Sunday, January 26, 2014

Notes from a Small Island

The following is my favourite extract from my favourite book, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. As one who is lucky enough to be afflicted by a degree of "trainspotter's disease" (and yes, I have the t-shirt) - 

Over a long period of time it gradually dawned on me that the sort of person who will talk to you on a train is almost by definition the sort of person you don’t want to talk to on a train, so these days I mostly keep to myself and rely for conversational entertainment on books by more loquacious types like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux.

So there is a certain neat irony that as I was sitting there minding my own business some guy in a rustling anorak came by, spied the book, and cried, ‘Aha, that Thoreau chap!’ I looked up to find him taking a perch on the seat opposite me. He looked to be in his early sixties, with a shock of white hair and festive, lushly overgrown eyebrows that rose in pinnacles, like the tips of whipped meringue. They looked as if someone had been lifting him up by grabbing hold of them. ‘Doesn’t know his trains, you know,’ he said.

‘Sorry?’ I answered warily.

‘Thoreau.’ He nodded at my book. ‘Doesn’t know his trains at all. Or if he does he keeps it to himself.’ He laughed heartily at this and enjoyed it so much that he said it again and then sat with his hands on his knees and smiling as if trying to remember the last time he and I had had this much fun together.

I gave an economical nod of acknowledgement for his quip and returned my attention to my book in a gesture that I hoped he would correctly interpret as an invitation to fuck off. Instead, he reached across and pulled the book down with a crooked finger – an action I find deeply annoying at the best of times. ‘Do you know that book of his – Great Railway what’s-it? All across Asia. You know the one?’

I nodded.

‘Do you know that in that book he goes from Lahore to Islamabad on the Delhi Express and never once mentions the make of engine.’

I could see that I was expected to comment, so I said, ‘Oh?’

‘Never mentioned it. Can you imagine that? What use is a railway book if you don’t talk about the engines.’

‘You like trains then?’ I said and immediately wished I hadn’t.

The next thing I knew, the book was on my lap and I was listening to the world’s most boring man. I didn’t actually much listen to what he said. I found myself riveted by his soaring eyebrows and by the discovery that he had an equally rich crop of nose hairs. He seemed to have bathed them in Miracle-Gro. He wasn’t just a train-spotter, but a train-talker, a far more dangerous condition.

‘Now this train,’ he was saying, ‘is a Metro-Cammell self-sealed unit built at the Swindon works, at a guess I’d say between July 1986 and August, or at the very latest September, of ’88. At first I thought it couldn’t be a Swindon 86-88 because of the cross-stitching on the seatbacks, but then I noticed the dimpled rivets on the side panels, and I thought to myself, I thought, What we have here, Cyril my old son, is a hybrid. There aren’t many certainties in this world but Metro-Cammell dimpled rivets never lie. So where’s your home?’

It took me a moment to realize that I’d been asked a question. ‘Uh, Skipton,’ I said, only half lying.

‘You’ll have Crosse & Blackwell cross-cambers up there,’ he said or something similarly meaningless to me. ‘Now me, I live in Upton-on-Severn-’

‘The Severn bore,’ I said reflexively, but he missed my meaning.

‘That’s right, runs right past the house.’ He looked at me with a hint of annoyance, as if I were trying to distract him from his principal thesis. ‘Now down there we have Z-46 Zanussi spin cycles with Abbott & Costello horizontal thrusters. You can always tell a Z-46 because they go patoosh-patoosh over seamed points rather than katoink-katoink. It’s a dead giveaway every time. I bet you didn’t know that.’

I ended up feeling sorry for him. His wife had died two years before – suicide, I would guess – and he had devoted himself since then to travelling the rail lines of Britain, counting rivets, noting breastplate numbers and doing whatever else it is these poor people do to pass the time until God takes them away to a merciful death. I had recently read a newspaper article in which it was reported that a speaker at the British Psychological Society had described train-spotting as a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome.

He got off at Prestatyn – something to do with a Faggots & Gravy 12-ton blender tender that was rumoured to be coming through in the morning – and I waved to him from the window as the train pulled out, then luxuriated in the sudden peace. I listened to the train rushing over the tracks – it sounded to me like it was saying asperger’s syndrome asperger’s syndrome – and passed the last forty minutes to Llandudno idly counting rivets.

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