Thursday, 26 February 2009


I’ve a bad memory for faces. When an old friend adopts a new hairstyle, I’m puzzled. I walk past colleagues in the street, not recognizing a familiar person in an unfamiliar place.

My visual memory is poor. I don’t remember clothes or decorative schemes. I’m better at typefaces and handwriting – or knowing where books lurk. At films and art galleries I concentrate hard – I want to recall everything so that I can relive the intense pleasure.

It’s like that with places too. I’m more responsive to atmosphere than detail. But every so often a glimpse seals itself into my memory. Three glimpses haunt me. I saw them within twenty-four hours in the same Midlands city. They seem freighted with meaning, filled with history, but to make them more than I saw would be a kind of theft. I saw moments and gestures that weren’t staged for me to make into a story. They were tiny details of strangers’ complex lives.

It was morning. Nine o-clock, The shops and offices were open. People hurrying. I glimpsed a man –comfortable jumper stretched over belly, jacket open. He moved fast, knew where he was heading. Turning off the gravel path, he took the step which led to the Job Centre. Without pausing, he crossed himself in large, sweeping gestures. He went in.

I was heading home after dark. I took the short-cut by the tall, plain Dominican church. Its windows were dark and its doors shut. There’s a side door, leading to a vestry perhaps. I caught sight of a figure facing the door – a dark-haired young man. He was kneeling, intense, his hands clasped in prayer.

The next morning I came early to the station. Daylight again. Crowds swarmed to board the train. And I saw a dark-eyed young woman, face framed in white and dressed in dark, loose cloth. A nun, I thought. She was dressed like the nuns of my childhood. Then I saw the scuffed trainers beneath the robe. Was she a nun? Or was that a hijab? Whatever the answer, she looked up questioningly, tilting her head to one side with the stance or expression of one of Zurbaran’s saints. Perhaps, I reflected as I walked up the stairs, she was looking at the indicator boards to check her destination.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Poems and pancakes

From time to time, during the busy day, I thought of pancakes. I had the ingredients: flour, eggs and milk. And while there are numerous shortcomings in my abilities as a cook, I have one remarkable skill: I can toss a pancake and catch it, flipped over, in the pan. I don't know how I do it but I remember the teacher's face in the school cookery lesson when pancakes were on the agenda.

Cookery lessons were a perpetual misery. Under my mother's tuition I'd learnt a few useful skills: peeling vegetables, making a cheese sauce, roasting meat (I wasn't a vegetarian in those days). But I never used a recipe. My mother's instructions involved looking, feeling and tasting to get things right. In cookery lessons I was made to weigh and measure. Cakes collapsed under my assiduity so that gateaux had to be reconstituted as trifles. I dreaded the double lessons in which the cookery teacher would berate me with the direst threat she could imagine, "If you don't use the proper knife, you'll never get a husband." (The cookery teacher was unmarried.)

By pancake week, my cookery disasters had become popular entertainment. And disasters are standard in pancake-making. Before my turn arrived, I'd seen several other pupils' efforts land on the handle of the frying pan or on the floor. Given my previous record, something spectacular was anticipated - a direct hit on the ceiling perhaps. "Just a flick of the wrist," the teacher instructed. I had no credibility to lose. I flicked my wrist - and the pancake somersaulted in the air. Then it landed back in the pan, upside down. Plainly a fluke. "Do that again," the teacher told me. I did it again. And again. It was as well for my reputation that I again further convinced her of my unsuitability for marriage by rolling the pancake with the wrong knife.

I still look forward to Pancake Day - and worry in case I've lost the knack.

I'd meant to leave work early but at 6.15 I was caught in one of those corridor-conversations that generate ideas and produce better ideas that two hours in a meeting or at a computer. Suddenly I remembered another plan for the evening: a poetry reading. I'd meant to get home, make pancakes and cycle to a poetry reading that started at 7.30. There didn't seem to be a chance. "Give it a go," my colleague said.

The only train left in less than 25 minutes. I didn't wash my coffee mug (yes, I know what my cookery teacher would have said) and bundled my belongings into three bags and a laptop case. Running was out of the question but I walked so briskly that passers by must have thought me a bag lady on speed. I caught the train. I rang my teenage son - would he mind if the promised pancakes were delayed? I reached home, untethered the bike and sped to the cafe where the poets were billed to read.

The Flying Goose is a small, out-of-the-way venue that has been hosting poetry evenings for years - usually on evenings when I'm working late or can't get out of another obligation. After some rapid pedalling, I arrived early to find the cafe already crowded. It was an international evening: the poets were Adrian Caesar, representing Australia and Alexander Hutchison, representing Scotland. The bargain admission price was £3, which included a glass of wine.

I knew Adrian Caesar's work as a critic from his book on 1930s poetry. The poems he read were filled with gloom but this was, in a strange way, cheering because the gloom was mostly the gloom of daily life and middle age - and it was lightened with humour. But for me the most memorable poem was one that compared the work of a poet and academic with the valuable work of the poet's grandparents who had been miners. It's the miners, the poem reminds us, who seek out what is valuable and bring warmth into our lives - but no-one applauds them for it. We duly applauded the poet.

I didn't know Alexander Hutchison's work but as soon as he started to read I knew this was work I would like. His poetry could be simultaneously moving and playful - it included translations from Catullus into broad Scots, a fanciful and extravagant poem about haggises, poems filled with romantic longings and poems of light-hearted mockery. Above all, they were poems that celebrated language with delighted exuberance. I'd promised myself no extravagance but I couldn't resist buying a copy of his elegantly plain book, Carbon Atom. Alexander Hutchison sang too, and included a brief reminiscence of Jessie Kesson, one of my favourite 20th century writers.

So home to make pancakes and this time my skill deserted me. I couldn't get the oil right and the pancakes stuck to the base, so that I had to ease the batter away. I ended with mis-shapen pieces which didn't look much like pancakes. I tossed them anyway and my son added sugar and lemon, assuring me he didn't care what the food looked like. I asked how many he'd like. "As many as you make," he replied. I suppose that was a success of sorts.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

By the water

I'd dreamt of getting away this weekend, perhaps even abroad. It didn't work out. There was too much to do, even if I could have made arrangements for a teenager and cat. But on Saturday sunshine arrived and by afternoon I was filled with a restless desire to walk - away from the house and the shops and towards the river.

I wasn't the only one. Walkers ambled, runners jogged and cyclists overtook both. Dogs were alert to every movement or tired and eager to reach home. Canoeists were checking their boats. A fisherman flicked his rod in the air - there was a slim shimmer of silver so lovely that I found it hard to remember that, for the fish, this elegant movement was death and pain.

Passing the lock, I reached the point where the canal meets the river. A cacophony of birds greeted me. I know few bird calls but recognized the sound of Canada geese - out of sight but very near, hidden by the tangle of scrawny winter undergrowth. For all the sunshine there was little sign of Spring.

I followed the path, always looking toward the river with its moorings for launches and narrow boats. I caught sight of a familiar black bird. As I watched, it dived beneath the water. The surface of the water shivered for ages and I followed the movement till the bird surfaced again, half hidden by branches. Some kind of cormorant, I thought, or a shag. It looked like those I'd seen on the Northumberland coast or out on the Farne Islands. I watched it for a while and took a photo but the bird was a blur. I wasn't even sure I'd captured the right bird.

I tried to notice everything so that I would remember it: the shine of the water, the delicate screen of parallel twigs, the sense of being free and not quite certain where I was. But already much of it has vanished. There are photos as prompts - and I haven't forgotten the hunched and sulky heron, by the stump of a leafless tree in the water, glaring at an insouciant white gull that perched on a nearby branch.

Eventually my walk led to the nature centre and cafe. I bought postcards, tea and a slice of Dundee cake and rested till the centre closed. The staff were tired - no-one had expected a busy day in February but the lure of sun and water was too strong. As I left, I saw my first snowdrops of the year - a small clump of raggedy flowers that had pushed its way through dust and twigs and survived the recent frost. After that first clump, I saw more until, suddenly, on a tended lawn by the church, there was a carpet of snowdrops and pale mauve crocuses. Still February, but almost Spring.

A rustle of wings distracted me. I looked up and watched as the heron shrugged its way awkwardly across the sky.

Friday, 20 February 2009


I remember the opening of Roehampton Library. The class above me at primary school went to watch when Noel Streatfield declared the library open. I was so jealous. Surely none of them loved books as I did? Surely none of them had worked their way through all the library copies of Noel Streatfield in Putney Library, a bus ride away. After missing the library opening I wrote to Noel Streatfield and she wrote back - a lovely letter that I treasured for years.

Libraries mattered to me even more then than they do now. Libraries were so many things: they held information and imaginative possibilities; they were warm and friendly; they were staffed by librarians who could recommend books I'd never heard of; they had desks, tables and, in Roehampton, sofas on which I could lounge at full-length, exploring book after book.

Libraries mattered most when I was poor. In Bidford-on-Avon the library was a van which arrived once a week for two hours. It wobbled when I climbed up the stairs to enter it. There were no desks or sofas and very little space. Choice of books was limited: there were never more than three in the poetry section (one was always about Shakespeare) but they changed from time to time. I still lurked there, carrying my small baby daughter in a harness that made it impossible for me to browse the lower shelves. Books were more than life - they were the possibility that things could be different. The world of the imagination is also a place of hope.

In times of crisis and falling incomes local governments focus on what they see as their core tasks: rubbish collection, streets, schools and all the services that councils are required by central government to provide. Libraries - and museums, art galleries, leisure centres, theatres - are facing cuts and closures. But hope too is a necessity. Taking these things away damages the poor more than the rich. It's like putting a lever in the gulf between rich and poor and forcing it to ten times its width.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Frank Owen, the main character, says: “What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”

When councils close libraries they deprive the poor of one of the benefits of civilization. They close off imaginative possibilities and stunt lives. If the council burnt books there would be a protest. But books are killed just as surely if they're thrown into landfill, pulped to make motorways, or locked away unread.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

"Saint Valentine is past"

Valentine's Day was particularly insistent this year. I suppose it was the desperation of shops, restaurants, etc., who wanted a big marketing opportunity before Easter. A day later, the Valentine displays are still in the windows with racks of cards, gifts and ribbons unsold. It will be hard to persuade anyone to buy scarlet hearts and flowers for Easter.

Half of me likes St Valentine's Day, which has been celebrated in England at least since Chaucer's time. Shakespeare mentions it at least twice and there's a reference in Pepys' diary. It seems to have been a day for courtship and games. Later, Charles Lamb recorded the popularity of anonymous Valentine's cards. But today, with advertisements screaming their wares, it can seem slightly shameful to spend the day alone. Nowadays, Valentine's Day is for couples to parade their love before the world. I was touched and amused by awkwards young men unsure how to carry flowers but also annoyed that so many events advertised themselves for couples only.

An email list offered me an alternative diversion. I've a weakness for villanelles and sestinas so, when I was invited to attend the launch of a poetry book, I accepted, especially as the venue was a short cycle-ride away. The book, Desperanto, comes from the small Smokestack Press and the launch was a pleasant, hospitable occasion with a good audience, free wine or fruit juice and clear, enthusiastic readings by the poet, Mike Wilson. The poems were witty and played games with words and letters while remaining serious. I'd meant it as a free afternoon out but of course I had to buy the book - I can't resist that kind of wordplay. And it was such a rest from hearts and flowers.

I came out of the library and walked down the High Street. The vendors were struck with desperation, calling to potential customers. The price for a bouquet of a dozen red roses had fallen from £5 to £3. I clutched my new book and hurried past.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Friday the thirteenth

Going to Nottingham has become a kind of memory test: which shop was where? I play a gloomy game of prediction too: which will be the next shop to fail? There are plenty of shops still standing but they're emptier than they were and even in Primark people browse and deliberate over the quality of goods.

I was headed to a bookshop to collect a book for a friend but browsed a little on my way. I didn't buy anything though later I had a half of Marston's Pedigree (50p) and a freshly-baked pretzel (75p) to supplement the apple I had brought with me. I'm turning into a virtuoso credit-crunch shopper.

I was also in search of happenings. An announcement at fencing alerted me to Light Night and it sounded fun, though the information on the web was hard to follow. There would be lights, sounds and activities - well, you can usually find those in Nottingham on a Friday night. Presumably there would be something extra that I might like seeing - and I could also support friends from my fencing club who were demonstrating epee and sabre on the cold flagstones of the Exchange Arcade.

The evening began slightly before the billed opening at 6.00. as school musicians began to play and the Council House was luminously strange in a sequence of bright and acid colours. I watched the changing lights for a while, then was drawn a little out of the square towards the Brian Clough statue. I don't know what Brian would have made of his pale green, glow-in-the-dark jumper but I suspect he'd have liked the attention he was receiving.

The streets around the Old Market Square were illuminated by tall, slender, pyramidal lanterns. I think they had been decorated in schools and libraries. I walked away from the noise towards Hockley and the Lacemarket. It's a slightly offbeat area and every so often I'm beguiled by something unexpected. On Light Night, it was the hula hoop dancer with glowing hula hoops and the juggler tossing luminous clubs high in the air. They were outside the shop that sells juggling equipment and magic equipment but for all I know they later roamed the streets. Nottingham was a magical, unlikely place where brides on stilts might appear round a corner, a robot danced and sprayed crowds with a water pistol and a blue, lit-up wheelie bin called Sid terrorised pedestrian by ... doing wheelies, of course.

Fencing in the city's poshest shopping centre - below the Council House - made perfect sense on a night like this. Crowds flocked to wonder at the speed and skill on display - and perhaps to fantasise about d'Artagnan or, of course, Robin Hood. People asked the usual questions: "are the swords sharp?" and "what are the strongs for?" (the strings were the wires that connected the fencers to the electric score box). I watched for a while, applauding points and inwardly cheering my friends.

Then I began to wander further - to St Mary's in the Lacemarket. I pushed open the door and found the late mediaeval space lit mostly by clustered candles. Their light wavered fragilely amid the deep shadows. There was a fragile music too - chords that filled the air, then faded into silence. And above the altar a black and white film of a smiling boy running on a bridge flickered into life, then died. It took a while for me to realise that the sounds and film were being produced by a typewriter and that visitors to the church were invited to type on it in response to the question, "What gives you hope?" This was the typophonium. Small children and adults queued in wonder. I queued too and noted that the clatter of typewriter keys stopped me from hearing the chords or seeing the film.

Eventually I headed back towards the train station but paused at the Congregational Hall where there was a music and film installation by Streetwise Opera and Mira Calix. My Secret Heart was projected on a huge oval at the centre of the church. I watched and wondered for a while. I knew the work was based on Allegri's Miserere and knew it was strange and beautiful and that was all. As I left, the film was still running.

Many of the wonders I'd seen would scare people if placed in a gallery and labelled "art." But on Light Night people thronged the streets, their minds open to novelty and wonder. There were no worries that reverence was required. Instead we all displayed that capacity to marvel that is regularly evoked at circuses, pantomimes and football matches.

I walked past a street sign promising "Biscuits for 800 metres." There may have been biscuits. I didn't check. By the Broadmarsh Centre, great signs in vacant shops offered "wonderful retail opportunities." But that suggestion required more imagination than I possess. I hurried on past.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Harmony and relaxation

The man standing beside me as we waited for the lights to change was busy. He was carrying a child - she was about two I would guess. And he was talking on a mobile phone. I could hear enough of the conversation to reaslise it was about work - and important. The green man appeared and we crossed the road. The man continued his phone conversation as he crossed, also taking care to hold his child safely.

It was a picture of modern life. Doing one thing at a time would be bliss. I eat lunch while checking emails, talk on the phone while cooking, ask after my son's day while loading the washing machine. No wonder people are stressed. And that's before considering the news ...

But I was on my way to a little bit of bliss - or, at least, a new experience. Last Christmas I did some of my shopping at local shops, thinking that little, independent businesses needed custom and offered good products. My friend June, who has, in the past, worked as a cello teacher and midwife, is now an aromatherapist running a small, one-woman business. I bought some pots of cream as gifts as well as one for myself and June insisted I enter the free draw she was running.

Just before Christmas I learnt I had won. I hesitated to claim my prize, thinking of the strain the economic crisis puts on small businesses but last weekend June saw me walking past her shop and called out to me. We arranged an appointment for Friday the 13th - not a popular day for customers.

So this morning I walked into Scents of Harmony, ready for my first experience of an aromatherapy treatment.

We'd had some discussion of what treatment I should choose. According to June I could have any treatment she offered. That seemed over-generous and perhaps a little too adventurous. We settled on her February special offer: a strawberries-and-cream facial with hand massage.

I was slightly nervous during the initial questions when June checked my medical history - she has to be sure that nothing she uses is bad for clients. And when she asked what smells I liked I wasn't sure. I thought of lavender and rosemary and said I preferred herbs to citrus smells. She suggested frankinsence with marjoram and, while I settled myself on the couch, she made her preparations. Then she offered music while I relaxed. I chose a classical guitar compilation which began with Air on a G string. As the music played, June started work. And I rested.

I thought it would be strange to have someone else - a friend - apply oils, lotions and a face mask but it didn't seem strange at all. The scents, the music and June's massaging fingers, relaxed me. I wasn't asleep but I was at peace. Briefly I surfaced enough to recognize a familiar piece by Bach but I said nothing and June worked in silence. She'd explained what would happen, so I wasn't startled, even when she lay pads on my eyes as the facemask worked. She oiled and massaged my hands. By this time I was hardly aware of where I was. All the worries that usually occupy my mind had subsided. I thought I couldn't relax more until the scalp massage started. As June touched acupressure points on my scalp, my body responded and found calm. Finally she worked on my neck and shoulders.

It must be years since I've been so deeply relaxed. June gave me plenty of time to recover, first lying down and then sitting up on the couch, with a cushion to support me. Eventually I put my watch on and disovered that the consultation, treatment and recovery had lasted nearly two hours, but I'd been outside time. I suggested lunch, if June had time, and we headed to the Flying Goose cafe a couple of doors away where we enjoyed home-made soup with excellent, tasty bread and butter. Then I floated off down the High Street.

Does aromatherapy work? I used to think it a nice idea - something that might be pleasant but not much more. But it did work for me. My worries seem ... well, absent. And after the oils and the strawberries-and-cream facemask, my skin feels better than it has for months. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Credit-crunch entertainment

We're still calling it "the credit crunch," although other terms have arisen: recession, depression, crisis, disaster. This morning brought a government admission of something most of us must have suspected for some time: that what has happened will be worse than the 1930s and longer lasting in its effects. Time to batten down the hatches, perhaps, and look after ourselves and our families?

While I'm concerned for my family - especially my children and my parents - that deosn't seem much of a solution. Nor can I feel any smug satisfaction in saying, "I was right all along - it's really bad." I may have realised it was bad but I don't know what to do about it. I've a few ideas - not well thought through - so if anyone trusts the public with information and a debate, I'll throw in a few sentences. But, so far as I can see, the government doesn't really trust or like the people. It seems to me that the more people involved in the debate, the more likely we are to curvive and cope. The government tends to treat the people as if they were a large class of obstreperous toddlers, too foolish and unruly to be trusted with the truth and too ignorant to have any useful ideas. Instead the government offers commands backed up by fear of punishment - or something worse.

So I'm living through the credit crunch or depression or recession or crisis or disaster - and trying to make sure that it is life and not mere existence. For me that involves reading books, fencing,listening to music, going to plays and films. Ideally this should involve communicating with other people and sharing experience, whether through discussion of a book or going out to an event. It's not a time for extravagance. I haunt the shops selling second-hand and remaindered books and look out for affordable culture.

On Sunday evening I cycled through the snow to the Paradiso Cinema. It's a new venture - a community cinema which doesn't set up to make a profit. Once a month, in the local secondary-school theatre, a film is shown. £4.50 buys a full-price ticket and there's a complimentary glass of wine or soft drink before the screening. This provides a chance to chat to other cinema-goers, and they seemed a friendly lot, even though there was no-one I knew and I was the only person attending the film alone. (I was the only cyclist too.)

The film was Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, superficially a cheerful comedy from pre-credit crunch days (it opened last year), The main character, Poppy, as brightly dressed as her name, is relentlessly, infuriatingly cheerful. Occasionally this blossoms into a strength - she is credible as a good, loving primary-school teacher whose pupils flourish under her care. She has courage too, refusing to run away from the distressed and the mentally ill. But she is less happy meeting her sister, who tells her to settle down, grow up and get a mortgage. What she rejects is not this pathetic and limited definition of adulthood but the idea of adult responsibility. Poppy is an everyday Peter Pan who explicitly - at the start of the film - wants nothing to do with reality.

Viewers react to the film in different ways and it's open to opinions and interpretations. I'd have liked the opportunity to discuss it afterwards and hear how other people had responded. But the snow was still falling and everyone was eager to get home. My bike left clean dark tracks in the white of the cycle path as I headed away from the cinema and back to this credit-crunched, disaster-ridden world.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Glamour at the Playhouse

I don't know if it was the snow, the credit crunch or the need for a preview audience, but a message reached me on Facebook offering £5 tickets for previews of Glamour, the new play by Stephen Lowe.

These days Stephen Lowe is one of Nottingham's literary celebrities. His Brian Clough play,
Old Big 'Ead in the Spirit of the Man, was one of the most hilarious and joyful productions I've ever attended. I'll never forget the Nottingham Forest and Derby fans thronging the theatre for the first preview nor the ecstatic response I - and the whole audience - gave to the stage Clough's rendition of "My Way" in which he was accompanied by roller-skating angels. Only at the theatre or sports ground is such sublime collective enthusiasm possible.

Glamour takes an episode from Stephen Lowe's Nottingham youth as its starting point. The schoolboy Lowe was working at a small Nottingham cinema, the Moulin Rouge, where his tasks included booking foreign films, which were cheaper than new releases. "The continent" - especially Paris - came to embody the idea of romance, sex and glamour The young Stephen Lowe, represented by Jimmy Potter (not Porter) in the play, decided on a career as a film-maker. Undeterred by his reliance on a handheld 8mm camera, he settled on his first project: a short blue movie (literally blue since he dyed the film in the bath).

This is the starting point of the play, which takes place behind the screen at the now-lost Moulin Rouge. Six actors are on stage. There's the young would-be film-maker and his girlfriend, who are torn between his desire for art, sexual experience and Lawrentian ideals and her Catholic upbringing (coupled with embarrassment about her small breasts). There's the chirpy, comic cinema-owner who has fled to Nottingham from London and his alluring, uneasy wife. There's the would-be singer who offers a different kind of glamour - he once appeared on Top of the Pops. And there's a quiet Irishman, working on a building site while writing poetry and talking of Joycean epiphanies. Off-stage - in the streets and the auditorium of the cinema we never see - are guests invited to the premiere of young Jimmy's film and a group of Irish building workers.

The play is a comedy but, as with all good comedies, there's loss at the heart of it. Almost all the characters yearn for a life that's unattainable and dream of being somewhere else, where life is filled with glamour. Only Jimmy has much hope of fulfilling his dreams through the miraculous transformation (in 1966) of university. The rest live through projecting their desires on other people, seeing them as the embodiments of the glamour they desire rather than recognizing them as fully human. The older characters are more seduced by glamour than the young who still have the chance that luck will improve their lives - perhaps their greater chance of luck means the young can afford their forays into realism.

I watched Stephen Lowe and the director, Bill Alexander, in the bar before the play. When it was over, I saw them in the back row of the stalls, with a sheaf of notes. There may be rewrites before the press night on Tuesday or the staging and timing may be changed. There was a little dip in attention for about ten minutes of Act One although the audience was willing the play to succeed. But such things often happen at previews - that's what previews are for. And the cast was brilliant, especially Michael Socha as the young Jimmy Potter and Melissa Simpson as his girlfriend. (They had real Nottingham accents too instead of the usual TV travesty.)

The play as a whole was a delight: lots of laughs but, in the end, real emotion and a sense that the play had raised important questions, as good plays do. And for someone of my generation, there were delightful and embarrassing recollections of the 1960s - before the play began, I realised I could sing along to "Michele - my girl" (even the verse in French) while in the interval I was embarrassed by my familiarity with the Babycham ad. I'll be urging my friends to go.

Saturday, 7 February 2009


I changed trains at Bristol Parkway once. It was a depressing experience.

I usually like railway stations. Even the smallest and barest rural platform - Honeybourne, for instance, midway between the small village of Church Honeybourne and the tiny hamlet Cow Honeybourne - has a distinctive character. The bigger stations may have the same shops (or "outlets" as they are now called) but they also have history and personality. But all that was distinctive about Bristol Parkway was a determined characterlessness. I recall it only in terms of platforms, notices, stairs and subway that were interchangeable with a multitude of other railway stations. There may have been a cafe but, if so, it was a cafe whose customers and staff had been drained of geographical or regional identity and, like the food, existed only between places. Bristol Parkway didn't feel like a real station - more like an intersection on a motorway where people could pause for a few moments so long as they didn't mistake their existence there for real life.

There are stations I've visited only once or twice that I shall never forget: Grindleford, and Worcester Shrub Hill. I've even developed affection for that difficult multi-platformed interchange, Clapham Junction. But Bristol Parkway belongs in a bleak vision of the future - unless it's the present that has stolen up on us.

A new Parkway station has landed in the East Midlands. To be accurate, I think people may have put it there, since I saw lights once or twice
when the train rushed past the spot in the past few weeks. I haven't used it. It's another dull, anonymous halt, with train information spelt out in orange dots on electronic noticeboards. Sometimes one or two people get on or off the train there when it stops. Sometimes I see a uniformed member of station staff. But I'm growing fascinated by the large glass boxes labelled "Waiting Room." They are filled with identikit, hard-to-vandalise chairs which have the appearance of occupying an uncertain space between comfort and discomfort. The chairs are (have I got this right?) set out in rows in the glass waiting rooms. I have never seen a human being in the waiting rooms - perhaps the chairs are too terrifying.

East Midlands Parkway Station is for motorists. Apparently this makes it a green initiative. Travellers are encouraged to get in their cars, drive on the M1 and turn off towards the railway station. Or they can arrive by bus, if they first catch a plane to East Midlands Airport. I expect it's a quicker journey than the buses that already run to other East Midlands cities. The publicity is all in favour of the expensive new stations. Meanwhile the service has been cut at the small local stations in the area - the stations with character. Some little stations on the line have lasted 180 years, founded in the days of the Midland Counties Railway. There are histories, memories and railway buildings that have been in used since Queen Victoria was young.

And then there's East Midlands Parkway