Outsourced Eyes

At this hour,
Beneath the stony rictus gaze
Of Mr. Stephenson, the founder here,
This station approach –
Euston’s grand lobby –
Is laid bare with concrete carpet tiles,
Gauzy vanes and barbs
Of jettisoned pigeon feathers
Trod in chuddy,
Fuchsia pink fag butts –
Is all a furore; the hurly-burly
Of bodily momentum –
A haphazard helter skelter
Randomly rushing to toil;
Skittering, zag-ziggingness
Thither, hither, hubbub
Close-calls, near misses
Auto-pilot adjustments
Avoiding gazes, muttered pardons
Wide-loads, pushed out elbows
Dropped shoulders, in mock attack
Shibuya Crossing;
Times Square;
Oxford Circus;
Purposed busyness.

One set of eyes is blind to it all;
Feeling only, the light brushing
Of arm against coat;
Feeling only, the soft nudge
Of meaningless apologies;
Feeling only, the paper cut edges
Of leaves in the wind on dry skin –
Arm outstretched,
Outsourced eyes steer him
Surely, truly, forward –
A bollard missed;
A tourist’s brolly, evaded;
Unfalteringly forward –
With calm, with trust,
Doggedly forward –
Towards the bright light
Of the rising sun over the city,
And a thousand scents, ignored.

The 7:53

It always seems to be the 7:53
That pauses, downs tools, at Rugby
Along one spur in that early morning sun
Lies Long Buckby, Places Unmentionable, Northampton
But I wait on the carriage with my fellow cattle
Crammed in, stacked up, unable to settle
For all stations to Milton Keynes
Kings Langley, or change for Apsley Guise
And what a hive of buzzing insanity
This longitudinal world, rich with humanity
A cross section of all walks of life
Blazered school kids, striped business-men, portly wives
One old chap, short sighted, I’d wager
Reads the column inches of the sports pages
Right up close, with his half-moons perched on his for’ead
And his armpits humming like a spluttering moped
Two ladies, more girls really
Swap make up tips; though the hour is early
Blink on eye liner, duskiness and kohl
Even through Stephenson’s 3 mile smoke hole
And despite the carriage yawing, despite the crush
Lipstick’s applied with a badger-hair brush
Mr Noisy, puts the world to rights
Preaching to the unconverted in the barely light
Works in Westminster for an NGO
But his opinions are those of my morning Metro
I pity the bloke who reads the script
For the buffet car, disengaged, slightly miffed
Or is it just his Mancunian tones
Spoken through a nose, all hair, snot and bone
A selection of bacon rolls, croy-sants, hot drinks
Cash only please, our machine’s on the blink

Good Morning, Robert.

“Good Morning, Robert”

June 2012

Most days I have a long commute: 2 hours, door to door. Fortunately, this is on our oft-derided railways so I get the chance to work, read, watch a movie or simply think – a real luxury in life. It’s true that our railways are expensive, particularly during the peak time window of 6am to 5.59am, yet despite this I still find travelling on trains retains the element of grandeur, of romance that you don’t get behind the wheel. There’s no logic to this: you are separated from the outside just as much, both are, if you stop and consider it,  engineering wonders and both do a reasonable job of whisking you from A to B.

I mulled on this conundrum on my way home one Friday. My journey is from London’s Euston station up the west coast main line to Lichfield. I have got myself into a pleasant but costly routine of a post work latte and as I lifted up the lid, gently blowing on the froth to cool it whilst absent-mindedly shoo’ing pigeons out of the way with my leg, I glanced up to witness the answer – or at least the root of the answer.

‘Robert Stephenson, Civil Engineer. 1803 – 1859’

I remember being fascinated by railways when I was young boy, not as spotter, but rather in the engineering. The fact that motion could be produced from wood, iron, coal, water. The noise and the speed. Brought up near Crewe, my Dad an engineer himself, I learnt about that area’s engineering heritage and through a process of temporal osmosis, about the huge LMS engines that sped down the line at the end of Oak Street on the way to the north or the capital in a blaze of claret. Yet it wasn’t just the engines, it was the routes themselves – huge cuttings, lofty embankments, soaring bridges and the fascination that the rail I was looking at stretched without stopping 300 miles in one direction and 200 miles in the other. Evenly spaced and level all the way, someone had put it there. In fact, Robert was one of the people who put it there. And now he had snow on his head.

Robert had cropped up in my life before. He had built the Rocket for the Rainhill trials on the Liverpool to Manchester railway essentially through a bog. He built incredible bridges over the Menai Strait and the river in Conwy where we used to go for weekends away when I was growing up. And he was a Geordie so I was pleased that a northerner had done all this even though, at that point in my life I had never really crossed the Pennines.   Later, I read LTC Rolt’s biography and realised that Stephenson was one of the greatest Victorian civil engineers – which if you consider the competition, was no mean feat. He had worked on gold mines in Columbia, surveyed for the Suez Canal and contributed towards the development of railways on continental Europe. And all this before his early death at 56.

Few realise the first engineering challenge as trains leave Euston today. It’s actually quite a climb – take the Northern Line to Chalk Farm, and then walk back and you’ll see what I mean. This meant two things – first of all an incline, and then a tunnel. Virgin’s Pendolino trains today are already approaching 125mph and beginning to tilt at this point but Robert had to design a separate pumping house and chains to give the under-powered engines a gentle hand. I understand the pumping house is still there and houses an arts centre which seems a pretty good analogy for industry in Britain today. Then the tunnel under Primrose Hill – this task was apparently so difficult that Robert must have considered dynamiting the whole lot and having done with it. Instead he painstakingly dropped vertical shafts to allow him to connect the various pilot tunnels and overcome the obstacle without impacting on house prices for London’s hipster creative set.

This task out of the way, the route speeds northwest through the Home Counties: Berkhamsted, Tring, Leighton Buzzard, Wolverton, MK… all in quick succession. Even on the slow trains you are Rugby in an hour. On a line first built in the 1830s. If all runs to plan, I’m climbing off the train 116 miles from Euston in 1 hour and 9 minutes. I’m not sure Robert would have imagined that travel of such speed and frequency would make commuting into London to work from the north Midlands something possible, and goodness knows what he would have made of the idea of trains travelling at 225mph but it does seem to me worthwhile contemplating the marvel of our railways today. This I think is what accounts for the difference of feeling when you travel this way. You leave from a station – often a grand one, you get an elevated view of the countryside around you and most days, in most weathers, you make it in quick time. For me it’s more than this. It’s the sense that your journey is so much more than this train on this day. It’s using the tracks, the vision, the sweat of those from generations before us.

That’s why, every morning I doff my metaphorical hat and say, “Good Morning, Robert”. We shouldn’t forget the contribution to our lives today of men such as him.

© Morning Mister Magpie, 2012