The majority of planes are grounded and the sight of a contrail ribboning the sky (I’ve always thought them beautiful) has become noteworthy. I turned my car engine over yesterday and revved it; car-physio, is what I’m calling this monthly, one-minute resuscitation. I’m not sure it will make any difference, it’s probably as effective as trying to touch one’s toes after a month in bed. There’s still the odd bus on the street with a few more people on board than last month, and each time I walk under an East Coast Train, through the tunnel on my way into Holyrood Park, I try to see if I can spot people in any of the carriages. Trains, planes and automobiles are notably scarce these days; they’ve been replaced by dog walkers, cyclists and pram pushers.
I tell myself this is a good thing and I search for the silver linings – pollution reduction, there’s one. Occasionally the gilding of good catches the light and I appreciate the benefits of lockdown: the quietude, the stillness, the staying put. But often I just want to close my eyes and go. I want to take to the sky, board a train, hit the highway. Forget the destination (and I have many in mind), all I want right now is the simple feeling of anticipation that comes with setting off, the freedom of being in transit, the joy of escaping. Just for now, the final destination, the who and what is at the other end, is secondary. For now, I desperately want to feel the unrestricted suspension of being en route. I want to travel alone and feel the surge of adrenalin that comes with not being anywhere, with finding myself in a state of ‘between’ where I need nothing, and nothing is needed of me. I want to watch and notice and feel. So, I do it: I close my eyes and go, retracing journeys from my past.
I am driving alone, up through Leitrim towards the Fermanagh border and the hedgerows are eating into the road in their fullness. It is June and I have never felt happier, and I know it. I am alone, and I wish I could press time’s stop button. Now I’m on a slow night bus from Prague to Paris unable to sleep, picking out unfamiliar shapes in the darkness and reading a sign that says ‘Metz’ emerge from in the early morning light. I’m on a train two miles north of York and the River Ouse has broken its banks and spreads over the land like a leaking washing colonising the kitchen floor. Two small deer pick their way through a high dry ridge and into a birch copse. Now it is January and I’m on a wildly tipping Belfast to Liverpool ferry, dancing the waves of a New Year storm (was she Anne or Annie?) Goodbye to the lough shore, farewell to the hulk of Carrickfergus Castle, so long to the flashing beacon of Blackhead. By the time I see the Copeland Islands, it is time to settle into my berth. I’m driving through East Lothian on the coast road in December in clean winter light. I’m counting watchful buzzards resting on gateposts and bare sycamores. I’m on a night flight from Newfoundland to Dublin watching the sun rise over the Mayo coast while around me, strangers sleep through the heart expanding bloom of orange filtering through the blackened, navy sky. I’m suspended in the moment. I am infinite. I’m expanding beyond my flesh. I’m on a train dissecting Ireland, on my way to Limerick, and skipping through the Tipperary countryside. A hare in a stubbled spring field rises high on hind legs breaking its haste, while we hasten west to complete essential, important, and what I now know to have been completely dispensable tasks. Such moments are set deep into my soul, they are unforgettable and sustaining, they will not be repeated.
Please indulge me, because I wish to share a much longer poem today. I thought of abridging it until the voice of Philip Larkin’s ghost echoed in my head, ‘don’t you dare!’ Also, I figure we all have time for a longer read these days, and who better to talk you through the view from his train as it travels through England than the master of feeling and observation. Here’s to our future travels, and to paying attention.
The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.