Monday, 1 March 2010

On being fully platformed, and other experiences


I found a new verb, this weekend. To platform, or to be platformed. Picked it up on the 11:06 from Paddington to Castle Cary.
We drew up, unwontedly, just outside Reading, and if there was any possibility of hearing, locally, a single blackbird singing, or even, farther and farther, all the birds of Berkshire, it was obliterated by the guard’s announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, it looks as if we’re going to be held outside the station waiting for a platform. Please do not attempt to leave the train until we are fully platformed and stationary within the station.”
To platform. To shape like a plat. Which is, I discover, a map or a plan, or a variant of plait, as in braid. Or, better, the French word, one half of plat-du-jour.
I think, therefore, that to platform is to imagine the dish you’d most like to eat at your next meal, and to platform fully is to realise in your imagination not just the dish, but the place in which you’d most like to eat it.
So as the train leaves Reading and gathers speed under darkening skies, I am elsewhere, sitting in the sunshine by Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy. Nearby, a man angles for and catches a trout, which he cleans and fills with almonds, olives and chives, then griddles over a wood fire while his wife brings out a salver of golden potatoes and green beans, sautéed in butter, sage and garlic. And a glass of Prosecco. And we listen to the quiet applause of waves through shingle.
Outside the train, the sky fills with clouds like rags soaked in sooty water. In a field is a harrow, rusty and bearded with dead grey foliage. A ditch looks as if it’s been filled with black glass, which shatters as the squall arrives. The colours of the trees – the pale green moss on the bark of beech and sycamore, the brown-purple of the alders’ fruits and catkins, the yellow of the willow wands – seem as if drawn from the soil of graveyards, and for a full minute I glimpse and am gripped by all the terrors of the endless and abysmal dark.
Stop it. Look away. Read your book...
“The mind in apprehending also experiences sensations which properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone. These sensations are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely offspring of the mind.
“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent, the nightingale for its song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind.
“Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”

This is from the philosopher A N Whitehead, quoted by the inestimable Tom Paulin in his superb study, Thomas Hardy, the Poetry of Perception. And sunlight falls on the page, and I look up, and now the same colours sparkle on beeches, sycamores, alders and willows as if their roots were sunk into boxes of jewellery.
A woman walks down the carriage aisle, presumably on her way to the buffet, dressed in a floor-length evening gown – hoops of blue and white which make her look like an animated vase.
The week has been studded with similar moments. It could have been staged by Fellini. On Tuesday we had lunch in an elegant gastropub and three convinced and convincing chavs came in, enemies all of the razor and partisans of the unlaundered tracksuit, with two bull terriers, one brindled and one black.
The chavs ordered a bottle of champagne, and the dogs copulated noisily in the middle of the room. As they disengaged, as if on cue, enter, in single file, two women, identically dressed in navy blue, pushing identical prams.
When, leaving Castle Cary on Saturday, we reached our destination, a hospice which stands, as it were, on the very lip of the abyss which had roared up around me a few hours earlier, I was soothed and intrigued by its Zen-like calm and practicality, and the gardens in which streams, and fountains playing over mirror-bright steel spheres, and bird tables and squirrel runs, had been arranged to be visible from every room.
The trip home on Sunday was a muddle and a bore. The 09:36 from Castle Cary was suddenly cancelled. The promised “alternative transport” which was to take us to catch the 10:53 from Westbury never arrived. I hitched a lift with a kind family who were delivering a friend to the station, but at Westbury, after being advertised as “on time” and announced as “arriving,” the 10:53 was cancelled as well, and we were put in troop train conditions on some local carriages to pick up a Paddington service at Bath.
In London, the Central Line wasn’t starting before Marble Arch, so I walked there. Cold afternoon, and raining again. Hunched and hooded, I did something which my superstitious self would normally forbid: I trod on the stone which commemorates the site of Tyburn Tree.
These are chillier times than I expected.
If you got this far, thanks for your company. The picture at the top, by the way, seemed appropriate. It’s one I took a few weeks back of the place on Hampstead Heath where I met the woman who wanted to see the ghost of William Blake, which (or whom?), as I reported just before Christmas, I wondered if I’d seen somewhere else the day before.

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