Thursday, 10 February 2011

Notes from Overground

As a student of the everyday, I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me this long to read – partly on the recommendation of Philip Wilkinson (http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com/2011/01/paddington-london.html) – Roger Green’s wonderful, out-of-print book, Notes from Overground, published under the pseudonym Tiresias in 1984. A former civil servant, Green tells the story of his 20-year, two-hours-a-day train commute from Oxford to London and back again in the form of a ‘Premeditated Notebook’ modelled on Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations and Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. I thought it would be about the hidden enchantment of the everyday but in fact it is a very bleak but funny book about the lives wasted by commuting, this ‘small unspectacular tragedy’. Here are some quotes which will give you some idea of the book’s voice:

‘In the winter dusk, at successive stations, we peer out to see the wives waiting behind steering wheels, children scuffling in back seats. Daddies descend and are met. Each set of participants knows only of its own little scene … Each welcomed father ought not to learn of the existence of dozens of others along the line, any more than a prisoner should hear of the execution of his fellows.’

‘Orwell foresaw it all: loudspeakers blaring a humourless mixture of musak and disinformation. Twenty-four-hour digital clocks. Trainspeak coinages like Inter-City, Travellers-Fare, Awayday, Railair, Sealink …’

‘How often does someone point to an unoccupied seat and inquire: “Is anyone sitting there?” Usually the question receives a civil answer, yet it could only really be justified coming from Macbeth in the presence of Banquo’s ghost.’

‘When the train passes any kind of sporting activity … invariably nothing is happening. The bowler is always about to bowl, the referee about to restart play, the archer poised to shoot. Nothing takes place before our profane gaze. At our uncouth advent, the initiates freeze into a tableau vivant, waiting for us to pass before they resume celebration of the mysteries. This inexplicable phenomenon underlines the lack of rapport between our unnatural train-existence and normal life outside. The Grecian Urn syndrome.’

After reading this neglected classic, I’ve now ordered Green’s latest book, the intriguingly titled Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen.

4 comments:

  1. I'm pleased that you like this book that you came to partly trough my blog – and I'm sorry if my somewhat misleading use of the word 'enchanting' made you expect something sunnier than Roger Green's often bleak take on the daily journey. But dismal and funny at once, it's a remarkable book, and unlike anything else. When I first read it, soon after it came out, I used to tell friends about it, but they would usually give me strange, old-fashioned looks, as if I were recommending a book about trainspotting, and I came to think I was the only person who had read it, or ever would. Maybe it will find a few more readers now.

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  2. Yes! Notes from Overground is one of my favourite books. Maybe it is dismal, but it also full of acute observations -- some of which have acquired an extra resonance now we have said goodbye, perhaps for ever, to the delights of an unprivatised railway network.
    I think the book was praised in some quarters when it first came out (in the Orwellian year of 1984!), even though there are no glowing reviews on my paperback copy. Incidentally, I bought this copy second-hand from Waltham Forest library, who had withdrawn it from its shelves, presumably because no one was borrowing it; but I was able to buy a new copy around 1995 (appropriately in Oxford, from Blackwell's) to give to an Anglophile Aemrican friend. It is after all a very English book, isn't it?

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  3. I'm glad to see this book already has some fans.

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  4. I bought this book after reading the post and am reading it as my 'commuting book'. Not sure what that says, but it's been a great find - thanks!

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