Another ash-affected week began with the frustrations of travellers worldwide mounting. As the situation begins slowly to resolve itself, the inventiveness of those driven by desperation to find other means of transport has influenced my choice of texts this week. Horse and carriage might have seemed preferable to some stranded for hours – days even – at airports. Uncomfortable and slow, but surely the horse and carriage was dependable. That rather depends on the passengers in Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. The second chapter begins with a vividly drawn scene of horses straining up a muddy road in winter. You may feel, as you read, that airport waiting lounges might be a better option, especially given the lawlessness of the countryside through which the travellers are forced to trudge.
Extract from A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter Two
The Dover road lay, as to him, beyond the Dover mail, as it lumbered up Shooter’s Hill. He walked up hill in the mire by the side of the mail, as the rest of the passengers did; not because they had the least relish for walking exercise, under the circumstances, but because the hill, and the harness, and the mud, and the mail, were all so heavy, that the horses had three times already come to a stop, besides once drawing the coach across the road, with the mutinous intent of taking it back to Blackheath. Reins and whip and coachman and guard, however, in combination, had read that article of war which forbade a purpose otherwise strongly in favour of the argument, that some brute animals are endued with Reason; and the team had capitulated and returned to their duty.
With drooping heads and tremulous tails, they mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles, as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints. As often as the driver rested them and brought them to a stand, with a wary “Wo-ho! so-ho- then!” the near leader violently shook his head and everything upon it–like an unusually emphatic horse, denying that the coach could be got up the hill. Whenever the leader made this rattle, the passenger started, as a nervous passenger might, and was disturbed in mind.
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
Two other passengers, besides the one, were plodding up the hill by the side of the mail. All three were wrapped to the cheekbones and over the ears, and wore jack-boots. Not one of the three could have said, from anything he saw, what either of the other two was like; and each was hidden under almost as many wrappers from the eyes of the mind, as from the eyes of the body, of his two companions. In those days, travellers were very shy of being confidential on a short notice, for anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers. As to the latter, when every posting-house and ale-house could produce somebody in “the Captain’s” pay, ranging from the landlord to the lowest stable non-descript, it was the likeliest thing upon the cards. So the guard of the Dover mail thought to himself, that Friday night in November, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, lumbering up Shooter’s Hill, as he stood on his own particular perch behind the mail, beating his feet, and keeping an eye and a hand on the arm-chest before him, where a loaded blunderbuss lay at the top of six or eight loaded horse-pistols, deposited on a substratum of cutlass.
The smooth comfort of train travel was the resort of many during the volcanic interruption to flights. Journeys may be lengthy, but there is a degree of comfort – for those with seats, that is – and there is the window to gaze through. Edward Thomas captures a moment of beauty and reflection through the window of a train on a platform in the English countryside in June 1916. The whole of the hazy sunlit country seems to lie within his short poem.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The Poet Laureate seized the moment to write about this unexpected pause in modern life. She is compassionate about those whose lives were put on hold, but enjoys the nostalgic tranquillity. She, too, recalls Edward Thomas’s poem.
Five miles up the hush and shush of ash,
Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate —
I could write my childhood there.
Selfish to sit in this garden, listening to the past
(A gentleman bee wooing its flower, a lawnmower)
When the grounded planes mean ruined plans,
Holidays on hold, sore absences at weddings, funerals … wingless commerce.
But Britain’s birds sing in this spring
From Inverness to Liverpool, from Creith to Cardiff,
Oxford, Londontown, Land’s End to John O’Groats.
The music’s silent summons,
That Shakespeare heard and Edward Thomas and, briefly, us.
Carol Ann Duffy