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travel writing

Over the last year the travel section has published tales of holidays and tips for trips. Fittingly for the final issue of this academic year, we go on a journey to find home. Patrick Davidson details his route from London to the north by train.

EAST-COAST MAINLINE #1

Going from King’s Cross and it’s like The Last of England, the trains should let you look back at the station. Me, I twist round, but it takes hours. Travelling backwards by Patrick Davidson gives the sense of passing, not approaching, and there’s something in that; going home, or going back up the line for a bit. Doing the north-bound at eight in the morning, doing it springtime, just before Easter. There’s a return for you, there’s your passover; going back north for a long weekend. Passing Peterborough I swap my seats, from facing forwards to backwards, back towards the destination. Doing this at springtime you see the colours better. But I’d never, until this year, seen the colour of soil, the way the soil near Doncaster caught my eye that morning. A corporeal red, like flakes falling off a scab gathered under grass. Turned up and out to the sun they’ve got the noticeable about them. Something biological is going on with that soil, and I’ll get the sequel in summer, and the comeback shots at Christmas. When you get the train back this way, the biological is startling, just for a second, its got the wide edge of the window to frame it, and something’s always changed from the last time you went north. Forget a transcontinental flight; the east-coast mainline plays with your watch. Twenty years back, if you’re getting off in Edinburgh. Ten if you’re climbing out at York or Newark Northgate. Ten years, somehow ahead, when going to Newcastle, but set in such away that it’s retro-ing the present. Newcastle’s always up to date, but already seeming sick of it. Me, I get off at Durham. Goes back to a time before watches, so I wear mine as a novelty. I go to the pub at half-past two. We watch television from eleven pm. Durham keeps its own time. Coming up to York, though, I turn to stare at the bin. I fucked up my life in York, for two years, threw it away. Did you know Queen Victoria would draw the train’s curtains when it passed through Newcastle? She made it into a city, signed the papers at least, but don’t ask her to look at the place, don’t ask that far. I get that with York, five years on, I’m still scrutinising bins, feet, luggage racks as station and Minster and Ouse run by. Which reminds me. Near Doncaster, there’re dykes by the rivers, that jut like the Hall of the Mountain King, and again show that earth, that corporeal soil. Imagine the barrows as coffintrucks and this could be Oswecim, but no imagination can render that soil horrible, makes me smile to think of it.

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TRAVEL WRITING Every now and then, when the trains suck each other towards themselves, then pass, then move on down the line; every now and then I get the wonder of rail travel. It’s in that tightpacked air between the trains that lean towards each other, an air delivered as terrifying, in outer space or fathoms down. But not between the trains, because the rocking of the carriages gives you something different. I get these moments of Ariel dancing in that air, silver-limbed and graceful, then thrown out and around the countryside as the trains part and the air explodes. Rising in your seat for a second, and looking past the junk yards, the dry stone walls and sewage tanks, there’s a moment of a Sprite winging off the track. That can make the moments feel like trains don’t take so long. Even when you get out at Durham and notice three hours have gone. Past Darlington and there’s less than twenty minutes to go. You’ve been sitting there, not saying much, for two hundred miles or so. If I go on about the red soil, you stress and worry about soil sown with salt by Norman kings and Scottish tribes. If you lash out about Miners dropping concrete blocks off motorway bridges, I kick off about southern police bussed north to do what local cops would not. We aren’t getting anywhere past sheep or farms, a thousand Tescos past and we’re still going round and round about Thatcher and Lilburne, or Miliband constituencies. Trains can change a lot, but I never feel it changes if you start arguing at departure, and keep that fight alive through the bending of air and the firing of speed, and really bad coffee in badly made cups. Opinions are all about stasis, but then so are the seats we’re in. And thereby lies the problem when travelling by rail: you sit in this mockery of stillness, while the world outside does flux like nothing’s done flux before. Having an argument on a train only makes sense if the speed of the words match the speed of the train, and you, my love, aren’t up to that. Nor am I, equality demands I admit it, nor am I. Let’s have another look out the window. This is Langley Moor. It’s on the outskirts of Durham, one of the old pit towns. Nicely redeveloped, and the place I was beaten unconscious when I was sixteen, ostentatious, gay. There’s a pipeline, there, held up on struts that goes into the hill, and I’ve never found the other side – not in the years I spent looking for it. Out onto the viaduct and we’re coming into Durham. A hundred or so feet up, coming into Durham. And if the journey’s worth taking at all, it’s for the viaduct and its view, lasting eighteen seconds, but people die in less than that. It isn’t home any more. I think I already knew, or maybe you could have told me. The journey gets me twisting round, caught in the jet-stream between the trains, and turning a little more, until the stop at my station. And I know each time that if the view is a little more wonderful each time, then it’s a little less familiar, and a little less like home. Would sir care to take on a different tongue – that’s travelling up north. Because my words are sounding different, and my vowels have harder edges. Time was that the change wasn’t noticeable. These days, though, it all happens at once, when stepping onto the platform I turn back into a Local, so aware that I’m not, no, not one now.

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Issue 06 - Travel Writing