Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Some Reasons I Love Trains

I thought of titling this quick, impromptu blog post "Ten Reasons I Love Trains", then remembered how much I dislike this modern phenomenon of arbitrarily numbered lists.

Anyway, I love trains. Who doesn't? Breathes there a man with soul so dead...

But the appeal of the train is so specific, so many-sided, I feel compelled to write about what it means to me.

1) First off, a train is a sort of solid metaphor. A metaphor for what? For all sorts of things. For some reason, trains seem to be an inexhaustible source for analogies and figures of speech. Full steam ahead, off the rails, whistle-stop tour, the wrong side of the tracks, end of the line, one-track mind....I'm sure you could come up with a much longer list of train-related phrases that have entered the lexicon.

As a kid, I was wildly excited by the title of an wee-hours radio show called Night-Train. (My ambition was to listen to it all night, but I'm not sure I ever listened to a single minute of it.)

"Bye Bye Miss American Pie" (one of the few pop or rock songs my father liked) draws on railway imagery for its last verse, in a very memorable way:

And the three men I admire the most
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
They took the last train for the coast the day the music died.

Then there is "Slow Train Coming", a song and album by Bob Dylan, the Guns 'n' Roses song "Locomotive" (and indeed, "Night Train"), and...well, any number of others.

Trains also seem ideal for dramatizing the human situation. Recently, I watched the final episode of a series which dramatized one of the main characters' deaths by showing her taking a journey on a mysterious train, filled with all the people she'd known in her life. I'm sure a thick, thick book could be filled with similar examples.

2) The chug-chug-chug sound in the background. It's a rather pleasing sound, and it reminds you every moment that you are on a journey.

3) The fact that every train and every train-station is linked to a nationwide network of railways and railway stations. This creates a delicious awareness of the country around you, all the different cities and towns as part of a greater whole, a sense of opening horizons. The part, however, is not swallowed up in the whole. Each train station has its own atmosphere and identity. What a difference between a sleepy country station and a bustling city centre station!

4) A train isn't really a part of the environment through which it passes. It doesn't get caught in traffic or have people stopping it to ask for directions. This gives it a strangely disembodied, even dream-like atmosphere. You're there, but you're not there.

5) A train is a truly public transport. You are sharing a space with complete strangers, a space which invites rather than repels interaction. This might, admittedly, be a mixed blessing at times. But it makes possible protracted conversation between strangers, in a way that is almost impossible anywhere else except on a plane. And even if you don't talk, just sharing a carriage with others has a sociable element.

6) All the announcements, both in stations and on trains themselves. They are usually read by well-spoken people, and the elocution, pronunciation, and formality is a pleasure in itself. There is the poetry of place-names, as well as the poetry that settles on very ordinary phrases when they are used over and over: "Mind the gap" is probably the most famous example.

One of my favourite book titles of all time is The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One, an anthology of train-related ghost stories. The title obviously wouldn't work if the phrase was not such a familiar one.

7) A very particular idea, one which may be unique to me. I've noticed that whenever I'm reading a book of history, or any book where social and cultural trends are discussed, the image of a train always comes into my mind. History itself seems like a train, as well as all the constituent streams of history.

This image especially comes to my mind when I'm reading about the lead-up to the 1916 Rising, the Russian Revolution, or some similar great historic moment. (I mean "great" neutrally, of course.) When events are moving with great speed or momentum, the train seems like the only adequate metaphor.

Perhaps crucial to this association is the sense of strain. Trains always seem to be straining forward. I associate this same sense of strain with the events of history, which we might either be resisting or assisting. Perhaps it is my Irish nationalist background, but any history that is not the history of a struggle seems dull and uninspiring to me.

I could go on and on, but I might as well get off here.

Monday, August 22, 2022

De Alfonce Tennis by J.P. Donleavy (1)

Today, my inter-library loan order of De Alfonce Tennis arrived. I'm looking forward to reading it. Not only is it a book that meant a great deal to me at one stage of my life, but I'm expecting it will be something of a "time capsule" of my early-to-mid teens.

The full title of the book is De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions. Its History, Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct and Regimen. A Legend by J.P. Donleavy. (I have added punctuation to the title. Donleavy's frequent disregard of punctuation is typical of his eccentric writing style.)

De Alfonce Tennis is a very strange book. The first part purports to be the history of a game called-- you guessed it-- De Alfonce Tennis. The central character is J.P. Donleavy himself (referred to as Jay Pee in the story, whereas Donleavy was actually known as "Mike" to his friends).

The history is obviously fictional and tongue-in-cheek, full to the brim of dramatic and improbable events. More on that anon.

The book gets even odder once the story part is over. The rest is a sort of guide-book for De Alfonce players, going into great detail on rules, exercise, health, lifestyle and various other miscellaneous aspects of being a De Alfonce player. It's all very entertaining, but that doesn't take away from the strangeness. It's one of those jokes that are prolonged way beyond what you expect, that amuse (if they don't annoy) by their very audacity.

As I've already mentioned, this book came into my life in my teens. I think I was about fourteen. I've never been able to ascertain where it actually came from. It just appeared in our flat. Since our flat was full of books, and books were always coming and going, this wasn't all that strange. But it did add to the book's aura of weirdness.

It was also my introduction to J.P. Donleavy. I was a Donleavy nut in my teens and my early twenties. I can't claim to have even read most of his books, but I read everything I could get my hands on. (This was before the internet. Libraries had very limited Donleavy holdings, and I rarely had any money in those days.)

I had the good fortune to interview J.P Donleavy in 1998. I wrote a letter (enclosing a review of one of his books that I wrote for a college newspaper) asking for an interview, and to my surprise he agreed. He explicitly told me when I met him that one of the reasons he granted me the interview is that I mentioned De Alfonce Tennis in my letter, a book that he considered unfairly neglected. (Maddeningly, I lost the tape of the interview.)

I also learned that De Alfonce Tennis is a real game-- or at least, that it was. Donleavy told me that he did play it with his friends. Whether it's still played, after his demise in 2017, is another question.

And so, now I've given an overview of the book, back to the story part.

Much of the story takes place on an ocean cruise to America, a setting that gives the book much of its unique flavour. The game of De Alfonce itself is full of naval terminology (for instance, the right and left sides of the court are called "Starboard" and "Port"). This idea appeals to me a lot.

Considering I've never been on an ocean cruise, stories involving ocean cruises have had a disproportionate influence on my life. Well, two stories, to be precise: De Alfonce Tennis and Brideshead Revisited. The ocean cruise section in Brideshead Revisted motivated me to begin the diary I've more or less kept up since 2015. It got me excited about the flavour of each particular day, the days it described on the cruise being especially distinctive. (Ocean cruises also excite me, dramatically, as one of the few relatively self-contained social situations in our uber-connected world.)

I won't go into detail about the complicated backstory of De Alfonce Tennis. It's a blatant leg-pull, involving things like a missing yacht called Hiyathere (carrying the original Fourteen players of De Alfonce Tennis's predecessor game Bangokok), a police detective named AKA Alias, and a Founder who commits vicarious suicide by having an assassin shoot him with a diamond-tipped bullet-- just before he was scheduled to reveal the mystery of the Hiyathere on a TV talk-show.

It's all delicious hokum, and you can sense how much Donleavy enjoyed writing it. I can understand the appeal. I derived a similar sort of fun from writing about the Unicorn School of poetry, an exercise in fantasy that pleased me much more than anyone who read it, I suspect.

Our hero Jay Pee becomes the heir to De Alfonce Tennis, in a passage I can't resist quoting:

On the eighteenth floor in a corner office looking upwards along Madison Avenue and with the sun beaming in, I was handed a key to unlock a large gleamingly polished leather box resembling a shotgun case. Which lid upon coming open produced the strains of the 'Capriccio Italien' in all its simple muted harp strumming beauty. And set in the brocaded emerald velvet interior were four bright yellow balls and two strange racquets.

The scene then shifts to the ocean liner voyage to America, where Jay Pee makes the acquaintance of Laura, a stunningly beautiful and brilliant Englishwoman, who is always followed about by the aristocratic lout Lord Charles. Laura has some connection with the Hiyathere mystery, and was a friend of the Founder, but remains mysterious about it.

I fell in love with Laura. I think she was one of the two great literary crushes of my youth. The other was Pandora Braithwaite in the Adrian Mole books. This is how Jay Pee describes Laura, who he meets on the ship's squash court:

She, even in her purpoesful athletic gear, was an appetizingly curvaceous classically beautiful raven haired variety of an English rose who conveniently was also an awfully large shareholder in the present steamship line... not only could this irresistibly amusing lady devastate me at squash but her unquenchable curiosity and questions and my somewhat embroidered answers, fanned the mystery of the 'Hiyathere' into nearly nightmarish proportions... Having lived in Katmandu and among the Sherpas and monks of Tibet, she also spoke fluent Sherpa and Nepalese. And had the distinction of being the one female ever permitted to study the Buddhist sacred books.

My kind of girl! I envisaged her as a similarly raven-haired beauty a few years above me in secondary school, whose name I never learned but who I adored from afar.

I would cast Kate Beckinsale as Laura

Scanning through the book, I have been unable to find the ocean-bound passages which appealed to me so much, but which I know are there. I will have to resort to quoting other passages to illustrate Donleavy's great gift of painting atmosphere. Here he is having landed in New York:

Bathed in my rather overly ornate pink marble bath and dressed in a thick tweed suit and cap, college scarf around my neck and galoshes on my feet, I went as the snow continued to fall, down Fifth Avenue. Feeling the excitement again of this city. The park a great white apron spreading distantly under the grey stark branches of the trees. Citizens sporting ear muffs in the dry cold and a girl sped by me on skis. My nose was dripping, ears stinging but it was always warmly cheerful to be greeted in the lobby of the Game Room by its old retainers. A familiar face being always so reassuring in this so anonymous city.

My favourite passage comes towards the end of the book. Jay Pee has just received some shocking news, while reading in the Game Room library:

The heaving of my breath made me stand up. To walk in the hushed emptiness of the room to the window. The wind howling outside, driving swirling thicknesses of snow in a great white veil sweeping down over the park. Blue bolts of lightning striking from the sky. Traffic slowing stopped in the streets. The glass of the Game Club library shaking with the claps of thunder. Cars far below, white little heaps abandoned. People staring from their windows. Dark tiny figures struggling into the wind. Under the pearly blanket, the noises of the city muffled to alabaster silence.

But I don't have time to do justice to De Alfonce Tennis in one post. I'll have to return to the subject, once I've actually re-read the book.