The train station is a master of disguise, and the pace of modern life makes its deception all the easier. The station, to most, is a purely utilitarian space, existing purely to be passed through; it is not a destination. Now they are not wrong, but neither are they entirely correct.
Last night I sat in the main hall of Haymarket station, Edinburgh.
By M J Richardson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are few seats, the space is designed to be passed through. Aha, says you, see! Hold, says I, for how many of you sat in the company of a moustachioed magician? How many of you were solitary audience to a crystal ball, throwing scorn to gravity whilst it danced through those dextrous hands?
Think this dude but with a moustache (and a shirt)…
By Very Quiet (Hadouken Uploaded by Paris 17) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
“That’s nice,” I hear you say, “I’ve clapped for buskers at a station before, what’s your point?”
My point, dear reader, is that such an encounter has not, and likely will not, happen to me anywhere else. I don’t revolve in circles that encompass the hang outs of magicians, I don’t meet many down the pub. It was rather wonderful, all the more so for being unlooked for.
“Are you done? Can I get back to my journeying please?”
Patience, please, for this was only the prologue.
Through my headphones (did I say I was immune to modern life and its imposed solitude?) I became aware of music. When the crystal ball ceased in its transit, both magician and I looked up. No, management were not piping in classical piano for the benefit of late evening travellers; it was an impromptu performance. The piano I would discover the next day, when I too passed the gates, was advertising for a local maker and supplier. To my ears, not the most expert, the pianists touch sounded sure and not lacking in élan.
When the musician turned his mind to Tchaikovsky, however, the results extended beyond an easy ear massage.
For, filtered out of my awareness, a group of young women, sat in a rough circle on the floor some distance to my left, erupted like a small flock of starlings and homed in on the melodies. A quick conversation with the guards and they were through the gates and settled at the pianist’s feet. I saw not one ticket presented.
The music stopped. My mystic friend and I looked at one another in puzzlement. Had our erstwhile companion, turned disruptors? Were they to break the spell in the name of some youthful inanity?
The answer was no; the station was wearing a truly playful face tonight.
At distance I have no idea what words passed between guards, pianist and their new companions; however the first result was the resettlement of pianist at piano.
“That’s nice, ” I hear you say, “the young folks just wanted to be near the piano; faith restored. Is that it?”
No, that is not ‘it.’
For the pianist, this time, performed not alone, but with a dance troupe. The young ladies, you see were a dance troupe, a ballet and contemporary dance troupe to be specific. Another comrade of the hall, so far unnoticed by myself (he was sat on the other side from the entirely too fascinating magician), commented, “I think I saw a Scottish ballet bag amongst their things.”
Now if you’ve never been to this particular train station, you must understand the main hall has very little in terms of fixed furniture; I’ve already commented on the dearth of chairs. It was built, indeed rebuilt several years ago, to accommodate significant throughput with comfort. Close to Ten at night, that space is simply space; more than enough for leaping bodies and rolling figures.
What about the station staff you ask? Oh they were trying to join in, they were filming, they were having a grand time of it. You might think that spontaneous performance was a welcome, but not unfamiliar event. Who knows, perhaps that’s true. I like to think it is.
The show was all the more wonderful for being an unexpected, and quite unintended, gift to those in the station that night. It’s also a highly useful experience for an author (or would be author); I’ll happily accept any bets against my including something highly similar in a fictional work in future. Please contact me directly for my bank details for your deposits.
My beloved, whom I was awaiting, arrived into the hall from the other side, walking into the end of the performance. The station certainly hadn’t shown her the face she’d expected. Shorn of the context, she saw a station wearing it’s, “bet you didn’t expect his” hat. The music duly found it’s crescendo and conclusion, and the transfigured youths swept lithe limbs through their last spontaneous choreographies.
The minimal, and transient, audience clapped and whistled their approval. Then it all broke apart, not as something destroyed, but as elements simply moving out of the eddy of this temporary nexus.
The feelings left were a mix of wonder and gratitude. Wonder at having encountered the beauty and mystery of my fellow humans where I expected only a peaceful wait with an audiobook for company. Gratitude for having witnessed the peculiar alchemy of human spirits in the absence of an agenda; unless it be simple happiness.
“What about those of us without regular access to metropolitan railway stations in world cultural centres?”
Well I will offer you Perth Railway Station. Hang on, don’t run away. You see myself and my beloved made an interchange there some months back, and had twenty or so minutes to spend. I knew the station only as dusty pink sandstone through a semi-transparent train window on prior journeys.
Now most of you won’t have spent any time there either, and if you’ve passed through it’s likely you passed through platforms one & two on the eastern flank: the only ‘busy’ lines of the seven that remain. On this side, there is a basic canopy, a ticket office and a newsagent. It’s pink (the stone) and pleasant.
“It looks like a provincial train station …” you say, “quelle surprise.”
Aha, remember I did say that was the station’s side less remarkable!
On this journey, we disembarked on platform seven on the western side, and here the station starts to show a different face (you knew it was coming!). You step off underneath the old corrugated platform canopy, held by antique timber valances, with decorative metal work around lamps and pillars old lamps and pillars.
By Mark Nightingale [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
When the train departs you are left facing, on the other side, an extensive red sandstone wall, pitted with grand doorways and windows. This is all that remains of what must have been a substantial working building. It’s all quite the step back in time, there isn’t even a vending machine that I spotted. Yes it’s all a tad tired, and even unloved, but spend any time in its company and you’ll feel it trying to tell you a story.
Intrigued we wandered into what was formerly the central hall of the station, entirely roofed, complete with wrought iron walkway crossing platforms three & four. For company in this grand Victorian space, we had only pigeons. From pulsing artery of the nation’s trade, it now exists only for a handful of small services which terminate here, most days at least. Illustrious days of old speak loud in the scale of stone work, the elegant latticed bridge, the myriad of long unlocked doors, and in each ornate trellis.
By Smiley.toerist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The station, it transpires, was designed by one Sir William Tite in 1848. The same William who designed the Royal Exchange in London, no less. It did, according to multiple sources, win an award, such was the quality of its design. It is a grade ‘B’ listed building. It’s not just we two who think it’s worth a look; but I suspect the club of admirers isn’t at capacity. The bulbs in some lamps look of vintage provenance, and I wondered aloud whether the type was even manufactured anymore.
In 2015 the station won a further award for a new footbridge, installed at the behest of accessibility regulations; only this time it was a carbuncle award, such was the ‘quality.’
It is, apparently, not just ugly (and it is), it actually obscure signals, meaning trains have to stop further along the platform. A tad regrettable in poor weather, as it forces trains to stop with the majority of carriages beyond the roof. There’s joined up thinking for you! You could just tell by looking from the old bridge, replete with ramps, to the new, that no one uses it. It’s a minor mystery that it was ever built.
Twenty minutes later, a railway station which is often more haunted than occupied, was become a witness to history, and not just a place to mark time. It spoke of the rhythm of human industry and the inevitable transition of the modern to the memorial. Maybe if we were all just a little more thankful for the preservation of such spaces, decisions to impose ugly metal additions would be less common.
The station was destination rather than conduit on this short stop over. This particular face was waiting to be seen, it hid in plain sight through the years of my own passing through. With not a single happenstance magician in sight, it was still pretty enchanting.
The train station is a nexus; sometimes you meet your fellow humans, sometimes you meet the station itself. Sometimes you meet a hoard of intoxicated sports fans and you wonder why you didn’t invest in riot gear and earphones.
Pay the station some attention though; it might just be showing you a face you didn’t expect.
Title picture: By Rept0n1x (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons