Friday, 20 November 2009

The 15.08 train to Claptonia

I thought about buying a pasty but three things stopped me:

1) The West Cornwall Pasty Co. Ltd could never match the sky-high pie standard of the Ivor Dewdney Pasty Co. Ltd of Exeter. People, please do not be hoodwinked by lazy claims of Kernow propagandists. The best pasties in the world are assembled in Devon... not the land of tin.

2) The small West Cornwall Pasty Co. Ltd stall appeared to have run out of all but the largest, £3.30, pasties. And that's too much cash to blow on a thermo-hot snack with weak potato content, too many onions and all the meat shoved down one end, right?

3) I had the luxury of time on my hands - and therefore the freedom to shop around.

Liverpool Street Station in the middle of a Friday afternoon is a pleasant place to be. I noted that the employed seemed happy with the imminent promise of another weekend. And way above our heads, beyond the undusted Adshel lightboxes and CCTV cameras (with their anti-pigeon spikes attached like ridiculous and lethal punk haircuts) London shone invitingly through a broad, angular glass ceiling.

The sky was not yet dusky, so the daylight that beat through frosted panes cast a cool glow over the elevated chrome walkways that encircle the timetable boards like the mezanine floor of a museum. But if I was a walking exhibit, this was a very poor show I was putting on. I ambled in one straight line through the centre of the station, taking in the sights of a cash machine, Paperchase, Delice de France and WH Smith. That's all. Until, wedged between a Boots and a Claire's Accessories, I discovered the cheese stall.

I thought briefly about asking the lady behind the counter if she in fact had any cheese. At all. Or, to be more accurate, I wondered what would happen if I adopted my very best Footlights accent to proclaim: "It's not much of a cheese shop, is it?" But I held back. It's entirely possible that this woman has forced a laboured smile to field many a less-than-hilarious Cleese-ism in the past. Or perhaps I do my fellow man a disservice? Perhaps nobody is actually crass enough to pull off such a stunt as that? To drop that particular sketch into conversation...

The tiny wraps of cheese looked tempting, particularly the pick'n'mix basket where six samples could be selected for a couple of quid. And there were fully made-up rolls, baguettes and sandwiches with a variety of comestible dairy middles on offer. I played it pretty conservatively with a strong cheddar and caramelised onion bap, costing me £2.10. Then I bought a small takeaway cappucino from Costa Coffee for £2.00 and I marched in £5.00 shoes towards Platform 2 for my £1.60 train ride.

The bench seat was all mine on the second carriage of this un-packed 15.08 service to Chingford calling at Bethnal Green, Hackney Downs and Claptonia. I pulled my paperback novel from my jacket pocket and started to read - but gave that up to stare through the still-gaping sliding doorway instead. I have always been fascinated by these precipices, shrouded in shaped and formed metal in 1972 or 1976 by Gammel or similar. I don't understand why I feel comforted by these openings. Whether on tube, train, bus or helicopter, I have always found the transience of the footway as it lingers at the edge of the world outside to be both tantalising and fascinating. It's like looking out through the flappy entrance of a tent, or standing in your porch. Sometimes, presented with such a view, the David Bowie instrumental 'A New Career In A New Town' enters my head.

I like to contrast these views, from one platform to the next: station to station. Searching my soul, I think this might have something to do with my childhood memory of taking a magical sleigh ride through a Christmas grotto in the corner of Exeter's 'Dingles' department store. I could feel the sleigh bumping around in the darkness - but I knew, of course, that it was not actually going anywhere. Yet when I dismounted with mum and stepped through the black curtain at the side, we had arrived in a different scene altogether: one with Santa in it. I had been tricked - in a lovely way.

Perhaps it's that special mystery that I enjoy. The anticipation of new surprises, new views, just as soon as the door re-opens. It gave me a good feeling about the journey ahead, as the door snapped shut and the unseen platform signalman blew his whistle in the traditional "POO-WEE-OOP!" manner that remains as timeless as 'A Brief Encounter'.

Trundling now out of the Liverpool Street tunnel and through the other side, I gaped in silent wonder at the East End industry spread out beneath me. The train ran on tracks some 20 feet in the air, just like the 'El' railway in Chicago. Massive factory buildings, thriving enterprises from decades and decades ago, were now split into smaller enterprises or turned into leisure centres and gyms. But the painted signs on their walls still held a candle to their history, as the proud base of Ernest Wall & Son or The London Pipe and Weld Co. Ltd.

From my giraffe's eye view, I could look down on the world of autumnal London, complete with men repairing motorbikes, parks with equal counts of dogs and children, and roads full of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians having scant awareness of the mighty train snaking along the brickwork arch ahead of them.

The journey, including two stops where the door slid open to proffer a new view from my favourite transient doorstep, was brief - but long enough to give me a delicious taste of the narrow pizza slice of London that I call home. As I made my way up the steps of Claptonia station, I tried to shut out the sound of the beeping Oyster machine ahead, and of the iPod blaring dodgy rap bollocks into the ears of the man climbing the steps besides me.

Were it not for those 21st century sounds, I could have lost myself in a wonderful time-travelling adventure. But I was home, and my daydreamy journey had come to an end. As all journeys must do.

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