Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Gunners Barracks

From the shelter of the terrace, I see a lizard. A thin sliver of a creature, he darts along the stone wall in stop-motion, basks in the sunlight, than darts along further.

I focus on the scene behind him, behind the wall: open water, yet land to my left, land to my right and land ahead. I am looking from the north to the south of an enormous harbour, with all its headlands and peninsulae; ferries, yachts, dinghies and cruise ships; beaches and pools; skyscrapers and harbourfront pads; forests and bushland. This is Sydney.

I turn back to our table. Tea is served. As a present, we have been given afternoon tea at Gunners’ Barracks, and what a treat this is: from panna cotta to salmon sandwiches, from samosas to scones, everything is unveiled before our eyes. The service is outstanding, the silver is spotless, and the view: priceless. Not even the threat of a kleptomaniacal kookaburra can spoil this moment.

With not a cloud in the sky, the harbour is buzzing. On the water, the Circular Quay to Manly ferries pass one another before us. A sailing teaching class weave around one another in the distance. Water taxis and speed boats streak the deep blue with white. The tourist jet boat zigzags the bays, thrilling (and drenching) its passengers. A sea plane comes in to land. Everywhere there is movement and life.


...We walk further into Middle Head, to the National Park at its tip. Here, at the fore of Military Road are concrete bunkers. From 1801 to the 1960s, this was the site of military fortifications – look outs and cannons and disappearing guns, tunnels and gun pits and faux ‘Tiger Cages’ used to train those deployed to Vietnam – reinforced and remodelled over time to guard Sydney from whatever threat it might encounter.

We dip into the shade of the bunkers, wandering through concrete avenues below the ground. Rusting metal studs jut from the ceiling in one; more modern Japanese graffiti is found on another, untranslated, on the very settlement maintained to once keep the Japanese out. (An objective it failed to do when three Ko-hyoteki midget submarines entered the harbour in 1942, culminating in the sinking of the HMAS Kuttabul.)

With little time to explore, and no tour guides on hand, we can only glimpse at the rich stories that underpin these walls. On this normal, yet beautiful headland, a far from normal piece of history lies just beneath the surface.

The lizard returns. It moves so fast, yet so briefly, so as to appear to exist either here or there, but never in a place in between. It occurs to me that this is a normal sight for anybody living in a hot climate - a lizard, basking in the sun - but for me, a Brit, this is not normal. I realise that in all that I have written, whenever I have commented on something under an assumption of irregularity, my reader, whose background or address may be very different to my own, might consider it regular. This is, after all, the Internet, available in homes everywhere. What does that mean of my reaction to such normal, yet not normal, things?

I have time to neither ponder this half-considered thought nor process how this beautiful headland is more than meets the eye, how normal can be anything but. I have not time to be troubled by what is and what is not regular, for the view has enchanted me once more.

I pour another cup of Darjeeling.

I look out from the terrace.

I bask in the sunshine.

I think: 'this’ll do'.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Albans, again

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so pleased that we’ve managed to get you here on time. I wish you all a pleasant day and look forward to seeing you this evening on your journey home.”

St Albans stopped being my home. Work, however, continued to take me there daily.

Every morning, and every evening, there would be James, the platform announcer.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home two minutes late this evening. It jolly well matters. Rest assured I will not rest until I have found out why we have failed you this evening, because you really do matter. If you are boarding the train here, I wish you a pleasant onward journey, and I shall see you all, bright and early, in the morning.”

The following morning, there he would be.

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m very sorry about the weather today. I have a few umbrellas here should you need one, they were going spare in lost property. I do hope that, despite the weather, you have a wonderful day.”

Day in day out, there would be James, standing among his people.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as Shakespeare wrote: ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. As we await the 1750 to Bedford on this platform, we, too, are all connected. The train is only half a mile away, but the system is saying it is delayed by around 10 minutes. I’m ever so sorry.
I’m trying my hardest to understand why this might be, I don't like to keep you waiting.”

And with each message, more and more on the platform would smile, though his colleagues rolled their eyes. James, peering over his round frame glasses, swamped by his luminous First Capital Connect jacket and hidden beneath his train driver’s hat, would pore over the information screen, scrabbling for helpful information to share with those waiting to go home.

At last, the train arrived.

“Good evening everybody, this is James. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home ten minutes late this evening. I’m not sure what has happened, our systems promised they would get you here sooner. Please believe me when I say that this really does matter. If you can forgive us, I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.”

And that he would. James, whose previous job as a butler had tasked him with anticipating all requests for help before they were made, strove daily to assist all passengers, and to do so with charm. A former alcoholic, he had found meaning in spreading politeness.

It was not long before he had an apprentice.

“Good evening everybody, this is Tom. Welcome to St Albans station. It is a pleasure to meet you all, and I hope you have a wonderful evening. Please do not hesitate to ask my colleagues or I should you need any assistance.”

And then the franchises changed. The carriages sported new logos, and the artwork around stations was replaced. Routes on the network changed. Giant businesses negotiated with government, and eye-watering numbers were circulated in trade press: 273 million passengers, government to pay £8.9 billion, expected returns of £12.4 billion. Despite the promises, of station improvements, of free wi-fi, of new trains, of better connections and of more seats, more services and greater capacity, trains were delayed on the very first day of franchise handover. On that very day in St Albans, as passengers finally arrived, frustrated, late and in need of a gentleman to welcome them and carry their troubles…

…James was not there.

Neither was he there in the evening, nor the next day, nor any day after that. I asked after him, and was told he had been moved on.

Journeys, no longer bookended by a doddery platform announcer whose declarations ensured a rickety train system could be, however fleetingly, forgiven for its failings, became a faceless routine. No longer was it bearable to squeeze on as the final sardine in a bumpy tin can. Trains were still late, but now an unemotive automated recording attempted to apologise instead. The tedious commute became, simply, a tedious commute.

One evening, I took a train in the other direction. Passing through the middle of London, bound for the airport, I chanced upon a familiar figure followed by a familiar voice.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. Welcome to Farringdon station. I’m so pleased that we’ve got you here two minutes early this evening. I wish you all a wonderful evening, wherever you may be heading.”

Knowing that James is still out there, making passengers smile, the journey to St Albans is no longer a chore.


See also: The train dispatcher who defines what it means to be a gentleman

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

St Brelade

We sat, staring across the beach and out to sea. The sky was grey, the sand a dark brown, and the sea was slate. Trees on the distant headland flashed their greens as they swayed in the wind, until they fell victim to a mist that was slowly, but unrelentingly, swallowing the world. Swimmers, too, were swallowed, as standup paddleboarders faded to grey and a lone yacht retreated into the gloom. All around the landscape became saturated but for the merest wisps of colour: the yellow of a tennis ball, thrown for a Springer Spaniel — splish! into the waves — and the artificial red of the strawberry syrup on our ice creams.

A man walked across the scene, some distance ahead of his Highland Terrier. The terrier, it seemed, had grander plans in mind than a mere walk, for beneath the sand he dreamed of treasure. Like a dog possessed he found his spot, and now hemustdigHeMustDigHEMUSTDIG, sand spraying aft as the hole before him deepened. No man could lead him astray from his objective.

To our right, a greyhound sat and waited for his new best friend: a toddler. The child waddled and stumbled as her legs, so new to walking, searched for traction in the sand. Eventually she succeeded and reached the dog, who, after a brief cuddle, rose and found a new resting place, just metres away. Events repeated. By these means the greyhound encouraged the child on this adventure, across a beach that was disappearing.

Over time the mist receded: first the top of the headland reappeared, a foreboding hovering presence in the sky before its base was later revealed. Public on the beach, swimmers, paddleboarders and colour slowly returned to view. As we left we saw the footprints of those who had walked, undetected, through the haze: paw prints, bird tracks and a set of footprints belonging to an adult. Alongside them, as if they had walked hand in hand, were further footprints, of a child.