By train to Euston

The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.

Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.

Waverley station

One of my favourite places to be “outdoors” is the concourse of a big city railway station.  To have coffee, or better yet, to be at beer, is an added bonus.

After an excellent breakfast at a little deli in Callander, I drove on southwards.  It was interesting to see clouds form over the central valley.  Coming into Edinburgh, there was heavy fog and drizzle, though it remained warm.

On the way down, I happened across an #Engineering #Marvel, and went out of way to go and see it.  Many years ago, touring with a friend of mine, on two occasions, we’d found ourselves at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon, and visited – quite by chance, as it were – engineering marvels.  One was a certain “nuclear installation” on the coast of Cumbria; the other, a radio telescope in Cheshire.  To pass within a few miles of the Falkirk Wheel, and not pay a visit, would be crass.  And I speak as someone who can allow the Flying Scotsman to steam unseen past the end of my garden at 5a.m on a working day, whilst I lie in bed.

I allowed myself the luxury of complete dependence on the Google sat nav to get me to my final destination, with only one or two cursory glances at it to ensure that it knew what it was doing.  There’s no call when using sat nav to switch off your common sense or your sense of direction.  At one point I drove past Fettes College.

But back to the great railway stations: I love big stations.  Victoria, St Pancras. Glasgow Central.  The destinations boards, the bustle and hustle, the romance.  Better still – possibly – in the days of steam, with whistles, steam heating, clatter and bang.  I remember steam heated trains from my youth.

And what of the journey, the pilgrimage, the embracing of change, the understanding that things must change? Steam has gone, but most everything changes.  Tomorrow will be different.  The journey never ends. We must take nourishment from all aspects of it: the good, the bad.  From the  rest and the rush.  From the pleasure and the pain.

On a journey, we may do things differently at the end, than at the beginning.  On a journey we must adapt and learn, most especially from our mistakes.

China by train

From Guangxhou to Guilin by bullet train

Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place.  It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations.  It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport.  It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.

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This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts.  The  floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere.  There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.

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It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.

All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict.  Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were.  Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage.  Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names.  But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID.  Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here.  We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure,  The train had already swept in.

The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945.  A similar thing is happening in China.  Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”

Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About 1,000 miles a day?

It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding.  How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time.  And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China.  The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms.  The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.

Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin.  Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph.  The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.

We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.

We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon.  We  got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.

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To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie

Onwards: another city, another railway station.  This one is different; older, more prosaic.  The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous.  This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.

In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes.  I say “enjoying”.  My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each.  I found the massage a bit heavy handed.

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By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of.  Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes.  That said, the train did arrive early.  As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…

Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China.  Here is the railway station:

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We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop.  We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi.  The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off.  The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment.  More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room.  Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat.  Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.

The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late.  “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down.  Our  tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed.  The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.

 

Victoria

I sat in the bar on the mezzanine level, looking down at the jostling throng. There were crowds of people, rivers of humanity, rushing streams and babbling brooks of concerns: work, life, holiday, family, health. The people flowed back and forth across the concourse, each intent on their own business.

And it seemed to me as I sat in the bar, nursing my beer, that amongst the swirling crowds, that sea of people, just a few of them stood out. Across space and time, I saw a handful of people crossing this station concourse.

A man – two men – in morning suits appeared as from the pages of history. It was 1957. Britain was only slowly recovering from the austerity of rationing. There was a greyness, a grim and drab feel to the station. These two young men were rushing, desperate to catch their train to Dorking. For it was a special day for them both. One was a Best Man; the other, the Groom. They had been in what seemed like an endless queue, and somehow, they had convinced the staff of the railway company to let them jump the queue and get on. Now, at least, they were almost on the platform and on their way.

I took a pull at my pint, and when I looked down again, the scene had changed. Soldiers streamed across the station. Orderly ranks, serried columns. Rifles, rucsacs, the harsh shouts of sergeants. These men were entraining for Dover, bound for Flanders field. The hopes and fears of a generation of young men are hidden on a thousand faces. Here is a young subaltern, pink of voice and cheek, bravely concealing his worry, doing his best, biting his lip. His men may have to depend on him being strong.

Back in the present, I see a young lady, a refugee from war, crossing the station carrying everything she owns in one immense suitcase. Three young children accompany her, silent, scared, intimidated by the noise and crowds. Their mother knows only a few words of the language; she holds little or no currency. But she and her kids are in a better place by far than where they were before. .

Here is a youth in his eary twenties, visiting the big city for the first time. perhaps. He’s crossed by tube from one of the great northern terminii, and must now make his way to a small town in Kent, for a job interview. Days before, a mighty storm leveled trees all aross the south of England. He will soon travel by bus through all that chaos of fallen branches and broken limbs, from a town whose very name has been rendered a lie by the storm.

The scene changes again and I see a man carrying a small grip crossing the station. The crowds have all disappeared and the grey light of early morning can be seen in the glass roof. He has come up from the underground to find it pouring with rain. He pauses for a moment to take in the scene. Rain cascades from the gutters. The tarmac gleams wet in the reflected street lights. He crosses the forecourt, taking in the calm of early morning. The rain, the sound of the rain, calming his nerves, as he makes his way to the airport train and the other side of the world.

An account of suffering from pneumonia

Tues 13th January

On my way to Aberdeen on business, I had a beer with AK. in “The Head of Steam” at Euston station, with a nice burger and pleasant conversation as ever. I note in passing that over the last few days I felt some slight aches and pains in my left upper back from what I thought was some kind of pulled muscle.

I took the sleeper train from Euston to Aberdeen. This train was heavily delayed. I was woken up by silence when the train should have been thundering along. As a former seafarer silence can often wake me up – sudden silence on a ship at sea, particularly a seismic survey ship, is always a serious matter.

Weds 14th January

I was not best pleased to wake up finding the sleeper train parked at Edinburgh Waverley and that the time was a little after 6a.m – the train was nearly three hours late. It should have been through Edinburgh well before 4a.m.

We were asked to leave the train, which had broken down. I went from being snug in bed, unshaven, in pyjamas, to being smartly dressed for business and hurriedly shaved, on the station platform, in less than 15 minutes. The time was 6.45a.m and I felt dreadful, like death warmed up.

However, feeling rough at an early hour is part of life for the business traveller, and it wouldn’t be the first time, so I shrugged it off. By the time I got to Aberdeen it was 11a.m, and I had started feeling rougher still on the train North, with an unshakeable headache and terrible weariness. I did some business but the flu-like symptoms worsened to the point that by mid afternoon work was no longer possible, and I cried off sick. I recall shivering hunched in my greatcoat in the foyer of an Aberdeen marine contractor, waiting for a cab to my hotel, feeling like a character out of Dickens – “I have the ague”.

I had a bath, and retreated to bed. During the night the hotel turned off the heating, and I needed to call reception to get it back on again, as I was shivering.

Thurs 15th January

I just managed a light breakfast (always a clear sign that I am not well). The snow was sifting down outside as I ate. I managed to do my job as secretary for a certain committee, the primary reason I was in Aberdeen. Back to London by air, feeling rougher by the second. I was blessed mightily by the lady in the BA lounge who (as a favour to my Gold card carrying boss, not to me) allowed me to travel back on an earlier flight. Answered prayers! Shivering in the taxi back to to my home, into the bath and into bed by 8pm.

Fri 16th  January

A day of unavoidable hard work which was shared by others in the community. I’d given warning that I needed assistance, being poorly, with the setting up of the Frost Camp. My wife helped, and WC, Mrs P and Mrs D. My strength ebbed by mid-afternoon but there was no escape. I was much blessed and encouraged by the presence and the prayers of Susan Hanson at home.

At Bentley Copse my Scout colleague and I worked ourselves silly putting tents up from 3pm til 6.30pm, at which point I could no longer stand.

I went to give team information to the Wardens up in the lodge, and the Warden’s wife made me a cup of tea and brought it to my hand. This caused me to burst into tears, at which point I knew that I was gravely ill and deeply tired as a consequence. (I am often very emotional when exhausted and in my last job sometimes I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from crying when absolutely shattered. There would be no sympathy for mere tiredness on a seismic ship.) It was warm inside the hut and I was overborne with exhaustion and a sense of responsibility for all our youngsters.

I could not face staying up and went to bed early at 10a.m. I took a very rough night indeed, and slept not one wink, from pain and discomfort in my back primarily, from the noise of the Scouts and from the sound of wind and rain on the tent. On the plus side one of the few things I do enjoy is being snuggled up inside a tent on a rainy night.

After the fact I note that that from Thursday afternoon onwards I had the symptoms of pneumonia, but it really started to kick in on Friday night.

Sat 17th  January

I staggered to life in considerable distress with great pain in the side, upper back and chest. It made my breathing laboured and shallow. After breakfast I made my excuses and walked with difficulty, twisted and bent over, to the office, where I organised a doctor. I sat in the car wondering if I had the strength to drive; I certainly had not the strength to go back to the campsite and make a formal handover, and left all my gear where it lay. Much of my remaining strength was spent on the phone securing the assistance of another Permit holder.

Thence to Dorking to see a doctor, who prescribed “Augmentin”, and thence to Redhill where I was met by my wife who had been kindly driven through by Mrs C. My wife drove me home to a bath and thence to bed with a consolidated infection of the lower lobe of the left lung – pneumonia.

There was no measurable improvement in pain until after 10pm, when I’d had three doses of the antibiotics. Pain became ache. I was much troubled also with waking dreams, hallucinations and unpleasant visions of moving objects, swirling fantastic landscapes of outrageous, out-of-this-world colours. I slept poorly, and for the first time in my life, had to sleep sat up, because it was too painful to lie down.

Sun 18th  January

I had a slow day in bed starting the pattern of the next four days or so. Porridge in bed early, then a cooked breakfast in bed, a long hot bath and back to bed to drowse or read. I became feverish and started shivering violently at intervals, particularly after the exertion of a round-trip to the loo – perhaps eight paces there and eight paces back!

I was still troubled, more so, by hallucinations as soon as I closed my eyes. This induced nausea – as the visions were all of violently fast motion – and I reflected that if this is as bad as it gets, it could get a lot worse.

Mon 19th  January

Recovery continued almost imperceptibly. I managed a bit of email and stuff. Washing machine breaks down – what a time for it to do so.

Tues 20th  January

I watched a movie. I found that I could once again lie on my side for a short period without intolerable discomfort. I was still weak and felt particularly dreadful in the evening and around dinner time. The doc said this was usual – I was fortunate in that a doctor came to the house to see me – I could not have gone to the surgery at all and going to hospital is to be avoided at the best of times.

Ordered another washing machine on the internet – there goes our planned holiday to Lee Abbey at winter half term.

Weds 21st  January

It is becoming clear that the antibiotics are not prevailing against the infection – I am not getting better. The doctor prescribes stronger ones. Reading Scripture, esp. Isa. 38:17.

After a tough time of shivering feverishness, following my morning bath, I spent the morning drowsing and could hardly face some soup at lunch. But I rallied in the afternoon to a worrying degree. I remain ill but better than the same time yesterday. Towards dinner time feeling much stronger, but then rougher again as evening wore on. I was painfully hungry and had a big appetite for a good supper of chilli con carne. Later, another shivering attack after a visit to the loo. Did some leg exercises, as I was worried about the atrophy effects of being bed-bound for days on end. It made me tired – I am weak.

Thurs 22nd  January

An OK nights sleep. I had high hopes that there would be a dramatic improvement in health today, but instead, it has been much like the other days, with incremental, imperceptible improvement. More walking up and down in the bedroom to get my body going.

Fri 23rd  January

Last night I slept on my back for the first time since last week. However I did not sleep well; there were frequent dreams and discomfort woke me up frequently from 4a.m onwards.

After a bath, I went downstairs for the first time in over a week to sit and lie in the study, doing this and that, taking a slow day. I felt I did loads and had a full day. To bed for an almost “normal” nights sleep.

Sat 24th  January

Day nine of my illness proper.

Less sweats in the small hours, but still an uncomfortable night with frequent awakenings and nagging discomfort.

My wife and I sat in bed til 10a.m as if it was an ordinary Saturday morning. I had a shave and a shower rather than a bath, and actually got dressed! Following a hearty breakfast in the kitchen this time, I rested up in the study, though I was pottering up and down the stairs (slowly) several times during the day. By 4pm I felt quite worn out, and My wife bade me retreat to the bedroom. After another bout of feverishness I took a bath and so to bed after a relaxing evening at 10p.m. Too much too soon?

Sun 25th January

Properly convalescent now, but the weather is dreadful. Driving rain kept us indoors all day long. A day of pottering, planning aspects of Scout camp with my wife, and other stuff. I was very hungry. I needed a second cooked breakfast at noon, following my first at 10a.m. Nonetheless I have lost half a stone. At dusk my wife and I played Scrabble.

Mon 26th January

Feeling better at break of day, but still experiencing broken sleep in the small hours. Pain much lessened, now a dull ache under the left shoulder blade, without brufen. I did a little work in the study and went for my first walk out with my wife, to the end of the street and back. My wife wants to nurse me back to health as carefully as possible without relapse.

Scrabble at dusk, and a surfeit of energy in the evening. To bed, but not before 10.30pm – feeling almost normal.

Tues 27th January

Still waking up early, around 7a.m, but for the first time, without feeling the residual dampness from perspiration, coming from feverishness during the night hours. My energy levels are coming back up. No need for painkillers.

There is NO repaying what my wife has done for me as a wife this past two weeks; to say that I am forever in her debt is literally true.

Today a longer walk and a full and active morning. Remaining very hungry at intervals. I started feeling “bath-ish” and a little feverish around 7p.m. Later, at rest, I find I have pain in the left lower lobe at the rear, which feels like a step backwards. I do find more pain in the evenings.

Weds 28th January

A good nights sleep. Noting less and less pain and deeper breathing range. Nagging discomfort in left kidneys, otherwise feeling good.

As afternoon wears on, I feel less special. At 2pm I hit the painkillers again – Cocodamol and Brufen. Discomfort and nagging pain in the left lung, front and back. Feels like it is getting worse again. Feeling ratty, particularly as I find myself losing at Scrabble (itself not unusual!)

No lasting city here, but hope in the City that is to come – Hebrews 13:14

Thurs 29th January

To Westerham for a stroll and visit to a café – my first serious trip out. It was to be just coffee and cake but I was so hungry I ordered a Full English and the best pot of tea I have drunk in years.

Back home, some pottering and a relaxing afternoon. I was sketching and drawing. For some reason I am drawn to sketch, draw and paint.

At 4pm to the doctor, who prescribed a further course of strong antibiotics to finish off the remaining infection. Painkillers in the evening and cards, including a rare family game of Black Maria. And so to bed on this long road to recovery, at 10.40p.m.

A further week off is mandated by the doctor, and a trip to the Royal Victoria at East Grinstead, for chest X-rays. The doctor specifically suggested this hospital rather than the less reputable East Surrey at Redhill.

Fri 30th January

Up and feeling OK; to East Grinstead for chest X-rays. Then a sandwich whilst my wife shopped in Sainsbury’s and back home to rest up. Later, some easy work and a pleasant visit from those two affable buffoons DW and WC, which is a lovely gesture and welcome, even if I find I have little enough to say.

Later on, Anna made a nice supper, and my wife and I played Scrabble, then my wife went out. I felt very tired and had a bath, after which I flopped onto bed, exhausted. I find I have an annoying “crick” in my neck which only manifests when I lay myself down to sleep at night.

Sat 31st January – day 16

This period of illness has caused me to pray much. As I grow more accustomed to prayer, I find long-lost habits and tastes for silence before God returning to me.

Cooked some soup and made supper (Chilli) and then played Scrabble. Had a bath and then to bed – again with a crick in the neck.

Sun 1st February

Did not go to church. At 11a.m my son and I delivered the District mailing in bitterly cold conditions. Briefly saw TB at the Scout hut and discussed the new front door and its keys. Snow flurries at lunch quickly turned into a downpour which continued all afternoon.

Weds 4th February

A first day back at work – a leisured start, taking train only at 0923, but it was late! I did not get to 5LBS until 1040. I put in an acceptable day’s work and left still feeling strong – but was weak by the time I got home. My wife prepared tea for me. She had bought several shirts for me and we had a peaceful time together whilst I tried them all on. Then, I made supper, thence to the doctors and made a shopping list for the forthcoming curry night which I was doing for eight paying customers.