It could turn out awfully pretentious, this. Hopefully, not so much.
I have travelled alone, of course I have, but mainly in my own car. Or on a train. Once I flew to Guernsey on my own, and once I caught a train from Philadelphia to New York on my lonesome, but my last trip (researching the book) was the longest time I had spent travelling as any version of my self that I wished to be; given that I had no other person around to conform to.
I slept alone, ate alone, drove alone. Found my way places alone and navigated cultural differences alone. From time to time my deafness intruded enough to affect my understanding of what was being said, which added to the isolation. This is not a bad thing, it just is. I began to wonder… who am I? What am I doing here? I was about four thousand miles from the children that have given my life its main meaning for a decade. I was in the middle of a great continent and could, in theory, walk from the North Pole to the South. I was a dot on the globe. Actually, not even a dot.
We reference ourselves by what we do, who we share our space with, who we talk to every day. When everything is new and different, we have lost our own index. We can thumb the familiar looking pages, either frantically or wearily, but nothing reads the same any more. I think that is how I came to feel most at home with a nonagenarian, in her cabin by the lake in the middle of nowhere, because any familiarity in my travelling life was in talking to her, a process I had begun a year ago from my own front room. The setting and circumstances were unusual, but the voices we used were the same, recognisable, a touchstone. The rest of the time I was, in terms of my own view of my self, in flux.
I don’t think it has all settled yet. In fact, I will be rather disappointed when, and if, it does.
I am always going somewhere in my head. In the future, it would be nice to match more of the internal wanderings with the physical reality of the same.
My own thoughts are not much. The purpose of the trip is to find out more about someone else’s life, long-since lived but still resonating with more than a few of us, fortunately.
As I consider my ream of printed paper needed for hotels, hostels, car hire and so on, I realise that when she travelled to America from her own home, she would have needed to pack too and buy a ticket. Beyond that, there would only be needed a fistful of dollars and one’s wits. Probably not even a passport.
I wonder how she would have felt: excited, nervous, full of trepidation or hope. Perhaps all of that and more. Those are the things I shall be thinking of tomorrow. Travelling alone is an interesting business, so I was grateful when Finky Wink sent me this poem today. It says it all, really.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann c.1920
Earlier this week the children and I hopped on the pink line from Paddington to Liverpool Street.
We passed easily through the station that was my nemesis in my twenties: Edgware Road.
I well remember repeatedly kicking the metal station sign there in a commuting frustration back in the day.
Nearly twenty years later the Hammersmith & City line looks as down-at-heel as I do. This is not helped, although also curiously enhanced, by taking shots with the no-flash rubbish camera on the Crapberry.
Taking photos of people feels intrusive but not so much when they are through the window, across the line and on the other platform. The Crapberry is so Crap that the potential shot that made my heart race was missed as a train rushed through in the opposite direction, obscuring my view at the crucial moment.
Where rubbish photos can’t go, the words step in. I prefer photos to words sometimes, but they can’t do everything.
Somewhere between Baker Street and Kings Cross a boy gets on with his family, fully in the grip of a panic attack caused by Mind the Gap. He takes a while to stop sobbing, his forehead leaning on his mother’s shoulder. The fear, becalmed, kicks in again as he realises he has to get off the train. His legs, quaking under his emotional overload, look incongruous in the whitest boxfresh trainers. His parents, who look old enough to be his grandparents, treat him with a mixture of sympathy (mother), studied indifference (father), embarassment (both). His mother gives the boy and his sister a Polo Mint each, to help. The sweets are as white as his trainers. His sister wears a hat and no attack of panic.
I cannot help but feel glad that the boy is not getting off at Bank. The gap there is both high and wide, probably because the platform is, unusually, curved. I would ask my grandpa why? if he were alive to ask. I think of the Central Line on the London Underground as his, although he was involved in the extension out further east, past South Woodford. I also think of the time that I nearly lost my youngest down the gap at Bank when she was much younger and smaller.
Yes, Bank is a fearsome station. The trains come roaring in there from the distance, the shiny but furious rails scream in advance of their arrival, the warm wind whooshes in your face.
I am glad that the boy is not going to Bank; riding the Central Line is inclined to make me cry.
For our own journey we have no Polo Mints, wear muddy boots and have no front to maintain. Better to ride the tube like that if you can. There must be many other passengers that want to sob and quake on the trains these days. Who can blame them?
For some reason I said this to one of my students this afternoon. The group on Wednesdays could not possibly devalue their street cred by actually lugging their own biro about with them. Fair enough, I understand entirely. When I was about their age – somewhere between 16-19 – I would not have been caught carrying anything that would not fit in a pocket. All money, make-up, whatever, had to fit in there and that was that. All this pre-dates mobiles of course.
Anyway, where they have no pen, I am required to dish them out weekly, one pen each. They always leave them behind too, for the same reason they never have one in the first place; so the only thing they are costing the tax-payer is a bit of ink, my time and the building overheads. The hope is, with the qualification they get, they will eventually end up tax-payers themselves and can subsidise the next generation of non-pen carrying students.
I have digressed. What I was going to say was that saying “One pen” reminded me of something. Then I remembered it is what the street kids often say to you in India when they are mobbing you for stuff. I told the students this and they thought it was funny. I suppose it is really. They can beg or borrow a biro any time they like; they are of little consequence. In India, like everything, they have value.
I ran out of the one pens I took quick enough when I went to India for the first time. It was in November 1998, a fact I would have not remembered if I had not recently found a travel diary I wrote. I do remember that I ended up doling out sweets too, in the absence of one pens. Once, in the desert state of Rajasthan, a kid pinched me hard on the arm for my trouble. I have always wondered why, but I can’t say I blame him.
Hand half way up my back this video clip has been frogmarched on to the blog by the virtual powers of the Devon Aunt.
Let’s hope it works or I will know no peace.
Thankfully the star, director and executive producer shouted cut before she got into the Chelsea chant she has invented.