I have made my English journey – by rail,
Chester to Euston return – maybe,
on average, three times a year since I was four.
It is like revisiting a ragged
museum of serendipitous
keepsakes: Canada Geese on Cheshire ponds;
GEC become Alstom in Stafford:
wind turbines and mobile phone towers
jostling radio masts near Rugby;
concrete cows in Milton Keynes; Ovaltine
in Kings Langley; Watford’s mosques;
and, anywhere, marshalling yards of
derelict rolling stock, broken factories,
gaudy retail parks, cramped estates, distant
mansions, acres of subsidised rape
and denatured fields of maize stubble –
no north/south divide, just comfort or neglect.
I think of London as we begin to slow.
The city of power not poverty –
its lure, its promise; Larkin’s ‘postal districts
packed like squares of wheat’; Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’;
the nation’s sinkhole – and its flywheel
driving riches, driving penury,
as if everywhere else were its hinterland.
The rails, for the most part, follow the canals –
Grand Union, Oxford, Trent & Mersey,
Shropshire Union. They follow the land’s
contours – and bring me home to a place
that is not far from the edge of England,
where I am minutes from a sight of mountains.