and it probably won’t be the last, though it is a fairly recent phenomenon. The physicality of it, the way it manifests as a palpable sensation in my body creates a sense of dissonance in my dreaming, as though the physicality makes it un-dreamlike. We talk of dreaming, of entering a dreamlike state, and we imagine a sensationless form of being, something like a shadow of the fully sensual experience of reality. We think of someone ‘dreaming’ as someone withdrawn from their experience of the external world and we know we are dreaming because the full force of our non-dreaming existence isn’t there. It is all interiority. We see it, of course, only in retrospect. When we wake we recognise the dream world as a half world, one lacking external stimulus except for those stray experiences which leak in from the outside world: the howl of the storm outside is interpreted as the sea in the dream, the cough of a lover is interpreted as the barking of a dog, the chill we feel in the dream is because the window was left open and the rain is dripping on the bedclothes, the dream of searching for a bathroom is prompted by our extended bladder. Sensation in the dream world is muted. Everything we experience lacks a physical, external stimulus. We feel fear, we feel joy, we know we are running but we don’t feel the stamp of our feet on the ground or the lactic acid building up in our thighs or the ragged, painful sensation of our breathing. Everything in the dream world comes from within, we react only to ideas and concepts. Yet it is impossible to know if this is how we actually experience the dream or simply how we recall it when waking, when we have embraced the certainty of the real.

Or maybe that’s just how I dream.

Vertigo isn’t caused by something external, this is its essential difference. Vertigo is self-generating, a matter of the mind rather than the world acting upon it. Its external component is a glitch of perception, of understanding. That is why it is possible for it to enter my dreams. Yet it manifests as a highly physical sensation. That manifestation is a kind of dissonance, a wrongness in the dream world. A breaking of the rules. Then again, everything in the real world is perceived from within. We have only our subjective experience. In this respect, what is real and what is a dream are not materially different.

Perhaps I dislike dreaming of vertigo because it reminds me of this.