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Sunday, 1 August 2010

When you set out on your journey...

With Oscar at Glasgow Queen Street
Off to Scotland for a fortnight. Lin dropped me, my luggage and Oscar at New Street for the 1120 train to Glasgow. As we travelled North the weather disimproved. From Glasgow Central station we strolled to Glasgow Queen Street station, in drizzle, waited a while amid the crowds, went out for a smoke, returned to the concourse until our 1611 train was called at Platform 4, then found myself a comfortable seat, with Oscar ensconced in his igloo, my picnic on a little table and my book on my lap.
A stooped man in his sixties with an inward curved face and few teeth was wheeled up a ramp into the same carriage and gently guided to one of the two disability reserved seats opposite mine - swiftly vacated by a couple who'd seen him being brought aboard. As soon as the train was on its way he leaned engagingly towards me and said "You're a wanker" adding "I'm from Glasgow", tapping his small jumpered chest.
I smiled in a conciliatory way. He muttered something."Sorry I didn't catch that?""I dinna like yer hat" My leather outback hat that could be squashed i
nto a bag was also on the table between us.
I replied "...and you're quite a rude man."
Leaning again he confided "I'm a linguist. I lived in Spain for 15 years"
"A linguist? Do you speak Spanish?"
"Fuck off"
The elder lady across the aisle was giving attention to looking out of the window on her side. "She's gaw deid hair," said my fellow traveller more loudly.
"You really are a rude man," I said, lamely - hampered by a disability which wasn't just physical. Asperger's? Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody?
"I'm a professional footballer" he said quietly.
"Oh right. Who do you play for?"
"Fuck off," - pause - "Where you going?"
There was a crescendo to this sequence that I thought would end with a remark of contempt at my connection with Inverness but he went quiet. I sipped wine from my picnic, continued reading Ashes and Diamonds. The conductor came by. The man offered a couple of new Scottish £20 notes "fer Perth." The conductor, bending over him with care, took one of the proffered notes and issued a ticket and change. Perth was about 30 minutes away I thought. How had he passed ticketless through the barrier at Queen's Street?
"Wait a moment, big man" he half-whispered to the conductor, "Can you get me a help with getting off at Perth?"
"Nay problem, sir," A collusive wink of thanks for the help. The conductor continued up the train. I continued reading, gazing now and then at the passing lowland landscape but waiting. "You know who's the one person I trust on this train?"
I was going to have to answer "That conductor?"
"Naw" tapping his little jumpered chest "Me!"
I was reminded of the face of the little red coated killer in Don't Look Now and felt an abrupt twinge of danger. "But you've just been helped onto the train, and you'll be helped off!" At this sign of incipient irritation the man rose to his feet, leant over the little table between us, pointing at me with a bent finger.
"You're an air-sole"
"Wait a moment! Aren't you supposed to be disabled?"
"You are (pause) the biggest air-sole in the world, you are a fucking air..."
Another passenger, a young man, came through "Would you shut it, please. Watch yer language. Just watch yer language." My man sat as quickly as he'd risen and went silent until the other had returned to his seat.
"Air-sole" he said again pointing at me, aiming his eyes, starting to get up again. At this point the conductor passed by and the lady over the way touched his elbow
"Will you do something about him please?"
The conductor had heard the tail-end of the abuse but missed the standing up bit.
"He's not even disabled," said the lady.
"Alright you. Out! Now!" The man rose at once and scuttled off into another carriage followed by the conductor who, when he came back, received our thanks.
"I don't think he'd have done that for me. You exert authority, like my daughter... in the police."
"I was a prison officer for 15 years."
I was vexed at according undue civility to this semblance of disability; stewing at bit-playing a Lou and Andy re-make. I struggle to find a moral space for nastiness, denying the existence of the condition, assuming an illness, a trauma, an oppression to be lessened by conversation. I'm still half-thinking we got off on the wrong foot - not helped by my old softy hat. Result - this fellow was all set to march into Poland* until the ex-warder, at the request of another passenger, stopped him with a verbal smack.
After Perth the pleasure of train travel was restored.
I chatted to a new conductor about the state of the railways, deploring rail company plans for driver-only trains. I read, sipped tea from the passing trolly, gazed at the last of the lowlands, recalling this journey as a child when a second steam engine was attached to the up train at Perth for ascending to Drumochter Pass, seeing my first mountain snow on the Sow of Atholl and the Boar of Badenoch, today hidden in mist. There was the watershed, where the river ran north instead of south and we came to Dalwhinnie, then Newtonmore, then Kingussie then, nearing Aviemore, past Loch Alvie where Amy and Guy were married in May.
*Appeasement ...the policy of settling international quarrels by admitting and satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise, thereby avoiding the resort to an armed conflict which would be expensive, bloody, and possibly dangerous
** ** **
Niko's suggested I learn to recite Cavafy's Ithaca for homework and send him a self-recording. I found the poem in the original with a recitation to use to tutor myself. Here goes with the first line....When you set out on your journey to Ithaca...Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάχη,...It'll be good to use this as a before and later measure. I'm grateful to George Barbanis for making Cavafy's work so available in English and Greek on the web. (Edmund Keeley's recital of the poem in English).

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάχη
George writes to me on Facebook to say that the person speaking the words of Ithaca is almost certainly George Savidis (1929-1999), a scholar in the forefront of poetic translation of Cavafy. Anthony Hirst, who's written a commentary on the parallel Greek text of a 2003 translation by Evangelos Sachperoglou, wrote of the need to 'de-edit' Safidis' translation of Cavafy:

Cavafy's punctuation restored
I have been dismayed to discover that the late George Savidis was a far more interventionist editor than he ever admitted. Savidis’s 1963 edition of the “acknowledged” poems, entitled Poiêmata [Poems] [Κ.Π. Καβάφη «Ποιήματα»], remains the best edition we have of the Cavafy “canon,” if by “best” is meant closest to the author’s latest discernible intentions; but it still does not give us the poems exactly as Cavafy printed them. In the preface to the 1963 edition, Savidis does acknowledge imposing the standard distinction between pou - πόυ - with a grave accent (meaning “that” or “who/whom/which”) and pou - ποῦ - with a circumflex (meaning “where”) – Cavafy tended to use the latter indiscriminately – and between other comparable pairs where Cavafy’s practice was inconsistent (Cavafy, Poiêmata [Poems], 1963, I, 12). Other, more significant, changes are not acknowledged, however. Although Savidis states (ibid.) that he used Cavafy’s latest printings of the poems as the basis for his edition, he also says that he consulted earlier printings and, in the case of the pre-1911 poems, other sources. Consequently, it is not entirely clear what Savidis’s edited versions of the poems actually represent.
I'm now starting to understand the unfamiliar punctuation in my copy of the poems translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou with Greek text edited by Anthony Hirst. Hirst has been working assiduously to present Cavafy's original to his translator. πόυ I can type, but Ι needed to switch to Greek polytonic on my keyboard to write ποῦ with a circumflex on upsilon. This may seem specious. It's not though. It's all about Cavafy's blending of old and new Greek at a time of pending transition. It's normal to take Cavafy's self-description as 'a poet of future generations' as referring to contemporaneous opinion of homosexuality, but it would be as possible to see what Hirst refers to as 'braiding' as referring to Cavafy's interweaving of demotic and katharevousa - diaglossia in linguist's jargon - a combination that also mingles with koine and other varieties of Greek; an untranslateable mélange that makes it all the more impressive that Cavafy's been so successful in English, and trying to read and parse his work in the original all the more fascinating for what it may teach a foreigner - ενά βάρβαρος ['Barbarian' from the ancient Greek word 'barbaros' referring to one whose first language was not Greek, the 'bar-bar' representing the hubbub of speech one can't understand.]
*** ***
Even though we have no trains in the region - Ionian Islands and Epirus - one of the losses I shall most regret as a result Greece's austerity drive is the railways. Just when I'd hoped to have seen more - for instance between Thessaloniki and Igoumenitsa, or Igoumenitsa and Patras - I fear a Greek Dr.Beeching is already hard at work planning to cut back all but the north-south mainline from the border via Larissa and Thessaloniki, the line to the ferry terminal at Patras and the Athens metro and even some of that could go, bringing more pressure on remaining buses and coaches, encouraging more road use with more pollution, noise and asphalt blighting the land.


  1. Not disabled? He is so lacking in control he can't even make a decent pretence of being wheelchair-bound. Just because someone can stand or walk does not mean their use of a wheelchair is bogus (there's a wheelchair user lives here who can walk about a bit). He appears to have been in a quite advanced state of brain degeneration, something like Alzheimers or Huntingdon, both of which are liable to lead to deterioration of conduct in a context of ageing. But I expect that any carers he may have would be rather obviously happy to see the back of him, hence his being on his own. Things truly can be not what they seem!

  2. Thanks Robin. I think you're right.


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