Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway system provides a nerve-racking and disjointed service full of delays, cancellations and unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. This is a real shame as travelling by train is easily the most enjoyable and pleasant way to go anywhere. There is none of the stress of driving or the horror of being in an aeroplane as it starts bouncing around in turbulence, lightning flickering around the edge of the wings. Flying has a terrible impact on the environment and little, if anything, is done to even attempt to limit this damage. During ‘lock-down’ it’s estimated that as many as 15,000 flights of empty aircraft took place so that the airlines could retain their routes and airport slots. This is the sort of craziness that capitalist transport systems excel at. For relatively short journeys across Europe there is often little time advantage. Airports are outsides of cities, main stations are usually at the centre. Transfers from airports to city centres often involve convoluted combinations of buses, light railways and trains. Factor in delays, queues to go through non-EU passport control and waiting for bags and any time ‘saving’ can be minimal to say the least.
The great joy of train travel is the pace and the views. It’s fast enough to chew through the miles but not so fast that you can’t study the scenery along the way. You get a better sense of the distance between places, of how the topography of the country works of how the cities and towns fit together. Church spires on the horizon, farms and barns, fields of cattle, pigs and sheep, big steel box manufacturing plant, distribution centres and autobahns. There are glimpses of an earlier Germany and the development of capitalism and expansion of capital can be traced. Brown brick factories with tall chimneys and big glass windows.
Railways and stations and marshalling yards act as museums of transport systems. Derelict buildings once used as storage, places where the workers organised unions away from management ears and eyes, places to hand out leaflets and sell socialist newspapers. Now the windows are smashed, the roofs caved in. At Bad Nauheim there are old railway wagons and ancient trains long since abandoned. Out into the countryside again, two people cycling along a sandy dust track through a field of ripening green wheat. Slow travel can be rewarding too. A walk at the foot of mountains is often as enjoyable as in the peaks. A better sense of scale is achieved. The mountains tower over one, which is how it really is.
The vistas are wide and deep, the countryside rolling away for miles into the distance. Here an eagle and in the fields, hares stop their munching. They stop and look up at the train. What do they make of this? A couple bounce a few feet, stop and look again. Then they all start eating grass again. We are in the forest, immersed in green leaves and the tree tops. On the horizon a castle on a hill. Train travel can become part of the holiday itself. Whole routes become familiar; London to Leuven, Brussels to Frankfurt, Munich to Vienna, Geneva to Verona.
With train travel it feels like going deeper into the country, rather than literally, dropping in from the sky. The nuances are seen. The way that the colour of fields can differ slightly depending on the underlying geology. Outcrops of shale rock suggest a hardness to the hills. Back gardens and views into kitchen windows where people sit at the table and drink coffee and read the morning papers. It is impossible to avoid this casual voyeurism and it is endlessly fascinating. Here we see how other people live. We should see this more often. It would serve to check what is meant by ‘reality’ and ‘normality’. Perhaps we all should live in glass houses. Seeing the experience of daily life exposed in this way might be a factor in the destruction of capitalism.
The train stops at Siegen. Probably for a rest. It gives the passengers a rest too. Railway workers walk up and down the platform. No matter where in the world they have many similarities. Big boots, ticket machines, peaked caps, smartly presented or scruffy within the regulations of their uniform. They develop a droll sense of humour. Recently at my local station I was talking to one of the staff who works there. I made a grand faux pas. I was trying to explain that I nearly missed my train by standing on the wrong platform. But I started the conversation with, ‘I once stood on this platform…’
‘Did you now…’ came the laconic reply from the railway worker. Even as I was speaking I realised he stands on that platform every day that he’s at work.
The railway is it’s own world and separate from that other world over there, beyond the station. Now the train does one of those manoeuvres whereby it leaves the station backwards. One minute you’ve been facing the direction of travel and now the direction of travel has fundamentally changed. The train has an electronic display. I’m not sure how this change of direction will be processed.
Lock down changed a lot things. It feels as if we all missed so many conversations with our friends. Stories and anecdotes and vignettes that we would share, untold. And all this other stuff that we’d accumulated over time, just things that we do without too much concern or thinking, felt as if it left us. After several years of travelling to Europe by ferry and train, sometimes taking a bike and tent, occasionally flying, I’d worked out all sorts of stuff. How to get a train from Calais to Paris and then change and catch a train to Geneva. To stay there overnight and then catch a train to Verona. I remember that train journey well. From Paris I sat in a carriage on a Thursday evening. I assume people were going home from work. It was all rather intimate. The women opposite me took off her shoes and curled up on her seat with her feet on the seat next to her. She smiled at me, like a cat come to life that now lived in Paris and took the train home each evening. Taking the train up to Hamburg from Amsterdam, the train from Valencia to Barcelona, the early morning train from Torino to London. Ferries to Dieppe, Roscoff, Cherbourg, St Malo, Le Harve with a bike and panniers stuffed with all the equipment needed for a week or two of cycle-camping. How much fun it could be.
But lock-down worked to break all that experience and I ended up booking flights on the basis that it was easier. The train to Kreuztal and back reminded me of what I’d previously learned and gave me some feedback about who I really am. Not a flying person waiting at airports and moving with the mass. No, a train person, a bike person, a ferry person, finding the hard-to-find routes. Early mornings, late evening travel, stopping off to explore a town for a few hours while waiting for the next connection. A bus from the train station in Geneva to a cheap hotel some miles away. Counting out the stops late at night, searching through the windows of that bus for the names of streets which could be traced on a paper map. Finally arriving at Berlin after a ten hour journey, the train wheels squealing and screeching as several tonnes of steel travelled through the outer suburbs of that city. The neon lights, the autobahn, the advertising slogans, the mass of housing, the sense of tiredness of the train and all its passengers but with the anticipation and excitement of arrival.
It’s good to be away from England. It suffers from a slow and deadly disease. Of patriotism and mawkish gimmickry and military nostalgia. Union flags fly from buildings with huge debts to PFI schemes. Bunting stretches from buildings which have been funded by global dirty money. Trains are decorated with ‘remembrance’ of the First World War. But with no context, no script to offer up an alternative version. No sounds of screams as a nineteen year old dies while trying to stop their blown up guts falling out of a gaping wound . No moans from the hell of no-man’s land. No, it’s all safe now. A train covered with images of poppies but with nothing to explain or hint at what those poppies really mean.
In a sad-comic moment it’s discovered that many food banks have been closed during the ‘Jubilee’. A reality that means a substantial number of people will be hungry for the next four days. In a further twist of twisted behaviour the upper echelons of the Labour Party sing and clap and stamp their feet about how marvellous the monarchy always is. It is now a party of non-opposition full of hand-shakers looking for photo opportunities. But what words do they wish to say? What images do they promote? Why vote for a water-down version of the Tories when it’s possible to vote for the real true blue? It’s not just how right wing Starmer is, but how absolutely useless he is. It’s not even blah, blah, blah as he never seems to actually say anything. He could as easily be wiped out by smart left-wingers as he could by well organised right wingers. What is clear is that he is not a politician. He has no more idea of how to organise an opposition or provide ‘leadership’ than he has about the origins of the cosmos. He is a product of the mawkish gimmickry that dominates politics in England which partly explains his lack of political theory (let alone life-theory).
Where does this leave us?
It can be dispiriting to always feel to be in a minority. There are too many cars, too many aeroplanes, far too much injustice. There is too much war and the war mongers thrive. There is too much corruption and hypocrisy. All the hypocrites and liars rise to the top and do very well in financial terms, and in a world dominated by money and immersed in cash-relations that makes a great deal of difference to quality of life and even the amount of life one might expect.
It’s hard and tough down here at ground level. Life doesn’t get better and easier. It’s crisis to crisis, bill to bill, price rise to price rise. All the propaganda is in their favour. The rich, the capitalists, the tyrants and the despots. They own the press, they own the internet, they own the means of production and the war machines. We hear their voices everywhere, we see their slogans and their pixelated brochures. The idea and practice of a Platinum Jubilee is part of this. To further depress the good people by organising a layer of poor people to wave flags and chant rich-people’s slogans.
Except it’s not all like this. There are deep undercurrents, so deep that they are almost undetectable. Bubbling, boiling, toiling, hissing, growling anger, frustration, alienation, immiseration, poverty, exploitation.
The outsiders, the feeling of minority, the feeling of dis-empowerment, the experience of oppression, of work-life coercion, the living in a world of howling right wing nastiness, the flag waving, the beating of the drum.
But here too people dream. They dream a different dream and they have been dreaming this for quite some time. It’s just a dream, largely unformed, battered into shape by the opposition to ruling class ideas and the practices of capitalism. What are these dreams? So difficult to jail. They have great power; for every monarch, Prime Minister, President, despot, tyrant and money-power politician has fear of them. Dare to dream; dare to dispossess those who have so much dispossessed us, for so long, too long.