Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Railway Stations

I'm fiddling with the end of the chapter on Caught now. My supervisor's response to it was reassuringly positive so I'm trying to give it a meaty conclusion, while also trying to figure out how to trim it down for publication. On that note, there may be some exciting news in that field soon: as the semi-secretive blogger's cliche runs, watch this space. I've also been winding up the term's teaching, which (anti) climaxes tomorrow with a revision session which I have little doubt will be attended by the sum total of absolutely nobody.

Concurrently, I've been throwing myself into the chapter on Green's Party Going (1939). A brief summary:

It's sometime in the late 1930s, and war looms ominously upon the horizon. Max Adey, a wealthy playboy, has invited a number of his social set to travel to the south of France for a long vacation. The party are to assemble at London Victoria station, from where they will catch the boat-train for the continent. Unfortunately, as they begin to congregate a thick fog falls upon London, immobilising all transport out of the city. As the station becomes dangerously crowded with commuters, the station officials decide to barricade the entrances, effectively meaning that no-one (with a few unexplained exceptions) can enter or leave. Initially, this does not trouble Max who is flush enough to take a couple of suites at the station hotel in which he and his (increasingly charmless) friends can relax, drink and play cruel pranks upon one another. This unfolds against the backdrop of three hermeneutically challenging sub-narratives. Firstly, the oldest member of the party (who has only turned up to say goodbye) has been taken ill, ostensibly as a result of a dead pigeon she picked up, without good reason, upon arrival at Victoria. The second concerns the party's malicious gossip about a mysterious character called "Embassy Richard", who has developed an unwelcome habit of gatecrashing society parties. Thirdly, an unidentified man who speaks in a range of regional accents has attached himself to the party: they believe he is a detective of some description. The waiting rolls on through a variety of permutations until it is interrupted by the slightly inexplicable arrival of one of Max's paramours, a vaguely obnoxious model. The older lady recovers, Embassy Richard arrives to stake a place on the trip, and the fog begins to lift.

Well, that's as brief as I can do. It probably doesn't emerge from this description, but Party Going is as close as the pre-war English novel comes to the unfixable pseudo-allegories of Kafka that I think Deleuze and Guattari describe in Towards a Minor Literature. That, nevertheless, is a version of Kafka that's been filtered through a lens that is one-part Evelyn Waugh, one-part Agatha Christie. There's touches of Joyce, Baudelaire, Pirandello, Swift, Blanchot and even Zola in there for good measure, though I'm primarily reading it as an allegory that, contrary to the habit of Green's far-travelling contemporaries such as Waugh, Robert Byron and Cyril Connolly, steadfastly refuses to go anywhere, least of all towards its exegesis.

That said, it's still a novel in which things happen in a nominally real-life environment, so I've been thinking rather a lot about train stations lately. I don't drive, and I'm not enormously keen on flying, so I'm rather familiar with them. Here's a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order:

Lisbon Santa Apollonia

This night still be Lisbon's international terminus, as it was last time I was in that ever-so-strange city (see John Berger's last collection of short stories for an idea about what it's like there). This is great, because you expect an international terminus to be like Waterloo, a kind of Hollywood vision of shiny post-iron curtain Europe, and instead you get something that looks like a house in which a young Eva Peron may have lived.

Florence Santa Maria Novella

Continuing the slightly tasteless dictatorial theme, SMN couldn't be more different: it's all Italian modernism with a Viennese twist (thanks, Wikipedia). The building is far more palatable than the builders, in this case, with an ersatz-seeming marbled concourse which gives one the impression of being in a Star Trek set designed by Fritz Lang.

Budapest Nyugati

Really low platforms add 1 point onto any station's quota, and they have these at the evocatively named Nyugati. It's stock-footage central European- I know I'm overworking the cliches here, but one expects Harry Lime to turn up at any moment- and they sell cheap pizzas on the platform. Take that, Whistlestop Food & Wine! All of this pales into insignificance when you look at the Kraftwerkian temptations offered by the departure board: Bucharest, Kiev, Moscow, Venice, Belgrade, Lausanne. You couldn't feel any more like a citizen of Europe than in a place like this.

Edinburgh Waverley

Slightly more prosaic, I guess, but I always associate this one with trips to the zoo when I was a kid. For some reason, I equate it with those teal-coloured 125s from what James Murphy calls "the unremembered 80s".

Darlington North Road

My home town isn't really what you'd call an extravagant place. In the town's west end, with a population I would conservatively estimate at 8-9,000, there isn't a single pub because Quakers paid for all the houses to be built. Darlington makes Norwich look like Barcelona during Sonar. That said, the town is ostentatious enough to have two stations- well, it is the birthplace of the railways, as the up-against-it tourist board never tire of telling everyone- and the smaller of them has a little museum attached. Now, you know that feeling when you're a kid and you can't imagine how happy anyone would be to live next to a station/ football ground/ adventure playground and when someone actually does it feels a little uncanny? I had two separate family members that lived dead near this place, so this place is tinged with magic. The kind of magic that can come only by being dwarfed by one of the biggest B&Qs you're ever likely to clap eyes on.

Paris Gare d'Austerlitz

Loads of underground tunnels painted green that are virtually impossible to escape from give this station an exciting atmosphere akin to being in a horrible nightmare. Normally, when you awake from a horrible nightmare your alarm is ringing and you've got to go and do something unpleasant but essential. At Gare d'Austerlitz, you emerge from the dream to find yourself on the all-night party train to Spain.

That's quite enough favourite stations for now, I think. I should perhaps add that Peterborough is my least favourite station on the planet, because I spend half my life there and seems to be permanently inhabited by goth teenagers and psychos. Interestingly, in the time it's taken me to write this blog, Roman Abramovich has almost certainly finalised the terms of Jose Mourinho's p45...


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