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.