Monday, 14 October 2013

Trains & dreams & battles

A few nights ago I dreamt I was being stalked by a horse ... Sexual unfulfilment, according to Dr Jung, I’m told, but he probably said that about everything: rabbits, teacakes, you name it. I can’t prove him wrong.

Last night, after reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, I had a train dream. I and my dead friend Alan, despite actually living on the station, missed the direct train from Africa to Scarborough and had to hang around for the 17.11 to Birmingham – which arrived at the opposite platform, so we had to scramble over the tracks and then somehow up a very steep hill, me carrying four suitcases because I’d somehow thought I still had plenty of time to pack properly. This was actually a repeat of a dream I’d had before, though on the previous occasion it had gone on longer: a crammed train to Birmingham, standing room only, then hanging around for the Scarborough connection, though once we were on that train the countryside was beautiful.

One of the very few stories I have of my father (who died 57 years ago): too early for his train from Leeds to Glasgow, he boarded the wrong train and found himself in Sheffield.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is wonderful: the life, in parts, of a man who in the early 20th century works in the woods, felling trees for the expansion of the railway; who loses his wife and child in a forest fire; who howls with the wolves; who dies in his sleep in his cabin in the 1960s; told in 128 pages. For me, his The Name of the World is even better: set in present-day academia, this also centres on a man living through his grief for his dead wife and child, and is also around 128 pages long. Granier in Train Dreams is an uneducated man; Mike in The Name of the World teaches in a university, and has also worked as a speech-writer in Washington – he is, that’s to say, part of the grown-up world for whom talk about dreams is tedious. He says as much: ‘I think to recount your dreams is to bore the entire world, and I don’t normally even trouble myself to recollect mine.’ And then he does proceed to recount a dream, one in which ‘My shame was like a child’s’ and from which ‘I woke up sweating and chilled with panic.’ There are not-quite dreams throughout (‘Everything occurred despite its complete impossibility’). The final paragraph, in which he tells of flying in the Gulf War ‘above blazing tank battles in the desert in the night, through black smoke overclouding a world pocked by burning wells like flickering signals of distress, of helplessness’, is both dream and not-dream.

The photos above and below were taken from a train last week up to Edinburgh, my longest train journey for years, on the stretch just south and north of the border where the track runs along the coast. I came back on the night train: sleeping when the train was moving, waking every time it jolted to a stop. I went up for J. O. Morgan reading with Ishbel McFarlane from his new CBe book, At Maldon, and Nell Nelson from HappenStance was there too and I will here shamelessly and gratuitously direct you to her blog, because she liked what she heard: ‘Their style was restrained, their voices hardly raised – and yet the drama of the thing was palpable. They were telling a great story, and creating that hush of expectation only true storytellers can evoke. Battles? It didn’t matter what the topic was, I would have listened.’ And she liked what she read, on the way home (on a train): ‘This is a glorious piece of writing.’ She researched the original Anglo-Saxon poem, and ‘it took me a while to work out how all this fitted together’, not least because there are two characters named Godric. She felt that perhaps this was key: ‘Some say Godric fled. Some say he fought to the death. Maybe there are always two Godrics. There was fighting, there was valour and stupidity and pragmatism and grace and blood. There was, and is, a terrific story here, fabulously well told.’

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