The joke we share in the shop where I buy my morning paper
has either YT or Tarzhoun asking me “How are you ?” and me answering “ I’m fine thank you – I haven’t read the paper yet !” And we laugh, what else. Because the news is depressingly repetitive – but if the world is going to end, I’ll like to know when via a conduit more reliable than social media. And bad news gets to you – mindless destruction, endless upheaval and suffering, bluster, bombast and denial, the spiralling costs of everything.
I saw one of my “meet in the street” friends the other day, not as chipper as usual. In fact, she was sitting in one of M&S’s thoughtfully provided chairs. So we did all the courtesies, having not seen each other for a while, and I asked how she was. “Not so good” she said. And it transpires that she has a heart condition which has proved hard to diagnose so “they just keep trying me with different drugs” she went on. “And most of them make me sick.”
I sympathised, I know somebody else in a very similar position.
As gently and tactfully as I could, I inquired to be sure that there were people she could call. She does, thank heaven. And then in our ensuing conversation I told her that, the other day, I said aloud something I have not thought before, let alone spoken: I have lived too long. “Oh” she said, “I couldn’t agree more. Tell me where to get that train ..”
And I was back in my childhood with the refrain of one of the songs Paul Robeson sang “… the people keep a-comin’/ and the train done gone.”
Robeson’s voice was unique. He was brave and angry and intelligent, stubborn and flawed. And the American government of the day drove him to ill health and death because of his political views. Interesting, isn’t it, that they call it a blacklist ? I have mentioned his name twice recently to young people of colour – not a clue – so this morning I looked him up before I began to write.
And then I looked up the refrain of the spiritual I remember which – I had not expected to find this – interpreted the metaphor of the train – as a new way, a form of transport that could take you away from darkness into light, was fast and powerful. I was quite thrilled.
The reference listed several other songs on the same theme, harnessing something new to better, like Curtis Mayfield’s anthem “People Get Ready”.
When my sister was studying meteorology at Prestwick, she used to come home to spend a few days, collect her clean laundry and go back. We saw her off at the station and I can still remember the enormous coal black express, the noises it made, the steam, the lights – which, like some great benign and mysterious beast bore her away, just as it brought her back again. Years later, I fell in love with the zoo train in a Disney cartoon of the 1940s called Bongo the Bear, in which, facing a steep incline, he puffs “I think I can, I think I can…”
until he gets up what the lyrics of Rock Island Line call “a little bit of steam and a little bit of speed.”
Getting on a train essentially meant getting out of where you were at the time, as fast as you could and the implication is, if you are going to do this, where you’re going must be better – you must believe it will be better.
This week an old acquaintance got in touch, I haven’t heard a word or whisper for ten years. And does he tell me about his new life, a place in a new world ? No. But he told me a whole lot about what went wrong in the old one about which I could do nothing at the time and even less, ten years on.
I am wary of “forgive and forget”. I believe in remembering – but how you remember is pretty important. There are ugly things that will never go away. You have to make sure for every ugly, there’s a beauty – or the ticket is extortion and the train done gone.