Commonplace Newsletter #25
Welcome readers to the latest of Thomas J Bevan’s weekly essays on life, literature and flâneury.
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Convalescence is over and the day job resumes. Which means commuting from time to time. Which means I now feel compelled to write about this business of travelling back and forth alongside all of these huddled masses yearning to be free.
At least this being shuttled to-and-fro business affords me the time to ponder this whole strange state of affairs…
A Manufacturing Town by L.S. Lowry. Now I know there are no modes of public transport in this painting but essay-accompanying art selection is about vibe, not veracity.
Le Pain Quotidien
‘Man is born free, and is everywhere in trains’
~ Tiresias, Notes From Overground
It’s seven in the morning, just after. I’m showered, dressed, caffeinated, filled up on scrambled eggs cooked in unfeasibly large quantities of butter. I’m already out on the street, hands thrust in pockets and peacoat collar turned up, probably looking more Lowry painting extra than Albert Camus. Maybe the fact that I’ve quit smoking (it’s easy, I’ve done it dozens of times) is what lets the look down.
A slow walk to the station, a barely perceptible eyebrow raise/ backwards head tilt for the hi-vis and hardhat builder as we pass. In return I get the cordial stranger-greeting of ‘Alright mate?’ which accent and mumbling reduce to the barely intelligible ‘Rimay?’ I understand perfectly. This is England.
A slow walk as I said. A princely saunter, at least in my imagination. Since divesting myself of the last few residual pieces of playing-the-game careerism I find that I walk slower and that I allot myself what many would consider to be far too much time to reach my destination. I now presume a five minute walk to take twenty and a twenty minute walk to take an hour. And so on. This can end up involving some degree of organisation and preparation the night before. The pursuit of idleness makes you paradoxically efficient and diligent. I am beginning to gain a reputation for punctuality.
My younger self may well despair, but such is aging.
I’m at the station- a one platform job, the embankments overgrown with long grass, weeds, flowers, trees. I realise that I know the names of virtually none of them. The departure announcement screen is broken, it shows a small Microsoft Windows home screen, years old. I shrug.
This station is in a nice neighbourhood so the graffiti is moderate. Mainly tags, although I also learn that the pandemic is apparently a scam. Also, via a sticker, that I should eat a vegan diet for the sake of the planet. Try as I might, I can’t quite escape politics. Walden Pond becomes more inviting by the day. As does the tonsure and the vespers and tending to bees. But I suspect even monks have to do a little social media outreach nowadays. Build the brand and so forth.
The train arrives. I board, I choose a seat, I sit, I sigh. I look out of the window as the world begins to blur by.
The Art Of Life, The Life Of Art
Now I could relay every last detail of my commute here: every stop, every distorted announcement about how unattended luggage may be destroyed or damaged and how if you see anyone looking suspicious you should report it (I always imagine a man in Alain Deleon trench coat and fedora reading an oversized broadsheet with eyeholes cut out).
I could go on about how the wheelie bag and it’s consequences have been a disaster for the human race or I could note the seemingly annual increase in the number and variety of infantalising and nannyish signs that festoon and spoil the train carriages: don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t put your feet here, don’t perform this obviously dangerous act that common sense would dictate you avoid. But at least our arses are now legally covered should you in fact choose to do so.
I could go on about such things and a dozen more interrelated subjects- the annoying, the ominous, the whimsical, the overseen and overheard moments of shared humanity that all occur on the standard commute. But I’ll refrain, at least for this essay.
I do think such subjects are interesting though. They are the actual stuff of life for most of us, for good or ill. Life is made of such things and I think it pays to reflect on them. To take them in rather than blot them out, the strategy of 95% of people I see on the train.
It’s the stuff of cliched parody but I do find it disconcerting how I am the only one not thumbing away at a smartphone or cocooned in headphones. The only non-phone zombie. I carry a book of course (selected largely on the basis its portability- £1 charity shop orange Penguin books are one of the great inventions of the 20th century) but I rarely read more than a handful of pages each journey. I mostly look out of the window and think and not-think.
Parts of this commute are downright picturesque- rolling English countryside, cows and sheep, even a distant blink-and-you’ll-miss-it castle on a hill. I can’t see how Instagram stories or TikTok videos or timelines can really compete, but maybe that’s just me.
The fact is this: views from train windows, overheard small-talk, grumbled cynicism over break-time instant coffee, these are the things that life consists of. And I think our art and our stories should reflect that fact, or at least acknowledge it.
In times of knights there were knightly tales. In times of heroes there were heroic odes. And in times of careers and spreadsheets and Zoom meetings and precarious employment, literature should speak of these realities.
People need this, whether they know it or not. See, If my relative success with these essays is due to anything, it is due to the fact that I am one of an increasingly small cadre of online writers who embraces the ordinary. A good number of readers, so my experience tell me, want to escape from escapism and fantasise about the end of the need for fantasies. The only way out is through. Transcendence comes from immersion. The paradoxes of the sages.
Art can benefit from taking the ordinary as it’s subject matter. Nicholson Bakers Mezzanine, who everyone I have ever foisted a copy upon has enjoyed, is about an office workers lunch break. David Foster Wallace’s unfinished final novel was about tax office workers. George Shaw- the only Turner Prize nominated artist who the man in the street seems able to stomach- paints naturalistic scenes from the suburban Tile Hill estate in Coventry using enamel Airfix model paint. There are precedents.
So maybe I’ll join the ranks of the artists who honestly, humorously, relatably, powerful depict life as it is, the life of the Everyman and the Everywoman. This, at least, is what I tell myself as the train begins to slow and the tannoy announces that the service will terminate here.
Same Shift, Different Day.
Through the turnstiles, through the sliding doors, over the zebra crossing, along the row of student occupied houses with their hand-drawn ‘in solidarity with Black Lives Matter’ A4 window posters. Up the hill, sidestep a bin-liner of rubbish torn open by seagulls and then here we are.
I linger in the doorway a moment, switching from dreamy contemplative mode to work mode. A face to meet the faces I’ll meet.
I enter. I greet colleagues as I pass them, the English procession of ‘Morning, how are you?’ ‘Yeah, good mate, you?’ again and again.
I enter the kitchen.
I make a beeline.
I click the kettle on.
Until next time,
Alright I’ve decided, seeing as a few people have asked. On March 14th I’m going to turn on the money tap. Feels right.
This means that you will have the option to buy me the equivalent of a beer each month* in exchange for bonus essays, stories and what ever other format of entertainment-giving I conjure up.
Note- and I can’t emphasise this enough- these Sunday essays will ALWAYS be free. If you want to stay on the free subscription then God bless. I’m more than happy to have you here either way.
I’m grateful as always for all of your shares, sign-ups, likes and comments. It’s truly appreciated.
(*Though I’ll probably spend it on second hand paperbacks and cuts of meat, truth be told)