Thursday 29 January 2009

Don't Talk About Politics Or Religion

I left work early today.  I had to be in Chester that afternoon, so I left work to catch the 13:20 shuttle from Crewe.  I was there hopelessly early as usual, so I simply buried myself in a book (Winkler, by Giles Coren, since you didn't ask).

I was aware that someone was stood beside me, using that peripheral don't-invade-my-personal-space-detector we all have, so I glanced to my right, and there was a skinny Asian man stood a couple of feet away.  Blue puffa jacket, jeans, mid-20s; nothing special.  He didn't even register as anything more than someone else waiting for the train.

Then my peripheral vision kicked off again, so I looked to the right.  My fellow passenger was on his knees, his shoes off his feet and placed neatly behind him, and he was praying.  He was staring at a metal column, and praying.

My immediate reaction was to smile.  It seemed charming somehow.  I'm a complete atheist, but I understand how religion plays a part in a lot of people's life, and I sort of admire it when people carry on worshipping without embarrassment or shame (this may be part of my whole religious fascination which reaches its apotheosis in my nun obsession).  So long as it keeps you happy, and you don't start condemning me or my friends or even people I don't know just because you don't like them, then I'm happy for you to carry on.  There's a definite pleasure in observing the rituals of the faithful.

So, the Muslim gentleman - having seen his prayer style, even I, with my little theological knowledge, could recognise him as a Muslim - was kneeling and praying as the train came in.

And this is where my second, shameful, horrible thought entered my head, one which I am embarrassed and horrified by, and yet one which I am for some reason sharing with the interweb.  I thought, is that a backpack?

Indeed, it was; a very small, blue backpack, which matched his coat.  And my third thought, as shameful as the second because it linked the two was, that's a bit worrying.

My liberal professions lay destroyed before me.  My whole idea of myself as a well rounded, Guardian reading, lefty-lefty loony friend to the diaspora lay in tatters.  I'd linked a devout Muslim man, a backpack, and public transport, and somehow I'd managed to contrive a horrific scenario out of it.  Because that's what my brain was doing.  

A load of other thoughts came rushing in afterwards - You dirty racist!  then Who would want to blow up this train anyway?  Hardly anyone even wants to ride it then  If I am maimed in a terrible explosion, will I be able to reschedule my appointment, do you think?

I boarded the train anyway, blushing furiously, hoping that my thoughts hadn't somehow been transmitted outside.  That wasn't who I wanted to be.  That's not who I am.  I am not the kind of person who normally leaps to those conclusions.  For some reason, this afternoon, I did.  Perhaps I can take comfort from the fact that I boarded the train anyway?  Probably not.  I can only cling pathetically to the words of Daniel Boys in Avenue Q: Everyone's a little bit racist sometimes/Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes.  

The story has a final twist.  I was still reading my book, when I became aware that we weren't moving.  Still.  The train was late, and with each ticking moment I became more and more anxious, because I had to be in Chester by two fifteen.  There weren't any announcements or apologies for the delay.  

Finally I put down Winkler and looked around me.  Including out of the window, behind.

Which is where I saw two policemen carefully taking every item out of the Asian man's backpack, and laying it on the platform.  Around them, a man in a suit was jabbering into a mobile phone, circling the three of them, while the hapless passenger had his hands folded in front of him, a politely resigned expression on his face.

I felt even more ashamed and embarrassed then.  The train took off, leaving the man and the police still picking through his bag, and I felt embarrassed for the man and his humiliation, embarrassed for the state we have somehow whipped ourselves up into, embarrassed that I - even momentarily - gave into the same paranoia and insanity.  I also felt ashamed that this probably wasn't the first time this had happened to him, ashamed for myself as a part of a society that seemed to think this sort of thing was ok.  

I wish I could put across my confused, outraged, deflated state at that point in a more articulate way.  I'm pretty annoyed by it, even now, eight hours later - both my pandering to that paranoia and that the police somehow became involved in it all.  I wish I had a great, soothing, inspiring way to finish this blog post to sum up my confused state, or some kind of theory or solution to the problem of terrorism.  But I don't.  I don't want to be blown up by terrorists, and I don't want men missing their train and being publicly humiliated because of who and when they worship.  I don't know how to reconcile the two.  I think I just wanted to get it out somehow, and perhaps I should leave it as confused as me. 

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Pea Souper

Capenhurst station, earlier this evening: icy fog turns the station into a place of mystery.  A path to the industrial park suddenly becomes dramatic and teasing.  I'm suddenly thinking Mr Tumnus' lamp post, rather than a rather dull municipal one. 

Sunday 18 January 2009

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Panic! Panic! Quick! Put the iPod in your ear before he arrives - it doesn't matter what you put on! Don't let him talk to you! Pretend you're busy/distracted/pig ignorant! Just try not to catch his eye!

"Hi. Sorry to bother you..."

Are there five more irritating words in the English language (apart from "Terry Christian returns to TV")? I cringe involuntarily everytime someone with a clipboard approaches, no matter how open and willing their face is. I am quite happy shopping, or getting some lunch, or going to work; I have my iPod and a copy of Moonraker. I don't want any extraneous human contact, thank you very much, so kindly take your survey and your clipboard and wander out of my peripheral vision.

(The Bf, incidentally, is the exact opposite, which is how we somehow ended up getting a Kays catalogue while holidaying on the Norfolk Broads).

On my train to work last week, the elderly gent handing out surveys conspicuously ignored my negative body language (consisting of rolling my eyes back into my head, forming a cruciform with my arms, and hissing violently) and pushed his survey into my hands anyway.

It was a survey entitled "Passenger Priorities VI: Merseyside". Other well known Part VIs include Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (excellent); Police Academy VI: City Under Siege (dreadful); and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (goat testes). This survey is more along the lines of Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood, in the sense you're not going to see anything surprising here, but there's still a nasty undercurrent.  Though admittedly there's not much Warwick Davies in it.

It was, in short, a customer satisfaction questionnaire, and I metaphorically licked my pencil and ploughed into it with glee.  The first few questions were simple enough - where are you going, what time was the train. 

Then it started on the preference section, and things got a bit sinister.  Here are some things that could be improved on this particular route.  There are a number of pairs and for each one please tick the improvement you would most like to see.

Now I should admit that I was a little bit drunk on power at this point.  In my head, the questionnaire was going to be rushed to Hatton Garden so that the bosses at Merseytravel could quake in fear at my amazing and utterly right opinions.  These questions though, were polarising, and I began to feel a bit anxious at my choices, because there was no option for "both".  I mean, which would you prefer, "Personal Security Whilst On Board The Train" or "Litter bins on the train"?  Well, actually, I'd like both, if you don't mind.  A cleanly scrubbed floor is no consolation when you're being clubbed to death by violent thugs.  Same goes for "Punctuality/reliability of the train" vs. "Being able to get a seat on the train" - how about a seat on a train that's on time?  I don't think I'm asking for the moon on a stick.

Worst of all was the presence of "Value for money for price of ticket".  It was a bit underhand, a sort of get out clause that meant they could disregard all my other preferences.  Flash forward to 2010, and rail bosses are justifying why there's no investment in the rail network, why passenger facilities are going down hill, and why the trains are all late: "Well, we was going to spend £100 billion pounds making everything utterly fabulous, but then Scott from Merseyside said he wanted value for money from his ticket.  We couldn't make everything fabulous without putting up ticket prices, so we just didn't bother.  Blame him when you're stuck on the platform at East Croydon in the pissing rain with no waiting room, no toilet and the train's three hours late."  

I started trying to second guess the form, trying to get ahead of the form, but damn those nefarious pollsters!  They twisted and turned and thwarted my plans.    

I haven't sent it off yet.  I will as soon as I've worked out exactly what sort of message I want to send to Network Rail, and besides, I've run out of Tippex...

Wednesday 14 January 2009

It's My Party, And I'll Tart If I Want To

Out into the sticks to collect railway stations as a birthday treat; you can't say I don't live life to the full. I'd planned on hitting a load of stations on my day off from work, taking advantage of the weekday timetable to shuttle me around. However, the Bf suddenly revealed that he'd managed to wangle a day off as well, and in a rare moment of selflessness, I decided that dragging him around various parts of suburban Liverpool was a bit cruel.

Instead I proposed a quick one two; knock off the last two stations on the Ormskirk line, the often overlooked (by me, anyway) Town Green and Aughton Park. It would be a simple enough trip, we'd get it out the way, then we could return to town for self indulgent treats.

The Bf had never been on this line before, so we positioned ourselves by the windows to watch the scenery roll by. Sandhills looks like it is almost complete, but there were still builders and scaffolding around, so there'll be a return visit another day. There was certainly no sign of its ALF - it had best be coming back, Merseyrail, or I'll be having words. I noticed that little signs had been put up at Orrell Park to let us know that the station had been adopted by volunteers; I've previously noticed how cheery and clean it was, so I'm glad the volunteers are getting some credit. And the Bf was ridiculously pleased by all the horses at Aintree.

We crossed the county line just past the Ashworth Maximum Security Hospital and plunged into Lancashire. This is faux-Lancashire, though, not the real, rugged, War of the Roses and mill town Lancashire. Maghull, Ormskirk, Skelmersdale - these towns are Liverpool satellites, no different to St Helens or Birkenhead, and the end of Merseyside here is a largely arbitrary line on a map. The main sign that you've left Scouseland behind is the sudden disappearance of the yellow and grey Merseytravel M from the station signs. Again, this is pretty arbitrary, because the stations are owned and run by Merseyrail.

Off at Town Green station, located on Town Green Lane in the Town Green district, just down the road from the Town Green pub and the Town Green Primary School. They're really imaginative in this part of the world. I'd been here before, with my friend Jennie, about twelve years ago. It had been one of those boring Sundays that crop up when you're a student with no money and the weather's grey, and somehow - I don't know why - we'd gone for a walk. Thinking back, I suspect that the decision to walk down the A59 was down to me subtly influencing her. Even then, I'd been curious about train stations, and I'm sure I probably psychologically bullied her into a wander down to Town Green so I could have a poke around. We walked here, then got a train back to Ormskirk, and that was it.

So basically, Town Green wasn't going to be a surprise, unless in the intervening decade it had been radically overhauled. It hadn't. There were still two little brick station buildings, a footbridge, and not a lot else. The only sign of the 21st Century were the next train indicators, which read Ormskirk on one platform and Liverpool Central on the other. All the time.

The other half's presence did, of course, mean that I didn't have to do a longarm shot up my nostril, and so Town Green's proof of attendance is a bit classier than normal. We wandered up and over the bridge, so I could check if there was still a police station in the other platform building. The signs were still there (except there were missing letters in the "Aughton" - I hope they were stolen), but it didn't seem to be open.

From there we trotted off in search of Aughton Park. You can get there quickly and easily by following the main road, but it was a mild morning, and we felt like making a bit of a walk of it, so we thrust out into the countryside. Ok, it wasn't exactly mounting the Brecon Beacons, but it was more rustic that Birkenhead.

The sky was churning above us, grey and black, then blue would suddenly burst into the mix. It was as though someone was stirring a pot of paint, mixing the colours to try and find the perfect blend. The sun could barely make an impression.

January strips the beauty out of everything. The trees that lined the road on our route were bare back in November, but they become depressing and dead in January. There's nothing to look forward to all of a sudden, no Christmas or New Year. It's always hard for me to rustle up a birthday "do", because everyone is bloated and down. Walking amongst bare brown fields and muddy paths, you start to realise why the country people made such a fuss about the blossoming of green in the spring.

This is a sort of roundabout, arty farty way of saying that the rural vistas didn't inspire me to rush off and write a sonnet. It never got properly rural, for a start. The road was always lined on at least one side by basic bungalows and villas with walls of glass: homes built for looking out of at the view, because from there you can't see the mean little pebble dashed houses. I wondered how much these exact same homes would get in a town, or a suburb, without the long sweep of fields and trees.

The greatest pleasure snuck up on us as we came round a corner - the sudden shock of a smell: burning coal fires. It's such a rich, throaty aroma, and so unbelievably evocative. For me it was more than just images of roaring fires and pokers and hearths - it was a full on scent memory, the smell of my grandparents' home in Hertford. We'd get out of the car and all of a sudden you'd be assaulted by the strong smell of coal smoke across the estate, and my brother and I would run down the garden into the little kitchen (tap-tap-tap on the brittle lino), and then into the living room, with its heavy iron fireplace and solid wooden dining table. We'd spend whole afternoons staring at the fire, and putting stuff on it to watch it burn (crisp packets were especially good: they shrivelled to a ball of polyurethane). Our biggest ambition was to get a Mission: Impossible-style fuse going from the fireplace down to the tiles around it, but sadly wisps of cotton found under the table have never been widely used in the world of explosives, and we'd watch them burn up and away into nothing. I'd only come away from the fire - my face gleaming and burning - when it was time for Sunday tea; usually sandwiches made with cold ham by my Granddad (who, like all grandparents, had his own distinct smell: his was loose tobacco). The bread of the sandwiches had a thick, thick crust, because he had sliced it himself, and I loved to crunch down on it with my baby teeth. Then we'd get back in the car and wave to Nanny and Granddad as we went back down the Hertingfordbury Road: they'd stand in the doorway and wave at us as we went past.

The house is gone now - it was demolished by the Council after they found they were prone to, well, collapsing - and my Nan's gone as well, though Granddad is bouncing around in sheltered accommodation in Ware (he gave up smoking years ago, and while it's wonderful for his health, he's not the same now he doesn't smell of Golden Virginia).

That all had nothing to do with train stations or the countryside, or anything to do with this blog really, but if you can't get nostalgic and a bit melancholy on your birthday, when can you? Indulge me.

Anyways, to rejoin our story, soon enough the Bf and I were encountering Aughton, and the suburbs were creeping in again. Ormskirk sort of yawns its way down the A59 towards Liverpool, stretching down and down towards the city. It dangles below the ring road, a pendulous length rolling into the countryside, and the railway bisects it in a plumb line straight shot. Stand on a bridge over the line and it drags off into the distance like a stretched rubber band.

Aughton Park is almost exactly halfway between Town Green and Ormskirk. It opened over a hundred years ago as Aughton Park Halt, and looking at it on the map, you can see the thought processes of the early railwaymen. "Right, we'll stick a railway line between here and here. There's a bridge there - we'll build a station in that spot and call it Town Green. And there's another bridge further up; stick a station there and we'll call it Aughton Park Halt. Job done." Looking at the buildings around the station, there's not much that looks very 1907 - it's mostly 50s and 60s bungalows, with some 70s maisonettes. It doesn't seem like there was much of a community to service back then.

Aughton Park's station building is just a hut as well. A little timber cube on the bridge, painted grey and yellow thanks to the Colour Tsars, perched high above the tracks. Aughton Park's buried deep in a cutting, with long steep ramps running down to the platform. There are signs warning you it can get slippery here, and I'm not surprised: the drop down is positively vertiginous. If the local area were more skateboarder than pensioner, this would be a hell of a ride; as it is it's probably responsible for a lot of broken hips and bruised ankles.

Something awful has happened here: either there's been a napalm attack on Lancashire and it's been hushed up, or someone's gone mad with a chainsaw. The trees hadn't just been cut back, they'd been hacked, sliced, and destroyed, and all that's left are stumps and twigs. I suppose it's one way of keeping the leaves off the line, but it seems a bit drastic: sort of like shooting your dog so you don't have to clean up after it.

This was the end of the line for me. Now the only remaining vestige of the Northern Line is its very top: the sandy coastal stations running into Southport (there's no way I'm going anywhere near there until spring). This is probably the strip of Merseyrail I've travelled most over the years, back and forth to various student homes in Ormskirk, then back again over the years for nostalgia trips, and I don't think I'll ever lose my affection for it.

The wind whistles into the cutting pretty badly. The lack of trees doesn't help. The train that arrived was toasty warm by comparison, and there were plenty of seats. We whizzed back into the city for a great lunch at the Bluecoat, and a poke around the galleries, and beer, but in a strange, secret way, this two station tart was probably the bit of the day I enjoyed most of all.

Monday 5 January 2009

Taking Stock

It's a new year, so I thought I'd do a quick round up of what's still left to be done. This was actually prompted by the Man from the Echo, who asked me during our chat how many stations I'd done, and how many I had left to do, and all I could do was burble, "Erm, I dunno." Plus I did a similar thing last year, which makes it practically a tradition.

Still to be tarted then:

Wirral Line: Bromborough Rake, Bromborough, Eastham Rake

Northern Line: Ainsdale, Hillside, Birkdale, Southport, Aughton Park, Town Green

City Line: Edge Hill, Wavertree Technology Park, Broad Green, Roby, Huyton, Prescot, Eccleston Park, Thatto Heath.

In the City Centre, on the loop, Liverpool Central is completely untouched, while the other three have technically been collected, but not to my satisfaction. The main entrance to James Street is untarted, though Water Street has been done; the Old Hall Street ticket hall for Moorfields is yet to be snapped; and Lime Street's underground (i.e. proper Merseyrail) station is separate from the main line station so that still needs to be "got".

I've also planned on revisiting Sandhills and Ormskirk, the first because it's being redeveloped so I want to see it in its full "glory", and Ormskirk, because I'm a sentimental old nance who wants a trip down memory lane.

I'm off work next Monday for my birthday (gifts are of course, extremely appreciated, though be aware that there is a fifty pound minimum) so I'll hit another couple then. Not sure which, though.

That's 23 coloured stations, anyway. But there are also a few other trips that I'm thinking of making, ones which are tangenital to my original mission statement, but which are still tempting. In fact, I did a botched attempt at one of them on Friday. The Bf and I walked to Bidston station with the aim of collecting the spine of the Borderlands Line which runs down the Wirral - Upton, Heswall, and Neston. Unfortunately, due to our dilly dallying (technical term) we missed the train by five minutes and couldn't be bothered hanging around on a freezing platform for an hour for the next train. So we went home and had a cup of tea.

It was an assault, however, on an area of the map that's technically outside my remit. The Borderlands Line should be nothing to do with me, really. But it's on the map; as a result, I feel just as tempted to collect it. In addition, there are various closed stations around the area which I'd like to visit, if only so I can say I've been to Crown Street or Knotty Ash and stared at the remains. And there are places marked out by Merseytravel as potential spots for future stations, which interests me, places like Town Meadow and Woodchurch.

I'd be interested to know if anyone could be bothered reading that though? Over the past 18 months I've built up a meagre, but none the less much appreciated readership, and I really do value any comments you leave. Does the idea of me writing about Euxton Balshaw Lane fill you with horror and dread? Or do you think it's a good idea to get the whole of the Merseyrail map? I'm in two minds, because after all, that will be more expense, more logistical difficulties (some of those stations are miles from anywhere, poorly served by trains, and are definitely not included on a Saveaway ticket), and it would mean I may have to visit Blackpool, which I am not keen on at all. But at the same time, the OCD is kicking in. So comment away below and let me know what you think, or, if you're the bashful type, send me a message at

This isn't The X-Factor though. It's more like the British Comedy Awards, when Catherine Tate was robbed of her award; I absolutely reserve the right to ignore your votes if I don't agree with them. Just so you know.