Playlist: December 2019

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There is this Anne Carson poem, ‘God’s Work’, which ends with the line ‘Put away your sadness, it is a mantle of work’. By chance, I was reminded of the poem via some post on Instagram that came up an hour ago. I want to think about this ‘it’, like how it is the sadness and also the work, and the pronoun of living, the abstract embodied. ‘Mantle’ is something that covers, envelops or conceals, it is a portion of the Earth, a sleeveless cloak or cape. Is it also the bevelled edge of a door? One can be mantled with a blush, the mark of a covering shame. Is it a mantle of work to hide your sadness, or does the ‘it is’ refer to some other thing whose outcome is that we must put away our sadness? We must close a passage of time behind us? Notice I am switching to a plural pronoun, because I have entered the poem, sharing the position of both addressee and speaker. I am the the person with this feeling; I am the person addressing this feeling. To speak at all, I am doing the mantle of work. There have been these tectonic shifts in my life of late, the underlying move or loss that is a portion of everything. ‘Put away your sadness’ asks you to imagine a physical form for the affect, a classic poetic move: my sadness is a bird, my sadness is a stone, my sadness is a rose, a scrunchie, a sea. These are things you can put away, tie back; or you can hide with a cloud, or you can dive in. Typing in ‘my sadness is a’, Google suggests: 

addiction
a smile
a father introduced
a souvenir
a smile
a text
a joyful dance
a science

It seems these things are all correct, at the present moment. For instance, I drink from this mug and I think about Prague, and how it looked in the rain of a flickering image. That is a souvenir, but it is somebody else’s rain. The internet offers ‘Healthy ways to deal with sadness’, ‘Why am I sad all the time?’ and the old adage, ‘It’s okay to feel sad’. I have been reading Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (2019) and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Didion insists, ‘The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room’ where one could ‘touch a key and collapse the sequence of time’. In one of my favourite Laura Marling songs, ‘The Captain and the Hourglass’, she sings ‘Behind every tree is a cutting machine and a kite fallen from grace / Inside every man is a heart of sand you can see it in his face’. I love the pessimistic, teenage fatalism of this album, Alas I Cannot Swim (2008), its jump cuts of warning and love and familiar pain. Is the man the whole of humankind, or men in general? What if instead of words we had the bark of a tree, its abrasive shavings; a shaven novel or heart of sand in which to bear our suffering? Dissolve is imminent. There would be the rings of your life, the brief achievements of flight, but then the fallen linen, the tired old string, the particles blown. Didion wants it all at once: a simultaneous display of the frames, the scenes of a life. You would then choose what to cut, reassemble or stow away. What doesn’t matter to be dispersed. In the cutting room, a mantle of work is required. And what of the work that is to write who you are, when what that seems is only pencil shavings, sawdust and woodsmoke? 

I have not walked in the woods for so long, and the last time it was with you. But let that not be the last. I was cloaked in so many layers; I could not get rid of the cold. It was a damp and green, needling feeling. It was not so much inside as around me

Heather Christle puts it really well, this question of the cutting room and the cry: 

Maybe we cannot know about the real reason we are crying. Maybe we do not cry about, but rather near or around. Maybe all our explanations are stories constructed after the fact. Not just stories. I won’t say just.

It is a relief to write while crying. There is something comforting about the simultaneous flow, as though letting two substances at once run through you: one being language, the other chemical; each in a woven relation. Crying, then, is the anarrangement (ana being Greek for ‘up, in place or time, back, again, anew — OED), of a state of things that are happening in life, in the body, in the social, in various temporalities. There is the before and after of a break; there is the running on, running behind, the sense of feeling this from ‘above’ or ‘below’. Like when for ages I didn’t properly eat the world was a glassy thing I was seeing from underwater, poking the ripples, falling backwards. To cry is to indulge in both prolepsis and analepsis, to slip and collapse, to blur and feel into. A friend says, you have to work through and not around it. I try not to cry about, but recognise the ambience of sadness. I won’t know until later what is really happening, what narrative this can all be placed in, or slip from. 

Somebody nearby is playing a flute really badly. 

The chime of a text message. It’s okay to feel sad. 

In the office, friends and I exchange tales of election night. One of us is trying to fix a puzzle, the other drinks for sorrow; there is a mutual sensation of violence which can only ‘end’ in blackout, keying a car, throwing a punch, posting a rant or falling through sleep’s amnesia. For a while, I could only listen to songs that came out before this happened, and before the Tories were a bad new government, which felt forever ago. 

What if daylight itself became elective, and that was the bold democracy of what it was to enter a day. Do you choose the light, or does it summon you? I just make playlists.

The moon has been flagrant of late, or was it right before. I remember seeing rainbows around the moon for days at a time. I remember that seeming too much, like I’d overdosed on the dust of this planet, like there were molecules of colour in my nose I could not sneeze or shake out. Like there was a terrible high about to happen. 

I have not seen the moon at all this week. 

I write this raining. 

A thought of the before and after which remains unfixed and semi-colonic. It is to say and not say of what was said. 

There is a special release in crying by bodies of water. I believe in a clairvoyant sadness, one that predicts some upset to come. It is the body’s sincerity of knowing. So you cry by the sea, or lately, a river. All that I have. Cry your eyes out by the Clyde. When you arrived, I was reading about the horror of purple, that ‘which hurts both sides’, ‘the horror’ (Hannah Weiner, The Fast). I wear it around my sleepless eyes. It is a bruise colour, the muscular failure to move through the day; it is a pile of clothes, a burgeoning energy of the horror. So I turn to blue, which is a star, or a gas flame because someone is cooking. 

That line in Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, from Blue, a lifesaver every Christmas, which goes, ‘Just before our love got lost you said / I am as constant as a northern star’. And it’s that ‘I am’ that I like, the moving throughness of it, the insistence that this is and not was. Because there is something of forever which is getting lost, or a wound that is hidden and cannot be healed. That is forever opening up. For we were so close, a year ago. And of course Joni flips, deliciously, to the mundane. She asks ‘Constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at / If you want me I’ll be in the bar’. As though to look down in your soupy negroni, you would find that hot abyss from which love is turned, over and over. And maybe you’d shed a few tears in it. And you’d struggle to say the location. 

I remember dressing as a wise man for a play at school, wearing a homemade crown and parading slowly towards a manger. Somebody was acting the part of the star, and we followed them. 

Somehow in a notebook I wrote, ‘I am going to be fine. I am going to shine at it’. To be shiny in this being fine, I wrote that in a café and I remember my hands were trembling, my earrings were not real gold. 

There is this dream from last night where I wear a blindfold made of a banana leaf, and you are helping me cross this road, this road that is river. 

In Goodbye, First Love, there is a hat that floats away in the river where Camille is swimming. This happens at the end. It is either too late or too soon, and she is crushed. This is the wiki summary. From the film I remember the widening shot of the river that flows on but closes, and the sunlight, and crying as I watched this at six in the morning, after reading about it on somebody’s blog, the link now lost. It was almost spring and I had not cried since winter. Back when I would add things to my weekly list like, ‘more on lattices’, ‘a setlist’, ‘a more explicit weave’, ‘reply’ and ‘pack’.

Writing this now, am I attempting to ‘put’ this ‘away’? 

When he tried to be practical, mentioned ‘In the long run…’ I could only think of that song by The Staves. It was a churlish note, curled at the edge and not mine or yours. That night, there was a cat called Olive, a taxi to Greenbank, sleeping in a friend’s sister’s bed, waking up face to face with Sophie Collins’ small white monkeys again. In the notebook I had written in a slurred hand, ‘I wish I would cry now but I feel afloat’. It was the elated tiredness, the denial. I had a freezing shower to cool my shame. 

Climate breakdown is also a breakdown of the heart. We have to admit that. Something is always stinging, ‘I’ve been thinking’, a mug of hot water. I could not sleep, I was reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva in fits and starts, which is perhaps how it demands to be read:

I swallow a mouthful of blood that fills me entirely. I hear cymbals and trumpets and tambourines that fill the air with noise and uproar drowning out the silence of the disc of the sun and its marvel. I want a cloak woven from threads of solar gold. The sun is the magical tension of the silence.

A spoon of blood, not sugar, not jam. It is the hot lump in your throat when you cry and the blood that is anyway. About to. Remember I bled for thirteen days, or was it more. It was because of hot liquid, a rush, a pill. How you nourish yourself or not. A friend says, when I cry on buses and trains I listen to specific kinds of music and pretend I’m in a movie. Is it detachment we want from that? Would there be cymbals and trumpets and tambourines in this movie? I want you to put me in it, the noise. I want to stand at the front of the gig, be buffeted. I want to be bashed around like a note that won’t break from the instrument. I want to find a post-it note stuck to my back, but what should it say? Over time, I garner respect for the sun. It is not that my nocturnal years are ‘over’, but I am wondering what it would mean to truly love and rejoice in the sun. The giver of life, not Byronic darkness. To lie in a colourless sea. What would this clarity that Clarice writes of look like, the woven cloak of ‘solar gold’, its ripples? Is it the mantle one could wear to cloak a sadness? But what if the sadness was the clarity itself? I say, I think you are brilliant. It is a mantra. It is a giving away. When the van swerved and nearly hit me, I felt the sunlight so incredibly brightly. The east coast, the sense that this was someone else’s morning. The silence remains still, and I look for it in that ‘magical tension’ of the said and unsaid, and I am doing what Didion does with her grief, the magical thinking that is arranging all these scenes at once for something to emerge as possible. That is trying to sort a timeline or feeling yourself ‘invisible’, between things, the living and dead, an incomprehensible love. 

In Ariana Reines’ recent collection, A Sand Book (2019), the pages of the final section, ‘MOSAIC’, are black. She introduces the scene that prompted this section with italics, 

The sun’s warmth kept filling me, and what had begun as a slightly above-average warmth kept growing. It was starting to fill my body, and just before I totally surrendered to it, I had the inkling this might be something like the “bliss” I had heard about in old books. I had to sit down.

What is relayed as a religious experience, a spiritual experience, is then a series of transmissions (‘MOSAIC’ is in reference to Moses). But it is also fundamentally a solar experience. I think of Laura Marling’s heart of sand, something grazed by a coming warmth, the lap of a sunlight like the sea. A hot liquid thing that is coming inside me, causing the bleed, the bliss, the generous massage of some hormone. It is embarrassing writing, it demands a hot bright mantle. To feel it, feel through it, you have to sit down. You might go to the bar, as Joni does. In fact, I write this lying in bed, as is often the way. There is nothing to set out for or plan, so much as the needling of this ‘inkling’. 

I go to see Little Women, and focus on Jo’s ink-stained fingers.

I have not been ‘on holiday’ for so long but if I did I would make a solar panel of my opening chest and lay where the river and the light would take me. I think the black space on Ariana Reine’s pages is just as important as the whitely capitalised text, ‘EARTH IS SPECIAL […] THERE IS NO “BACK” TO GET TO’. We can’t get back to any bliss other than what is felt in the present. And there has to be so much energy. Put down your phone.

Dorothea Lasky says she tells her students ‘not to have a plan, but to collect things and poems and then put them together’, there is this ‘holy idea’ of ‘emergence’. I write mostly by assembling quotes I like, streaming things down (for to ‘jot’ implies a decisiveness, an almost violence) whenever they do or don’t make sense. Text myself so the thought is received as though in reply. I have all these poems from the month I don’t yet know how to assemble. They are as much of the rain as the rain. Someone comments on a fresh sense of ‘scarcity’. 

I wish I had a river so long’. And there is no snow here. The lines feel hard and overly sweet. 

Candy canes hang upon the tree.

On Christmas Day, we walk by the canal and stop by the locks. The trees seem anorexic, as in a Plath poem; as though they had chosen to strip this pure and gleam on the water. They too will see from below, but they know a different renewal. 

I can’t say a certain five letter word. 

I want to know what the seven words are in the Weyes Blood song. 

I wish I could swim in an ocean / As cold as’ a line I can’t finish, listening to Grace Cummings as though it were autumn all over again. But people on the internet are still going wild swimming. The world is not everywhere cold. The caption reads, literally all I want for xmas. 

Two photos on different accounts of a landscape blurred by the motional train. 

It’s funny, I even wrote, ‘it’s like The Topeka School and the failure of language’. 

To sob into the warm, soft fur of a cat. 

The want of a cigarette.

Astonishing winter light.

I couldn’t finish the wine. 

In The Fast, Hannah Weiner writes, ‘I didn’t know any golden light people, but I knew a couple of blues. I knew I had to be rescued (I thought of it that way) by a blue, or someone near it’. One of my closest friends and I both Instagram a snapshot of ‘River’ on Spotify at separate points across the festive period. It is this secret, not-so-secret gesture of the living-on, the warmth and possible. I think she is one of the golden light people, in loops, and I wonder what I am, if one of the blues. Who else is a blue? But I have always loved green eyes. And the Earth, which is a globe of something like green and blue, (de)pendant on/of the universe. Whose. And I have seen the garden in four seasons now, but just barely. The scene is still swinging and won’t stop to focus. 

What Reines writes of how there is no ‘back’ of the Earth to get to. I think of the back of a tapestry: a ragged collation of stems, snipped-off threads, criss-crossing lines. A simultaneity, a mess, a work in progress. When I am trying to write about the anthropocene, about what is happening, about the earth, is it this ‘back’ I am trying to write. It is not to get back to, but a back that is happening, the other side. I have been trying and failing to learn crochet; I think those who succeed are beautiful and perfect, I won’t turn over their lovely creations. In her song ‘Other Side’, Grace Cummings sings ‘The fall of a raindrop / Returns blue to the daylight / Your mind must return / To behind your eyes’. One drop of blue can restore the day. I think of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, living on Montague Street, in one or more stories. The worried thread. It is like putting on makeup to stop yourself crying, but doing it anyway, later in rivers of mascara and other clichés. When you are watching a movie and the crying is about to happen and you feel it as a sparkle, because it is not about the movie for which you are crying, but something around or near the happening, the space of it, being there in the other imaginary. And then what is going on ‘behind your eyes’. Crying happens in a space. It is all the prettiness we do while we can, which is a mutual hurt, a hot slide of a tear that catches your neck and means something small and inexplicable. 

The Bright Eyes song ‘Train Under Water’ begins, ‘You were born inside of a raindrop / I watched you falling to your death / And the sun, well she could not save you / She’d fallen down too, now the streets are wet’. I used to think that song was about miscarriage, now I know it could be about any kind of love and loss. Remember when Jeremy Corbyn said something offhand about getting the train to Orkney? I dream about the sub-thalassic train sometimes, northerly moving, passing by jellyfish and flashes of shapeless light. Where are you going, where have you been. The milky unborn thing that we bear yet. Feeling sick from relative motion. It is the glassy way we watch from behind falling water, all of our lives. What touch do we really share of each other?

The air is a key change.

At the reading, Gloria says something like, we have all been thinking of writing as a practice of moving through the days, a practice of living, of marking time. Here are the days I give you in words. In Utopia, her little red book, Bernadette Mayer writes, ‘Everything you or I or anybody says always seems 100% wrong sometimes, unless you keep forcing it to be closer to the truth’. There is a truth quality, say, to the way plants photosynthesise or a starling assembles her nest. The percentage quality in which I can or cannot get out of bed, and whether you are ‘Active Now’ or in fact just barely online. Again, it is a question of green. 

Marianne Morris has this beautiful poem, the last in her collection Word / World (2018), that a friend and I once read aloud together on a patio in summer at the XR climate café, the first I’d attended. Everything seemed shimmer then. The poem, ‘Lion’s Gate’, is a prose poem of some intensity. It is about what it means to love and to hate, and what is worth keeping. I really want to quote the whole thing but I can’t, so I’ll make do: 

We do not want to go back with more questions pertaining to life on this Earth. We must learn them before we leave, loving every possible second upon this beautiful Earth, because we will not come back. We will move on elsewhere. It is like a heart breaking feeling suddenly, I see it all so clearly and I want this moment to stay. This feeling of certainty that the only thing that matters in this life is that you enjoy your time here and keep thirsting and seeking and do not resist the lessons, rush towards them and learn them all, so that you can die to yourself, die into light. 

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~

 

Green Day – 2000 Light Years Away

Caribou – You and I

Market – Told

Angel Olsen – Lark

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

Pinegrove – Skylight

Rob St. John – Your Phantom Limb

Laura Marling – Tap At My Window

Karen Dalton – God Bless the Child

Joni Mitchell – River

Grace Cumming – Other Side 

wished bone – Pink Room 

Nirvana – Something In The Way

Wilco – An Empty Corner

Belle and Sebastian – We Rule the School

Vashti Bunyan – Winter is Blue

Connie Converse – I Have Considered the Lilies

Bright Eyes – Train Under Water 

Big Thief – Dandelion

The National – Guilty Party 

Organ Tapes – Simple Halo 

Björk – Sun In My Mouth

Eartheater, LEYA – Angel Path

Mitski – Last Words of a Shooting Star

Wasps

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Wasps 

I heard a dull, sizzling thump and a wasp fell into my room. It fell through a crack at the top of my window and disappeared among the sunflowers, shivering, then stopped dead, seemingly. I was not bothered at first, because I thought the thump was merely a moth, or a postcard dropped off from the wall. Then the wasp appeared again. I saw it whizzing out of the flowers and it hovered round the glow of my computer. It was inches from my face.

Naturally, I panicked. I stepped back as if someone in front of me was holding a gun.

Seconds later, six more wasps swarmed at my window, pelting themselves against the glass. I could hear their angry buzzing humming in my ears, which were already ringing from a gig that night. Quickly I leapt up to shut the window, but another two got in somehow.

I ran out the room. Everywhere I looked, I could see things flitting around me. I don’t know if they were real or imagined. It was like standing in a forest, surrounded by the glitter motes of midges, only not half as pretty and in fact pretty freaky. I thought I was hallucinating. I could feel the flutter in my chest, like the insects themselves had gotten into my ribcage and were seething to get out. I was only a little bit drunk.

Gutted my flat for the fly spray. Thank god I found it.

They were crawling about in my lampshade when I tentatively opened the door. Three of them, glutted on light, their tiny bodies blown up to absurd proportion through the illuminated paper. I stood stock still and waited. They didn’t seem to want to leave; they’d found their paradise up their in that giant orb, lovers of sun that they are, like the elderly expats of Benidorm. So I pounced with the spray, gushing it upon them, tearing through the paper with all those solvent chemicals.

I thought how kids might sniff this stuff to get high.

I thought how I might kill the plants by accident.

How one wasp was still lingering, so close to a pot of aloe vera.

Then it joined the rest.

Could I smell the burning of their furless bodies?

They fizzled out, drunkenly, from the lampshade, stumbling through the air and dropping to the carpet, one by one. Brutally I crushed their writhing bodies with the bottom of a mug, mashing them into the pieces of notepad that covered my floor. The stains of their deaths would remain, irrevocably, tiny, upon those pages, like just so many slight smears of grease. Traces of vague terror, like a half-remembered dream.

Is it bad to kill animals? Even these pointless, evil creatures? Of course it is. I felt guilty, but there you are, survival of the fittest. 

My head swam from the smell of the fly spray, just so much butane and strong perfume.

I thought: why is it that we humans are so frightened by things so little? I was stung many times as a child, but you’d think I’d get over the fear, the same way I got over my terror of talking on the phone or eating olive oil or standing up in class to give a presentation. Maybe it’s like death, a fear you can’t shake off. I see a miniature demon in the matte black eyes of each of those wasps. It’s like they’re from another world, sent here to torture us. Whole lunchtimes at school we spent trying to slay the bastards, usually to no avail. They just descend on you in September and August, haunt the bins like a bad smell.

They came into my room, the three wasps, confronting me with their strangeness. How ugly they are, shrivelled and wispy and probably a bit crunchy if you dared eat one. Where do they come from? What mulch is chewed in the elaboration of their nests?

I had to scoop up the triptych of their carcasses from my carpet, toss them in with the compost.

Every prickle of skin, each brush of hair or fibre on my bare limbs, I thought was another one, crawling along my pores.

What does it feel like, to have your whole body shudder with the intoxication of pyrethrins? Odour of chrysanthemums. Surely they were only looking for the sun, diving for my window at 2am which was the only lit window in the block? Did my human habits deceive them, fools that they are, for an early sunrise, a portal to a new dawn? Did they want the delicious, golden sap of my desktop sunflowers? I hate them, I hate them. Is it so very bad to hate them?

Maybe somewhere there is a very pure and generous person, who nourishes wasps with banquets of aphids and caterpillars, who smiles at the yellow-black beasties and lets them inside. Who maybe even harvests their nests, provides comfort for the queens in winter, makes good use of the moulded warmth of a soft, unused loft. Who tries to welcome them to their city.

In another life, there’s a feral child of the forest or street, letting them creep up and down her arms; welcoming their buzzing, contrapuntal to her own sweet breathing. She’s not me.

I wouldn’t harm a fly, I wouldn’t touch a bee. Maybe I’d even feed it honey. My friend used to nurse them back to life when they were dying on the pavement.

Wasps though, wasps are something else entirely.

They can cling to the carrion of the suburbs and schoolyards all they like, enjoy the spoils of autumn’s decay, the fading of other insects among fallen leaves and shrunken bracken, the tattered remains of crisp packets. Still, if they come in my room again I will kill them with spray. I am that sincere in my cruelty, that human, that absolutely succumbed to stupid, distorted fear.

And will I ever open my window again; create that rectangle of air that forges its gateway to the morning rain, the telephone wires, the birdsong and greenery of the garden?

Homesick

Daisybank

Homesick

ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

—Emily Dickinson

It seems silly to write about one’s love for a house. After all, houses are inanimate things; they can’t feel or think, can’t love you back. It’s a bit materialistic, a bit capitalist perhaps, to love one’s property. Still, houses aren’t just houses. We are brought up in this world to experience ourselves through things. Not only is this the sociological and psychological consequence of living in a world where we define ourselves through the symbolic order of possessions, but it is also the personal, lived experience of assigning meaning to that which surrounds us, the structures and spaces in which we spill our being. What’s more, the very act of dwelling is charged with the problem of desire. We constantly pursue ownership and control over that which we occupy; constantly assigning possession, marking territory. As Karl Marx said, ‘the felt need for a thing is the most obvious, irrefutable proof that the thing is part of my essence, that its being is for me and that its property is the property, the particular quality peculiar to my essence’: we are, through and through, the things that we own, desire, lose. Maybe it is our seemingly irrevocable need for things that dooms us to a certain emptiness, a loss that prevents the fulfilment of the self.

The old Lacanian equation of desire as relying on lack. Maybe we love things more when we lose them. We start to think if we ever really had them in the first place; we question the possibility of possession altogether. In the void we clasp at meaning, like a baby blindly seeking nourishment.

When I was just three years old, my parents, my brother and I left a cramped cottage in leafy, small-town Hertfordshire for a three-bedroom, two-garden semi-detached house in Ayrshire, Scotland. Land of agriculture, Burns, Buckfast and teenage pregnancy. My first day at school, a couple years later, and I did not understand why everyone kept saying aye, still thinking they were making bizarre expressions of the first person pronoun, rather than simply saying yes. Ken was another strange one. Scotland was foreign and I was even more foreign. I spent most of my childhood trying to grapple with my Englishness, working out who the hell I was and what’s more, who did I want to be? Toning things down to avoid being bullied…but really, deep down, did I want to be different from anyone else? Slowly, the older I got, I felt the bright Scots words trickle into my vocabulary: hanek, gads, glaikit, wee, Ned, jakey. When my cousins visited, I found myself wishing I had the purity of that sweet, Hampshire accent, instead of my own brand of weird hybridity. When friends at school made jokes about Scotland’s superiority, their hatred of the English, the need for their country’s freedom, I felt that wavering sense of otherness, an instinctive need to protect my ‘origins’. As a child, England meant family; it meant going home and being ‘free’. Days out in the summer holidays to the sun-sparkly cities of Brighton and London; the suburban beauty of Milton Keynes in autumn. I liked how I was the only one in my primary school class who wasn’t born in Irvine hospital. When you’re a kid, you kind of like to be special.

Maybe it’s terribly ironic that I would grow up to become a pretty staunch supporter of Scottish independence; someone who works in a whisky bar and identifies more with the social milieu of Kevin Bridges’ standup than that of Austen novels, who cut their teeth drinking Frosty Jacks instead of White Lightning, who fell in love with a wasted seaside town instead of London, and spent inordinate amounts of time listening to endearingly miserable Scottish folk bands over whatever was ‘hip’ in Hoxton. When did the change happen? At what point did I stop mourning my lost English childhood, with its (probably false) promise of sunny summers, middle-class comforts and extra bank holidays? It was long before I started to associate much of England with the heartlands of UKIP and Brexit, long before I realised that Scotland did things differently (socially and politically) to the rest of Britain, and that this was a very good thing.

I guess part of it was realising I didn’t really belong in England either. I couldn’t play the cool and demure English rose, not all the way. For one, with the lack of sun up north, my naturally blonde hair faded, and I’ve now settled on a Celtic shade of copper red. Back then family members would point out queer things I said, like when I relayed stories about folk ‘battering’ each other at school, or how it was ‘pishin’’ it down with rain, or my periodic and derisive expressions of ‘haneck’ whenever anything unfortunate happened. My brother and I would amp up our ‘Scottish’ banter whenever we were down south, cracking jokes and putting on our rough Ayrshire accents the same way any Brit does abroad. I started to realise that I sort of loved the strangeness of Scotland: the Ceilidh dancing we had to learn in P.E, the pervasive aura of folktales, of haggis and kelpies; bottles of Irn Bru that I was forbidden from drinking as a kid, the stern broad Scots of the man on the tape who announced the beginning of every French Listening paper. I wasn’t sure how well I fit in, but I liked it anyway. It started to feel like home.

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Home. The year before I left for uni.

***

In my hometown of Maybole, there is a strict policing of difference. The smoke plume of neds at every bus stop will be the adjudicators of any risqué fashion you choose to indulge in. If you wore black and a slick of thick eyeliner, for example, they were sure to enquire whether you ‘shagged deed folk’; if you wore a miniskirt you were a ‘wee hoore’; if you were a guy who had slightly long hair you were a ‘poof’; skinny jeans made you – perhaps the ultimate insult – ‘an emo’. In our school, there was the Mosher’s Corner, the Farmer’s Corner, the Smoker’s Corner, to name just a handful of territories whose policing often bordered on the militant. In first year, I witnessed a friend being shoved headfirst into a spiky hedge because he tried to ‘invade’ the Farmer’s Corner. At the Mosher’s Corner, which took a couple of years to gain full acceptance, you were pelted with stones by bored and angry first years, or scolded by irate P.E. teachers, who had to pass through the area and always liked to pull you up on inane details of uniform. Don’t tell me I can’t wear my stripy knee socks to school when that guy’s cutting about in a tracksuit.

In the midst of this battlefield of identities, is it any wonder I loved my house? The one place where I could be whatever I wanted? Whenever we had to write our address down at school, I relished scribbling down the house name, Daisybank, with all its pastoral resonance. Compared to all the places I have lived in Glasgow (room such and such, flat 1, 2, 3 etc), having a house name is a proper luxury. It was on the road to Turnberry Golf Course; ten minutes walk from the Ranch caravan park. I had a pal who owned a dairy farm nearby, and the woman a few doors down bred collie dogs. For some reason, we always seemed to live beside ministers. In a way, Maybole is the epitome of rural quaintness: it is famous mostly for its former glory as a cobbler’s paradise, for being the meeting place of Rabbie Burns’ parents, for having a relatively crap golf course, a sixteenth-century castle and once upon a time a couple of lemonade factories. You’re ten minutes drive from the sea and surrounded by vibrant green hills studded with pretty villages. The air is fresh and the water tastes great. There’s even a train line.

Still, it’s difficult to appreciate all that stuff as a teenager. I started to dream of Glasgow as this mythical solution to all my problems: a place of cosmopolitanism, where people read poetry, played in bands, and didn’t care what anyone thought of them.

It was only when I moved away from home, got a flat in the city, that I realised the extent of my weird sense of belonging to this silly wee town where technically I had no roots.

***

The last time I properly cried was the day I said goodbye to Daisybank and Maybole for the last time. I paced round the empty rooms, hearing the silent creak of the floorboards, memories passing by me as fleetingly as moths, leaving me with this overwhelming sense of grief. It was like saying goodbye to the entirety of childhood, the last eighteen years of my life, all at once. Unlike most people, we didn’t move around much and this was our home all that time, through thick and thin, good times and bad. I realised how protected I had felt by the presence of the house, its strong sandstone walls, the elaborate latticework of memories that had wove themselves into every structure, every smell and texture and object.

I sat on the train back to Glasgow, staring at the late summer scenery pass behind me, feeling like I had severed a limb.

I don’t know what it is that made me feel that way. Maybe it was the garden: the pond we made with water reeds and frogspawn pinched from the lake at Culzean (the pond in which at my sixteenth birthday party, my friend lost his Buckfast bottle), the faint scent of the lilac tree and its treasure trove of bluebells in May, the memories of bonfire nights, Easter egg hunts, performing original plays; the August weekend when a friend and I climbed the rowan tree and picked every red, gleaming berry – each one to our childish eyes as precious as a ruby. Maybe it was the peace sign my Mum’s ex-boyfriend mowed into the front lawn. The lingering whiff of failed baking experiments that still haunted the kitchen, popcorn burnt to the bottom of the pan, bowls dissolved in liquid heat, vague explosions in  the oven (the door of which had to be constantly propped open by a chair). The mice that lived in the piano, the washing machine that shook so violently we had to put a brick in it.

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Maybole Golf Course & The Memorial monument. Winter 2014.

The bike rides up into the Carrick hills; the hysterical impersonations of bleating sheep, chasing chickens and pheasants off the roads. Feeding lambs in spring, horse-riding and jumping off hay bales. Long walks with friends, where we deconstructed the universe as the sun bled its final light behind the Kildoon monument.

The summer we painted the wall of the den at the back of the garden, purple and orange, and I got black floor paint, thick as molasses, on my brother’s leg. He was about six and it didn’t come off for weeks. The concrete steps I fell down once and grazed my side so badly I could hardly move. The cities we drew with chalk on the patio, until the rain came the next day to wash them away again. The nights of mild teenage trauma, when I crawled into the space beneath my bed to calm myself down. All the people that came and went, who knocked on the back door or else rang the bell at the front. Afternoons alone in the corner of my room, hunched over chord sheets and trying to play Paramore songs on guitar. Parties with gin served in secondhand teacups, with contraband vodka smuggled in Coke bottles, with the perpetual background flicker of my frozen iTunes library, which everyone cracked a shot at.

Halloween parties with ersatz cobwebs strung from every surface, bowls of punch and fistfuls of body glitter; dubstep thundering from the upstairs study.

The secret room next door to the bathroom which we never discovered, because you had to knock the wall through. Sometimes, when I was lying in the bath, I liked to think about what was on the other side. What wild and weird stories I could fathom from that dark place of possibility? You could see the skylight in the garden and I thought maybe someone had died in there and the previous owners had decided to seal it in.

Previous owners. It’s strange, when you settle so deeply into a house, you think you are the only person to have ever lived there. I remember being about six years old and finding a little plastic doll under the gas fire once and thinking how disturbing it was to think of another young girl playing on the floor of the living room, as I was. The mere thought of her presence could only be a ghost to me, as transient and fantastical as the people on tv.

There was the man next-door who thought we were dirty hippies, but still gifted us with various vegetables grown in his greenhouse, and murmured a gruff hello when we were in the garden.

The long grass meadows out front across the road, where once we made snow angels in winter and walked the dog, where now there’s an estate of houses.

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My wee bro and I hanging out on the patio. Don’t think I have aged at all to be honest.

The home videos from when we first moved in: plastic toys scattering the grubby carpet, school friends garbed in 90s fashion (lilac or orange crop tops, white peddle pushers and velvet hairbands) draped over the ugly, velcro sofa. The dent in the wall from a misfired golf ball; the scorch mark on the carpet where someone dropped char from a shisha pipe. Places on my bedroom wall, behind the plaster, where I scrawled Green Day, then Cat Power lyrics; ‘star pupil’ and various Kerrang stickers that couldn’t be peeled off the wardrobe (also the Metal as Fuck sticker we stuck on the lamp, which I’m sure still lingers, irrevocably); the cupboard under the stairs with the camping gear, the old washing machine and the pervasive smell of must. As soon as you opened the door, you were simultaneously attacked by a falling hoover, a bag of tent pegs and a canopy of jackets.

Whole evenings and afternoons, lost to playing Sim City on the old computer. Waiting patiently for dialup to connect, doodling on wee notepads that my dad brought back from hotels on his business trips. Sifting through stacks of Standard Grade artwork, band posters, electric guitars, music stands, golf clubs, tennis rackets and folders of homework.

I could go on forever listing details. I guess it’s the nature of missing something that you link things together, this endless concatenation of memories. You think it would be claustrophobic, living in a small town, but one of the things I’ve always missed since moving out was the space. You could run up and down the stairs, pretend the floor was lava and jump from sofa to sofa in the living room, stare out the big bay windows not at a yard of bins and more buildings but at the rolling, sprawling countryside. Hear the jackdaws in the chimney, watch the butterflies flutter around the Buddleja, the sunflowers bloom in June after the dying of the tulips. Life had a rhythm; you paid more attention to nature: the creeping in of the spiders in September, the wasps in August that nested constantly outside my mother’s bedroom, to the point where her windowsill was a nasty holocaust of their dying bodies.

My childhood home was flawed. There was the icy drafts that blew in through the floorboards, the lack of a shower, the grit that sometimes spat out the taps, the sound of lorries trundling past, the toilet that struggled to flush, the kids out back that belted JLS songs as they bounced on their trampoline. Sometimes the roof leaked, we had to clean the gutters, the hot water stopped working, the carpet always slipped on the top step of the stairs. Somehow though, despite their irritation, these flaws were endearing. It’s different, I think, when you own a property compared to when you rent: when you own it, the flaws are just something you sort of live with, rather than demand your landlord to fix. When you explain them to guests, you’re only ever semi-apologetic. The embarrassing parts (the Alan Partridge lap dance postcard on the fridge, the broken oven, the cracks in the kitchen tiles which our friends and I used to take apart and reassemble like puzzle pieces, the precarious stability of the garden wall) become something you’re sort of proud of. It seems kind of absurd now to think that one time, in the middle of the night, our garden wall literally just collapsed, blasting bricks across the patio and shattering the wooden bench, sending its splinters as far afield as the neighbour’s garden.

Maybe it’s that shambolic charm that drew me again and again to Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, as a preteen. I wasn’t just obsessed with the lucidly beautiful voice of the young heroine, her story of unrequited love and the struggle to grow up amidst slightly meagre and crazy circumstances, but also her descriptions of the crumbling castle which her family called home. She describes her first impressions thus:

How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse – see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patch son emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent.

The image is imprinted on her memory, relayed back through her diary; as still as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, as the motionless water, a reflection of a very specific and idealised point in time, the fresh perception of this place that would become the crumbling though romantic ruin of a poverty-stricken home. It is clear that much of Cassandra’s descriptions of the castle are filtered through the discourse of fairytale, though in a knowing, reflexive way, that recognises the flaws of such fantasies. Her sister, Rose, will not be the perfect princess, English Rose though perfect she is; neither will she be the perfectly objective narrator. I just adore the scene when they are drinking outside the village pub: cherry brandy for Cassandra, bright green creme de menthe for Rose, to bring out the russet shades in her hair.

Sitting outside in the comparative paradise of my own garden, I enjoyed the traditional Scottish though equally vibrant liquor of Mad Dog 20/20 to season my youthful palette (unlike Rose, I don’t think my choice of tipple ever worked very well to seduce rich and handsome American suitors). I had the smell of woodsmoke in my hair, the wind coming in off the near-distant sea with a faint and familiar saltiness, the taste of health. There’s something so lovely about that nostalgia, when you can see yourself outside of yourself, picturesque in your childhood surroundings.

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The den beneath the sycamore tree and all its long-faded paint.

In a way, I guess I sort of thought as Daisybank as my castle. We didn’t have a mote, or a crumbling turret, but we had a garden of long grass and dog daisies and a steep drive that kept the floodwater out and the crazed night dwellers away (once, my mother parked the car on the road and some random jakes literally tipped it on its side, so she woke up in the morning to it pouring oil all down the street, like it was weeping sadness and blood). It’s hard to recreate that sense of absolute safety, of home — where all your memories have long seeped into the walls, where you first wept at a book, kissed a boy, got blackout drunk on whisky. All the birthday cakes and candles, the mean words said and the reparations. It’s like the house has witnessed the sweetest and darkest parts of ourselves and god knows it must be a burden to bear those secrets.

It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the house with new people living in it. It’s even difficult to imagine Maybole without my family living there. You sort of stay in touch via Facebook pages, you have the odd dream about walking down the high street or buying a roll in the deli or sitting on the swings at Miller Park, but you can’t really imagine it just going on being. Like a kind of clockwork village, it stops in your mind when you’re no longer there; when your roots are sort of severed. When people I’d known a long time found out we’d sold the house, they talked about it with the almost the same level of sadness and compassion they would on discovering a close relative had died.

It was a bloody good house; I don’t think I’ll ever live somewhere as nice and homely again – or at least it’ll never be quite the same. There’s just something about the place you grow up in, a magical and elusive quality. I can start to describe it, the pink and orange light seen from the patio on winter mornings, the daffodils on the kitchen table, steam from the iron, the flicker of Sonic the Hedgehog games on the old television, the space under the desk where my dog used to hide on fireworks night; but then here I am again, slipping back into details. You can’t grasp it; it’s in all of these things. Like love. It’s supplementary, in the Derridean sense that it has no inherent presence or meaning: it’s just all the things you try to hold in place for a moment, the mesh of connections and space of interplay that forms, pliably, impermanently, when you try to grasp at the meaning.

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Houses are, perhaps, more than houses. Every writer, every intellectual discipline under the sun has spent centuries debating the meaning of ‘home’, but perhaps houses themselves are equally strange and uncanny. What does a house mean to us after we have vacated it, stripped it of all the stuff that made it personal to us? Can it still be a home? I must admit, I don’t imagine myself living in my old house anymore; I can only see it as it was before. I can recall myself standing in particular locations: the feeling of waking up in my bed, or standing at the sink, washing up on a Sunday evening, watching the birds out the window. Yet when I try to think about how it might be decorated now, what the people inside are doing, I draw a blank. You can’t picture it like in the the Sims; can’t just imagine the drama of the lives within.

Many authors have anthropomorphised the houses in their books. They become characters in themselves, or at least acquire some kind of emotional or physical sensitivity to what goes on in and around them. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, describes the house, from Denver’s perspective, as ‘a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits’: the domestic space is as much a character as Denver herself, it takes on the qualities of and indeed reacts to the events which take place within it. You know that eerie sense of dust settling, of silence and weightiness that falls upon a house after an argument? There’s something to it. An ethereal feeling, a kind of knowingness; as if the house itself could somehow be conscious.

Perhaps the most famous instance of an anthropomorphised house is that of the Ramsay’s holiday home on the isle of Skye in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Woolf takes a hefty chunk out of her narrative to describe the process of decay that unravels the household in the Ramsay’s absence. Significant family events, such as marriage, childbirth and death, are confined to parentheses, while intensely lyrical descriptions of the details of the changing conditions of the household are given centre stage:

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane. When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed. Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, the long streamer waved gently, swayed aimlessly; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.

I just adore this passage for several reasons. It’s full of poetic devices which bring the house itself to life: all the personification which renders objects and shadows and light into living, breathing things. The recurring consonance of the l sound which leads us, liltingly, through all sensory encounters; as if we, occupying and flying through the sentences, were as light as air, a travelling dust mote, surveying the situation. L is a flickering kind of sound, fluttering, leading onwards, somehow soporific. A line like this sends tingles up your spine: ‘the stroke of the Lighthouse […] came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again’. The sentences and descriptions flit between movement and stasis: the loving caress and the sudden shift of a rock, followed by a hanging, a loosening, a suspension. Everything seems to be swinging, swaying; the material of the house unfolds and unravels like a shawl. The zanily surreal image of the housekeeper Mrs. McNab trying to control the chaos in the manner of a ‘tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters’ is deliciously both amusing and vivid, conjuring a sense of the beauty of this interplay of order and decay. It’s a clashing sort of image, the vibrancy juxtaposed with the dulling surroundings, but the effect is to exoticise, just ever so slightly, the whole scene. We are invited to look closer, as if peering through a fish tank. This is more than just a house laying to waste in its owners’ absence. Real empathy is stirred for the house itself: all the ghosts that inhabit the walls, the absence that tears at everything. Objects and noises, the vacant trails where once human footsteps made their passage. Mrs. McNab, in all her matronly cleanliness, is but a colourful fish, pulling itself fleetingly through the reeds. All our efforts to clean up the world, to annihilate its disorder, are perhaps similarly slightly futile.

Throughout Time Passes, Woolf contrasts and holds together opposites: day/night, abstract/specific, growth/decay, movement/stasis, beauty/waste, absence/presence and life/death, to name a few. At once we lament the abandoned house, while also marvelling at the ‘power’ of nature’s ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’: the way in which dahlias, giant artichokes, cabbages and carnations continue to flourish amongst the house’s decline. She might as well be describing the inconsistencies and tensions within the psyche of an actual human character. Time veers between eternities and instances; the sheer significance of a death (here, Prue’s) is passed by fleetingly, another stain upon the already well-blotched backdrop of war, a different trauma to the slow, inevitable decline of the house. The writing here is both photographic and cinematic: moving through the stillness of random snapshots to the build-up and unravelling of a time-lapse. Isn’t that like life, like memory itself?

***

‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar’

— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Maybe home is all about the seductiveness of boredom, the comfort of merely occupying space. Maybe its familiarity is what contains an inherent sadness: a sense of loss stemming from that which we cannot regain, despite our close spatial proximity. Like someone you love but who has changed, irrevocably, drifted out far beyond your reach. Like lost innocence and joy, the way we were before we knew certain things; before life happened, in all its terrible narrative beauty. Quentin’s reflections in The Sound and the Fury have a degree of universal application. Late summer and early autumn; the turning of the seasons, the fading of the year. We spend more time indoors as the air thins to a coolness; we retreat into the safety of houses. Each year, we think back to blackberry picking in gardens, cooking soup on the stove, going back to school. One of my favourite (and pleasantly simple) opening lyrics, from Stornoway’s song ‘Zorbing’: ‘Conkers shining on the ground / the air is cooler / and I feel like I just started uni’. It’s details like that that send us home. Reminders that time moves in loops; that constantly we are living through our memories, mixing the strange and new with familiarity. You don’t necessarily need a specific physical location to be ‘home’. Maybe it’s more complex and slippery than that. Sure, I miss Daisybank like hell, but it’s the details I miss most, and like everything else, with age they acquire that golden, treacly glow of nostalgia. Maybe I don’t need to be Scottish or English or anything at all. I just need to find home. Then I can begin again.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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My wee bro & what was probably my first bike in the kitchen, 1997.
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Christmas 2014 in the kitchen
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2011

Bus Travel: Why I’m Not a Fan

broken down bus
broken down bus

Getting the bus for most people isn’t a problem, in fact for many it is an inevitable stage of the everyday routine. Buses get people to work, school, holiday destinations – and, more importantly, buses get people home. Yet, for almost everyone who gets them, buses are frankly a right pain in the arse.

My relationship with the humble bus all started when I was fourteen and began travelling into town by myself and with friends, which necessitated a move away from the convenient but uncool parental taxi service towards less convenient but slightly more socially-acceptable public transportation. At first, the idea of being on a bus was exciting: leaning my head against the window feeling the roar of the wind outside as we rushed along, talking to strangers, listening to music as I watched the hills go by rather than being forced to listen to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Song’s on Radio 2 (sorry Mum). Admittedly, trains were better suited to the wind-in-your-hair function, but back in the day, train times in Ayrshire were rather less frequent than the bus ones. And so, the greater half of my adolescent years was spent riding buses, or more likely waiting endlessly for them to arrive.

In fact, I’m sure I can blur much of my teenage years into an eternity of waiting in the rain at myriad bus stops. It is generally a standard principle that a bus is either five minutes early, and disappears before you get a chance to run like an idiot after it, or else it’s 45 minutes late and the driver and all passengers look grumpier than Nick Clegg.

It is also a standard principle that those waiting for a bus will generally unite at a bus stop with the social glue of the Great British Moan. Whilst this is a gloomy disposition that reflects our weather, it nevertheless provides a useful way of connecting disparate generations. Elderly people love to talk about buses. My nan, like many other people’s grandparents, has probably memorised her local bus timetable. She knows their numbers, she knows which ones are reliable and which ones to avoid. She likes to moan about the drivers and the rising prices. Well, I do too. Some of our best intergenerational bonding has stemmed from conversations complaining about buses.

Regardless of the positives that can come out of poor service, the sheer cost of travelling by bus in my opinion is rendering void any novelty value they might still retain. Buses are getting extortionate. The slogans about cheap travel for students plastered on the back of our local buses are a joke. To make the eight mile journey from Maybole to Ayr it would set me back almost £4 (for a single ticket), when I can get to Glasgow with my third-off young person’s railcard for just over £5 – a journey over five times the distance. Not to mention the substantial luxury of train travel in comparison to buses, where leg room is smaller and the chance of being flung violently into the person in front/beside/behind you is considerably higher.

On a train, I have access to lots of comforts. I might be able to charge my phone. I will be greeted on occasion by a friendly ticket officer, rather than a bus driver irate with the stresses of traffic and grumpy passengers. I have a little table if I want to drink my coffee, write or read a magazine (perhaps the complementary Metro). Late night train travel allows a snapshot into local nightlife, although sometimes it isn’t necessary to take the late train to see this, however. It is not unusual to see someone casually open a can of Tennents at ten in the morning, or to witness a band of rowdy men (on a stag-do, or on their way back/to a rugby/football match) cajoling the ticket conductor and singing rude songs. A hazard of both bus and train travel is the lonesome teenager playing awful dance tunes out loud through the tinny speakers on his/her phone. This was the mode through which I experienced my delightful first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. So, don’t get me wrong, train travel is by no means a leisurely experience. Anyone who has undergone the horror of taking the evening train back from Ayr to Glasgow on a hot day, will know this. Being packed into a tightly enclosed space with a load of highly-intoxicated, sunburned, tired and aggravated Glaswegians who have just spent a day by the beach is far from light pleasantry.

Yet while trains have their problems, at least they are generally reliable. By reliable, all I mean is that they tend to head from one place to another, stopping at fixed destinations on the way. Recently, commentator Caitlin Moran tweeted that:

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To some people (particularly those who are drivers and rarely take public transport) this disruption to service might seem astonishing. To me, it’s comically familiar. Growing up, I used to regularly get the 361 bus to travel to my friend’s house in a tiny far-out village. It stopped in many different farm towns and villages, and was notorious for its lateness, tendency not to show up and the antics of its drivers. I loved that bus, although it was a bloody nightmare. It was the bus we had to get at nine in the morning after a rough night of partying, and journey along those endless winding roads, being thrown between seats, trying our best not to throw up. It was the bus whose driver has, on separate occasions, pulled up by the side of the road to get a chippy, to take a piss in a ditch and to buy a pack of cigarettes (which said driver proceeded to smoke outside of the bus while we waited patiently inside).

Caitlin Moran later added that everyone on the bus was being ‘very British’ and politely pretending that nothing was wrong. I would like to suggest that such awkward manners are less visible during bus travel in Scotland (well, I can’t speak for everywhere, but at least South West Scotland). As soon as the bus driver accidentally stalls, or refuses some twenty-year-old chancer a half, cue the cries of (and I quote) “ya fucking fanny” and “fuck you wee man”, and general laughter and goading from the other passengers. Well, some of us will try to turn our heads, but generally being on a bus seems to be a more raucous affair than it is down south

Raucous indeed; maybe even adventurous. The notorious 361 was also the bus that one day broke down in the middle of nowhere, while I was on it. Being a highly trained professional, the driver attempted to ring someone ‘in the know’, but succeeded only in engaging what sounded like an exchange of swear words and incomprehensible banter. It being the middle of nowhere, his phone signal then suddenly went and the call was cut off. Said driver left the bus and began angrily kicking at the wheels and inspecting the engine, before standing outside lighting cigarette after cigarette and turning his head around to admire the rural landscape. Meanwhile inside the vehicle, a group of middle aged women on the back seats had pulled out cans of fizzy juice and with conspiratorial giggles were proceeding to top them up from a bottle of vodka. Procuring paper cups from their Farmfoods bags, they offered their concoctions around the bus with much bravado, cursing the uselessness of the driver. As said drive returned to the bus after getting through presumably to his manager, rather than being calmly offered a refund and a possible replacement means of transport, we were told we would have to wait until they could get the sputtering vehicle itself repaired. My friend and I decided it would be miles quicker to walk to the nearest village, where she lived and could provide me with a lift home.

As we wandered the several miles, on a Friday night in July sunshine, quite content with this little drama, the 361 suddenly trundled past us. Arrogantly, it honked its horn  but did not stop to let us on board. We didn’t wave our fists, but just laughed incredulously and kept on walking. Service to rely on.

Following my initial recreational experience with buses as a means of getting into town to meet friends, during my latter means of school I learned what it was like for working people who had to get the bus everyday. I had taken subjects in a college and school in a different town which required several bus rides a day, so that I was hopping around from place to place and finding the majority of my week spent perched on the edge of my seat, trying to read while resisting the urge to vomit (whether said nausea was induced by the driver’s furious attack on bends or by the body odour of the man/woman in front of me I could never tell, probably it was both). I spent so many hours waiting in the frozen cold at bus stops with a bunch of old people wrapped up like Eskimos, or other college students standing catatonically puffing on cigarettes. How I longed to smoke in those days, just for something hot to travel fast to my lungs. Frequently I wore two pairs of gloves at once.

There was one day a week, a Thursday, when I had to get four buses a day, and that truly was hell. But it was also amusing, like the times nearing summer when for some reason the normal-sized bus was replaced with a monster of a holiday coach, which provided a bit of midweek excitement. Or when a woman, looking like she had dressed in my brother’s preteen sportswear wardrobe, got on lugging a titanic-sized flat screen television and proceeded to hug it to her seat like a warm fuzzy bear. Or witnessing the fights that broke out when some kid tried to get on as the bus was pulling away, and the driver exploded into fits of rage and cursing about the arrogance of youth.

Maybe I’m doing bus travel a disservice; maybe taking the bus isn’t what it was a few years ago. Maybe post-recession it’s all got a bit more efficient. I don’t know and maybe I won’t find out, because these days I do everything I can to boycott buses. Walking everywhere helps, and investing in a value-for-money railcard. At least I’m being green.

What I will say about buses is that they are, for good or for bad, a communal experience. Inevitably some ghost from primary school past will float on and treat you with a journey’s worth of gossip about old teachers, or a slightly ominous man in a tracksuit will strike up a fascinating conversation about his egg sandwich with you, or a pair in front of you will keep turning around to inform you each time the bus driver picks his nose and looks straight in his mirror. Maybe there isn’t that kind of intimacy on the train…unless, like the trains where I’m from, the train often has to stop for extended periods after hitting a cow on the line, and what unfolds is like something from a Martin McDonagh script: a gross and darkly hilarious suspension of regular social norms where conversations turn to graphic depictions of absurd animal violence, and people who would normally take a glimpse at one another and then look the other way are suddenly engaged in furious conversation like old mates. I guess waiting for some specialist to come and ‘remove the animal’ (read: scrape cow guts off the train) has its dramatic effects.

Coming to some kind of conclusion, I admit this article has been a bit of a rant, but I hope it is more a record of experiences than a whole-hearted attack on bus travel. After all, it will always have that nostalgic quality: the acrid smell of body odour, stale perfume and freshly-opened cheese and onion crisps; the thundering voices of the half-deaf passengers trying to speak on their brick-like mobile phones; the grimace of the bus driver as he realises he has to count your change from a tenner. Or maybe just the excitement of travelling to college for the first time, or going to a friend’s house and surreptitiously sipping vodka from a plastic coke bottle whilst discussing the forthcoming antics of the evening. When you take a bus, you definitely feel like you are going somewhere (I suppose it bloody well should considering the cost), and there is always the added fun of staring out at the scenery and batting away the wasps, flies and other natural paraphernalia that comes flying in the open windows.

Yes, the bus is certainly the most humble means of transport. Nevertheless, it has to be said that I’d rather walk.