I don’t want to suggest every cloud has a silver lining. It doesn’t. In my experience, a cloud tends to conceal someone who whacks you round the head with a sockful of wet sand. But I’d like to stick up for happenstance. Things going wrong can open up unexpected vistas. I cling to this notion, having spent a week at the mercy of the railways.
I’m writing this in Biro on a dog-eared notepad. Why? Because I am on a train heading north from London Euston. Very, very, slowly. Local difficulty on the railways – a train has derailed somewhere – has caused massive disruption and diversions, everywhere. Routine shortish journeys have suddenly become epic struggles. And what happens in these circumstances? Your laptop battery runs out while you’re stuck staring at an allotment outside Stafford.
At least a derailment is a dramatic thing that you can comprehend – a sudden blockage on a key line, fair enough. Two days previously I’d been heading west and found myself equally delayed – but only because there was a heatwave. Apparently, the rails were warping, so hot was it that the trains had to tiptoe delicately over the buckling steel. Excuse me, but don’t they have railways in India, in Morocco, in Andalucia? Do their rails warp in the heat, I wonder?
Had I known that I was going to be on one of Richard Branson’s new, allegedly high-speed Pendolino trains, as breathed on by Priestman Goode, I would have brought my laptop charger. There is a handy three-pin power socket by your seat – at any rate in first class, where I was, some sixth sense having made me pre-book a cheap upgrade. No use to me, since the on-line booking service doesn’t give you that level of detail, so I hadn’t brought the gadget with me. Hence the Biro and the tatty notebook.
So what do you do when all the little occupations you take with you on the train are stultified by endless time? When you’ve read your newspaper three
times, run down your laptop battery, checked your e-mails and phone messages ad nauseam, and exhausted the on-board snack service? Well, in my case you scribble on paper with a Biro, and as you do so you stare out of the window. Where you see lots of things that you don’t see at the normal speed.
You see a clearing in a wood full of beehives, a row of derelict garages being summarily dealt with by youths with spray cans, people pottering happily around their gardens, someone arc-welding steel through the open door of a factory, a curving viaduct that has become a raised linear forest, a couple arguing, or another couple smooching. You see all kinds of things at an intermittent 15mph, through the triple-glazed window of Mr Branson’s Pendolino. If you could open the window, you would probably hear skylarks, or somebody singing Verdi. And you get to work out the pecking order of the train staff, and you learn all about the fascinating medical problem of the woman on the phone in the next seat.
But another thing happens, which is the product of such enforced idleness. You are not concentrating on a particular task, so – assuming you’re not by this time asleep – your mind wanders. Somewhere among the beehives and the fighting couple and the silent ice-blue crackle of the arc-welder, little fragments of ideas can start to filter through. In my case, I wasn’t consciously thinking about the conclusion of a book I was writing, but by the end of the marathon journey, for whatever reason, there was the structure, the content, even most of the words, sorted out. They drifted in, from nowhere. So I noted them down. I’d been thinking vaguely for months about this. But it needed a moment of Zen-like mental emptiness, of the kind that the British railways are adept at producing, to make it happen.
The next day, I went in to see someone at the hugely successful British engineering firm Arup. I sat in one of their cafÃ©s. Everyone was gaping at a giant-screen TV on which some kind of golf tournament was being shown. It was like watching paint dry. The people in that room could do things, design things, that you and I would find almost superhuman. But I got the point. Whether or not they realised it, they were emptying their minds. They were thinking of nothing but someone missing a putt on the big screen, or the coffee in front of them, or the joshing of a colleague. They were letting things happen by default. When they went back to work, some awkward little detail, or huge concept, might have resolved itself. You never know. Happenstance: it’s a powerful force. Don’t think about it. Just be glad it exists. Even out there on Network Rail.