s l e e p e r

[ 23:56 monday 8 november – shipton street, london ]

i wrote this four weeks ago. the final sentence, in retrospect, is ironic and slightly forlorn.

[ 21:53 monday 11 october – first great western train from hayle to paddington ]

i’m on my way back to london after spending the weekend in cornwall. leaving this remote limb of britain always provokes a slight lump in my throat, a gentle yearning. we are all imprinted in some way by the environment in which we spend our childhood but some places seem prone to leave a stronger mark than others. my (wholly subjective) impression is that cornwall is located at the more affecting end of the spectrum. the identity of many of my friends who grew up in cornwall seems to remain in some way anchored to its landscapes, climate and culture long after their lives take them elsewhere.

at a quarter before midnight on friday evening i checked into my cabin on the sleeper train at paddington. this is only the second time i’ve travelled on the service, the fist being in spring 1999 when i was living on the island of st agnes. on that occasion i recall a rather splendid dalliance kept me from my cabin until the final hour of the journey so i arrived in penzance exhausted and slept the whole journey by ship to the islands. traveling on this sleeper is overpoweringly nostalgic. arriving on the platform one is greeted by uniformed train officials standing outside every carriage with documents, a much larger crew than any other train service i’ve used. stepping into the train feels like entering a museum of 1970s british industrial socialism. the rolling stock was financed, constructed and brought into service in that period; fully in the state sector of course. somehow it has carried on ever since despite the intervening privatisation and general rendering-down of the railways. it is hard to believe this is a profitable service. i can only imagine that enough politicians with constituencies in devon and cornwall find the sleeper convenient to ensure a nice subsidy is maintained.

the cabins are all formica surfaces and sturdy cast steel fittings. everything has a chunky engineered feel to it. it doesn’t scream “design” in the way contemporary rolling stock tends to but all the details are pleasingly resolved. i like the clothes hangers built into the wall, integrated with elastic restraining bands to stop your clothes flapping around. this is what british design used to be, before it stopped being an engineering-driven discipline and became a fashion-driven discipline. one half expects to find harold wilson puffing on his pipe in the restaurant car.

at half past seven on saturday morning a steward called tamsin tapped on my cabin door and brought in a jug of coffee and some biscuits. twenty minutes later sand dunes hove into view outside my window and the train pulled into hayle station where i alighted, to be met by anna (my sister).

the two poles of the weekend were a big family dinner on saturday night and a long coastal walk on sunday afternoon. dinner brought together my parents, my aunt jill from canada, anna and adam, sergio and myself. anna and adam won’t be in britain for christmas so the meal was slightly surreally accessorised with streamers and crackers. sergio and i braved the rain before supper to pick our way through the cowpats and gorse to the top of trencrom hill. this is a westerly outpost of the west penwith moors, a rugged windswept landscape dotted with weathered granite outcrops and stunted trees. from the top of the highest carn, buffeted by the wind and rain, we could see both coasts: the sand-fringed sweep of st ives bay stretching to godrevy to the north and st michael’s mount to the south.

on sunday we set out from lamorna cove around eleven in the morning. the strong easterly wind and a rising tide sent the swell crashing against the quay and sending plumes of spray high into the air. i find the atlantic incomparably thrilling, cold and mighty and relentless. a straggle of off-season tourists perched slightly nervously near the quay with their cameras poised, unsure how close they should advance. jill walked straight to the end of the quay and a huge roller exploded all around her. she returned grinning from ear to ear and miraculously dry.

from lamorna we walked along the coastal path to penberth, the first time i’ve covered this stretch of coast. every step was accompanied by crashing of the atlantic to our left. about half-way along we descended into a patch of ancient oak and chestnut woodland, with arum lillies peppering the ground. lowland cornwall was once covered with this habitat but today it is extremely rare. for me it is magical to be in such a place. under the canopy formed by the trees, their lichen-covered branches formed into a smooth mantle by the wind, everything was bathed in a damp greenish half-light and the roar of the sea was muffled. in places such as this i have a sense of enormous spans of time.

later on, at porthcurno, we ate pasties sheltering from the rain under the cliff whilst the rollers crashed against the beach. jill ventured to the shoreline and this time she get soaked. we found a slow-worm on the beach, just twenty centimetres long with a lustrous golden skin. maybe he had fallen from the cliff, certainly the sand is not his favourite habitat. as i held him in my hand he twisted around my fingers, as if fearful of falling, and pressed the side of his head against me, his tiny black tongue darting in and out against my skin. we carried him up the beach and placed him in some grass where he darted off.

my life is bursting with unshared stories. i am absorbed in trampoline to the exclusion of almost everything else. previously i believed it was just a question of finding time to write these despatches, but i now realise the reflection that underlies the writing is equally important; and it is this that i lack. my days are given to the ceaseless demands of my business. it is thrilling. but having achieved a near-perfect balance in my way of living between 1999 and 2003 it pains me to recognise how unbalanced my life is become. yet this is what i chose, in full consciousness, and through this imbalance i am achieving things i could achieve no other way.

in the last few months we have brought several more people into the team, and have moved the company’s office out of my house into a rather splendid neo-classical pile off old street. week by week the momentum is increasing.

a month ago i was in japan with christian and kumi. i have 400 photographs to show for this and a half-written wanderer despatch. two similarly half-written despatches from sicily were lost when my computer was stolen from a train between florence and milan in july. a further half-written despatch describes these losses. somehow i have to learn new habits which permit me to write and send these things, rather than having them fester unfinished on my computer. possibly i should try to write briefer observations rather than the rambling descriptives towards which i seem inclined.

with perfect timing my train is now arriving into paddington. this message, at least, is complete.

peace to all : c*

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