I usually write articles, and review books, whilst I’m travelling on trains. Often I scribble in the journal I’ve kept, on and off, over the years since I left architecture school. That’s particularly useful to record an interesting conversation with a stranger, or as an impression strikes you. So to see in the New Year of 2012 (five weeks late … the hangover of a spontaneous trip to Yorkshire, freelance work with raw files, and a squatter of old mills, carried itself through Burns Night into February) here are some anecdotes picked up sur la route.

I - Summer 2005
For a spell in 2005, I travelled up and down the meandering railway from Aberdeen to Inverness each week, working on a project to refurbish a biotechnology firm’s laboratories. It’s true that things subtly change the further north you go, and my eyes were opened by how they do business in the Highlands. The journeys were also thought-provoking, in as much as I had plenty of time to think as the elderly Sprinter train trundled through a landscape of fields slowly enough that you could wave “hello” to the sheep as you passed.

One particular day, with a site pre-start meeting to attend, I boareded in Aberdeen and sat down opposite an older chap who told me he had served a couple of decades on the rigs, and whose time offshore was coming to a close. He was affable enough, and once he established what I did for a living, he expressed an interest in using his savings to buy cranes to hire out to construction firms. Although the memory of the man has begun to fade, the conversation sticks in my mind. 

With the certainty of someone who has convinced himself that all businesses work the same way, he told me all about the beast of an NCK Eiger crawler crane which he would hire out on a tremendous day rate to steel erectors, who were presently extending Inverness upwards. I mentioned that there were already several firms hiring out mobile cranes to contractors, and in fact one in Inverness itself called Weldex with a large fleet of giant crawlers who may well have cornered the market in construction hire.

At that he eyed me a little suspiciously, decided that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit, then changed the subject onto how slowly the train was travelling through the sheep-filled fields. His impression was correct in one sense – over the next couple of years, my reading told me that trouble was coming to the construction industry, because property prices were too high (houses at an all-time high multiple of salaries) and the canny Scottish investment trusts like Alliance and Personal Asset, were already holding more cash.  Now wasn’t the time to spend your life savings on a crane so large it needed three low loaders to move it around between conjectural building sites.

Thoughts of crane haulage fell away during a pre-start meeting where it transpired (to no-one’s surprise but my own) that everyone else knew everyone else, had worked with each other many times, and that circumvented the need for an agenda, rules of engagement or perhaps even the pre-start meeting itself. The return journey was just as interesting: a couple of young lads embarked in Elgin, and set down a carrier bag on the table. At least one had come ashore off a fishing boat in Lossiemouth, and he set to work on the bag’s contents – a bottle of cola and a companion volume of Jack Daniels. 

He measured it out generously, one for his pal, one for himself, then held a plastic cup out towards me. I told him thanks anyway and shook my head.  Despite his penchant for sour malt, he wasn’t a fisherman in the heroic Hemingway mould, but rather a character from Cannery Row. He shucked off his battered leather jacket, rubbed his hand over his arms, eyes and crew cut, then described in vivid detail how run-down the boat he sailed on was. By the time we reached Aberdeen both bottles were empty, and the fisherman looked decidedly derelict, too.

II - Spring 2006
The sun flashed over the wet sand at Lunan Bay, then a few moments later the train slowed for the viaduct over the South Esk, and the train clickety-clacked into the station at Montrose. The tide was out, and the exposed mudflats were pungent. My fellow travellers during that time of terrorism, pandemics and avian influenza were concerned: did contagious wildfowl fly in from Turkey, and did they land in the Montrose Basin, like Violet Jacob’s wild geese decades before?

H5N1 was in the news every day, and each morning I saw Glaxo’s pharmacologists on the train. They surely came from Central Casting – one balding egghead please, with overbearing opinions; plus one mad professor with a fluting voice and ZZ Top beard. Certainly, we have some model release forms right here. Thanks man, they fit the bill. Glaxo had recently been given a Government contract to develop a vaccine against the H5N1 strain, so I assume that was what these two were working on; certainly the big complex near the town’s harbour was slated for closure until GSK won that contract, now it was booming again.

Egg rode a touring bike with giant saddle bags; the Prof rode one of those comical Moulton bikes with little wheels, like Reyner Banham used. They may have known little about it, but could not escape from the tentacles of the construction industry: they talked about the new buildings erected on Cobden Street to house new production processes, and knowingly tapped out messages on the keyboards of their cheap black plastic Thinkpads. Were these secret formulae, DNA strings – or perhaps grumbles about programme delays caused by a shortage of specialist vaccine plant contractors…

I’ll never know, because some time later, Egg and Prof stopped getting that train: perhaps they were laid off when H5N1 became an unfounded scare, rather than a pandemic. Shortly before, it had seemed that it was spreading globally and mankind would succumb, apart perhaps from two pharmacologists who would pedal off into the sunset, with a goose stuffed under each arm.

I wonder what Glaxo are doing with their shiny new buildings now?

III - Autumn 2006
The slab boy, John Byrne, probably travelled undetected by most other passengers – but for several weeks late in 2006, I noticed a tall man with a close resemblance travelling northwards. The train horn honked like a sick goose, then it pulled out of the station: the sun glinted off the metal-sculpted eiders frozen in flight at Montrose on departure. Half an hour on, that same sun illuminated the filth on Aberdeen’s streets.  It may offend native Aberdonians, but the route from the railway station up to the city’s main street is desperate – a strip club, the Triads’ takeaway, a porn monger, and a pavement spattered with vomit after the weekend’s excesses.

By way of contrast, John Patrick Byrne cut an impressive figure – the hawkish profile, the salt-and-pepper moustache, the long legs taking long strides. He wore a green hacking jacket, jeans, Chelsea boots. He had a khaki piece bag slung over his shoulder, and a rollie-up pressed to his lip, once freed from the fag restrictions of train and station. All the while he was the observer rather than observed, perhaps jotting his thoughts into a notebook en route to the stage door.

He went striding up the stinking ravine of Bridge Street in Aberdeen each morning, but we diverged once we came to the top of Bridge Street: he carried on along Union Terrace, past the big bronze of Burns with his hairpiece of seagull shit, towards His Majesty’s. The pieces clicked into place: a production of “Tutti Frutti” was being staged at the theatre, and because Byrne lived at Newport-on-Tay at that time, he had to travel northwards for rehearsals. 

I headed up Union Street, past the run-down charity shops and empty units, wondering what Byrne made of the dirty streets of his destination, against the douce avenues of Newport – often described as Dundee’s Rive Gauche.  A few months later, work began on rebuilding the area around Aberdeen station. Dripping, rusting girder trusses – boiler-plated iron, marked with stalactites of lime and calcite streaming from the stonework; rubbish piled on the broken areas behind the platforms; crazed glass in the pedestrian bridges above the Inverness line.

IV - Winter 2010
Changed days, travelling southwards through the Howe of Fife and beyond. The longest rail journey I’ve made in this country – having traversed Germany on an ICE train a couple of years before – led me from Dundee down to Bristol. The train crossed from east to west, taking the line Carstairs line through unpopulated border country then Carlisle, Oxenholme and Preston. By then, I’d changed onto a Voyager, and my backside was numb, tired of sitting no matter how comfortable the seat. 

We won brief glimpses of canal in the winter sun on the way into Birmingham and its grim cavern at New Street.  Two long hours later, Bristol Temple Meads was a revelation: but not in a positive way. You disembark at Brunel’s grand western terminus and within a couple of minutes, you pass the gaunt, burnt-out shell of the Parcelforce building. Inner city dereliction on this scale, and abandonments which have stayed abandoned this long, seem to be a rarity now in Scotland, but Bristol has its own ecosystem. 

That was reinforced when we came through an underpass where a homeless man was pushing a shopping trolley with all his possessions inside it. It’s a scene familiar from documentaries on the Bronx in the 1970’s, but it was jarring in today’s supposedly Big Society Britain.

Yet … half a mile away is a grand Georgian square, a regenerated harbour front with upmarket shops, and the Arnolfini Gallery. Beyond that lies a monster shopping centre, Cabot Circus, which cost a nine figure sum to build. Head a mile in the opposite direction, though, and a derelict old chocolate factory sits rotting, and streets climb up the hill behind it lined with squats and terraces of peeling stucco, rainbow-painted VW Microbuses pulled into the kerb. The site of an old furniture factory had become a self-builders’ enclave, with all the crazy variety of an urban Findhorn. 

You soon realise this is perhaps the least egalitarian city of all, aside from the Great Wen of London, and that society’s extremes flourish in a cheek-by-jowl way you don’t generally see further north. Bristol is chastening because during my three days there, I gained the impression that the architects, lawyers, environmental charities and so forth who inhabit the docklands are the real ghetto-dwellers, and their efforts haven’t made a real difference to anyone’s lives but their own.

The purpose of travel, they say, is to open your own mind as much as to learn more about the world. It is whatever you take from it… in this case a broadened and lowered perspective of this country… perhaps the last years of Britain, before the country itself regenerates.  The motive is the same as the reason why I take photos of human landscapes.

Speaking of which, the next post will hopefully be a photo essay about one of Scotland’s great old names, and its ultimate fate.

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