Posted on 17th March 2014
Things are changing.
For the last 18 years, I’ve been driving. Up the M3, around the M25 to the University of Greenwich, a round-trip of 200 miles and I did this two or three times a week.
I like driving, so this never felt like a real chore and with Radio 4 to keep me company, I was never bored and I certainly felt better informed for listening to the Today programme as I drove.
People would ask me why I didn’t use the train for this journey and I would tell them that it takes longer (which it does) and it costs more (which it does) and it’s less reliable (which it is). Getting the train makes no sense.
Things will change. Next academic year, the car will no longer be an option. My department is moving into a wonderful new building in the centre of Greenwich. There will be no parking. The train will be the only travel option.
So this academic year, I decided to test out the whole train thing to see if it was viable. I get up a little earlier, leave the house slightly less relaxed and I’ve had to modify my monthly budgeting.
It was a pretty rocky start. The winter of 2013-14 was characterised by storms, floods and land-slips, leaving the train network in chaos. I was late arriving at work more frequently than I had ever been and there were a couple of evenings when I wasn’t sure I was going to get home.
The car offered an end to all this disruption and uncertainty but I knew it wouldn’t be an option next year, so I stuck with the train.
It’s now spring and the weather has improved, so too has the service on the trains. In the last few weeks there have been no late arrivals and no uncertainty as to where I might be sleeping. The sun is out and is streaming through the carriage windows as I sit here writing this on my way up to London Waterloo. Things are changing for the better.
I am rediscovering the joy of reading (for pleasure).
As a busy teacher (I dislike the term “academic”) I do a fair amount of reading, mostly to keep myself up-to-date with the break-neck speed of evolution in the practice of web design and development. But with so little spare time, I find myself reading a lot of technical stuff wherever and whenever I can fit it in to my schedule. As a consequence of this, I have little or no time for reading for pleasure.
Changing from car to train is not just a modal difference, it’s been a lifestyle shift. Sure, the logistics and finances make no sense but I underestimated the benefits. In the main, the journey itself is more relaxing but the big gain is the extra 4 hours per journey I’ve recovered for doing stuff that I couldn’t do while driving, like reading or writing this blog post.
So in the past few weeks, I’ve read 6 books. Not the usual stuff on responsive web design or PHP but novels and memoirs. This is a total I would previously have managed in a whole year. It feels indulgent to dedicate so much of my time to pleasure but I’m getting over that and really enjoying reading again for the first time in many years.
I don’t like memoirs (or so I thought). Two of the six books I’ve read recently are memoirs and I really enjoyed both of them. Things are changing – perhaps it’s my age.
Tracy Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen was a joy to read from start to finish. I guess it helps if you’re a fan and/or you’re of a certain age but this (everything but the) girl can write. It’s a very refreshing read, written by someone who considers themselves to be and who has obviously remained an ordinary, down-to-earth person, despite the occasional bouts of fame. The book’s narrative is driven by Thorn’s rather unusual career trajectory and I’d like to think that there’s something for everyone in this book but I suspect it only really appeals to me and those like me.
Alan Johnson’s This Boy, on the other hand should be read by everyone. It’s a wonderful account of the poverty and deprivation endured by ordinary British families in the very recent past (and I’m not talking about Benefits Street).
Johnson is not a great writer, I’m sure even he would concede that but he does have a really good story to tell and he tells it really well. I found it incredibly interesting and very moving. It also provides some much-needed perspective on modern life. This is the perfect book to give to any whining teenager who complains that they can’t afford a third pair of trainers or a top-of-the-range smartphone.
Naturally, a memoir is only one side of any story and writers are unlikely to paint themselves in a poor light but in both cases, I believed the sincerity of the authors and ended up liking both of them more by the end of the two books.
I’m going to continue reading for pleasure on trains and I’m going to be reading more memoirs. Other people’s stories definitely help to give perspective to ones own life.∗