For my October re-reading it was the turn of 1986, and out of what I read that year I selected a book I’ve dipped into a few times in the intervening years. That’s because Notes from Overground by the pseudonymous “Tiresias” is a dippable kind of book: fragmentary, reflective, sometimes quite funny. The subtitle “A Commuter’s Notebook” makes it clear what the subject matter is – and it’s spelled out on page 12: “These notes, to be explicit, concern daily commuting on what is at present known as Western Region, between Oxford and Paddington.”
I was myself commuting daily in 1986, albeit for a shorter distance, from Chingford to W1, via (usually) the Victoria Line, so Notes, published only two years earlier, was a book that I must have felt had something to say about my own life. (The copy that I first read isn’t the copy I have now, which was acquired later when it was, as the official stamp puts it, WITHDRAWN FOR SALE by Waltham Forest Libraries.)
What makes it worth reading? First, it’s an idiosyncratic view of the everyday experience of travelling by train. It’s also, I notice particularly on re-reading, full of despair, anger and sadness – but somehow expressed cheerfully. Here, for instance, is one of 38 “anti-kontakions” scattered through the book’s 200 pages:
A curse on the train. Defecating freak. Micturating mastodon. Incontinent container. Untrained train. Fouler of its own fairway. Polluter. Contaminator. Commuter-exterminator. Anathema sit.
At other times Notes is simply a delightful compendium of observations:
Paddington Station. Along the route stations are anxious to declare their identity. Strings of signs on lamp-posts tell us: Reading Reading Reading … But here you can with difficulty find any indication you have arrived at Paddington, and no indication whatsoever that you reached London. …
Sometimes a goods train passes, wheels dripping sparks, like a horse splashing through sunlit water. …
On a red mini-tractor at Didcot and on certain wagons: For Use On Brute Circuit Only. Revelation dawned one morning at Oxford where a chalked notice: Danger, Keep Away, Do Not Move These Brutes, was propped … beside three or four trolleys which were supporting a broken fence. So Brute, disappointingly, equals something like British Rail Utility Trolley. …
Chalk cuttings like scenery from a spaghetti Western. On brink, against blue sky, black and white cat seems an outlaw watching our stagecoach pass. …
Observant he certainly is – in fact he objects to reading or writing much on the train because “one misses things. One does not buy a ticket for the theatre and read a book or write letters throughout the show.” What he calls “the entertainment provided” – fellow passengers and passing views – “frequently surpasses that to be seen on the stage, let alone in-flight movies”. Yet I re-read much of Notes from Overground on a train, from Cardiff to London, which after Didcot followed the same tracks as Tiresias’s and confess I was making notes for this blog rather than looking for what was different from the 1980s – how many, for instance, survived of the 15 “trackside industries” he noted.
Yes, the sadly out-of-print Notes has an extra appeal now, as a report from the distant pre-rail-privatisation, and pre-mobile-phone, era of over 30 years ago. Carriages with compartments! Buffet cars! Newspapers! Overheard conversations where both parties are visible! (Although there’s a presage of what was to come when the author records travelling “in a full compartment where a man sat in a corner unconcernedly using a Dictaphone as he went through his correspondence”.) Then there’s a reference to “the great new road to the west” near Paddington (i.e. the now ageing Westway); and Didcot is just Didcot – not Didcot Parkway. When did that unnecessary suffix start being appended to station names?
Interestingly it’s also a book that wonders, reflexively, what it is. “Have begun this notebook as occupational therapy” we read on the first page; later, Tiresias calls his book “a disjointed medium for a disjointed existence. Deliberate but not planned.” The genre, he decides, is that of Premeditated Notebook, and the best example he can think of is The Unquiet Grave by “Palinurus” (pseudonym of Cyril Connolly). It contains “whatever turns up in the sidings of my mind” and is “locomotion recollected in immobility”. And on the last-but-one page: “It has developed like a tumour, this long disease my book. Now must pluck up courage to ask the medical wallahs whether malignant or benign.” Benign, I’d say.
One small unanswered question: if this is a book about the whole commuting experience, what happened after the author reached Paddington? Unless he had an office near the terminus or took a bus, he would have trudged through that narrow corridor to the Circle Line or down the escalator to the Bakerloo to finish his journey. Concerning that part of his commute he is silent.
As for the pseudonymous author, “Tiresias” is not much of a disguise, as we know his real name from the line “©Roger Green 1984” after the title page. If you look him up on the web via a search engine – I recommend DuckDuckGo if you want to avoid Google – you’ll find that after giving up commuting Green moved to Greece, and lived (still lives?) on the island of Hydra, where he wrote Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen and is the author of several volumes of poetry.
Coincidentally in October my other reading included John Berger’s and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (also fragmentary, and also published in 1984), where this passage occurs:
Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams? … Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted. … The railway station – whatever the extravagances of its “decorative” architecture – remained stark. And it remained so because it was a site of arrival and departure, where there was nothing to muffle the significance of those two events. Coming and going. Meeting and parting.
OK, Berger is a great writer, but he is rather prone to the portentous over-generalisation, I feel, as in his evocation of an “ancient sense of destiny”. If we’re going to have generalisations, I think I prefer this, by Patrick McGuinness in a recent London Review of Books:
To be sure, trains and stations represent escape, travel and bohemia; to others, drudgery, offices, the rut of life and a particular sort of existential stasis that we only notice, paradoxically, because we’re moving – though only a little. That movement helps us sense our stasis better, in the same way that we’ll admit a bit of sadness into a happy moment because it helps us to tune the happiness we feel and feel it even more.
Also read in October: Outline by Rachel Cusk (disappointing, after all the praise I’ve read); Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (really good); and Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, another important book from Germany.