Stations of the cross

29th August 1997 at 01:00
It's a lovely deal. I travel up and down the country on my Ancient Gentleman's Ticket meditating on the nature of truth, Douglas Adams and the scale of things - writing linked sonnets and a journal as I go - and the Open College of the Arts, my employer, pays my travel costs.

The OCA, as you would expect of an adult education college dedicated to reviving the creative arts, is a lean, flexible organisation. I come agreeably cheap and like trains. The deal is this: I find students and quality tutors in sculpture, painting, composing, garden design and creative textiles. In return I get to travel thousands of miles on the railways and use my journey time to write books.

There is a myth which says that rail travel is rough. That is not my experience. The West Coast trains are user friendly and there is no hint of problems ahead, for it is Monday, the start of a new week, full of promise for the rail traveller. At my home station of Wakefield, everyone is bright-eyed on the Devonian. This is summer. Clouts have been long cast and with a bit of luck the ticket collector will be Henry Your Friendly Guard.

In his own way Henry is important to me. It's not too often these days that with a few well chosen words I am able to alter someone's outlook on life but at the start of my all-around-England quest for tutors I did just that.

It is now six months since I had a conversation which profoundly altered Henry's Attitude to Truth.

For once the 6.17am to the West was late. I had just got started on my papers when I was approached by Henry. "You are a bit late," I observed.

"Mechanical failure of rolling stock at Leeds," he replied.

"Not true," I said, "that is what was happening last year. This year it is manpower shortage. The driver didn't turn up because of the delays at Micklefield." I was fishing.

"Are you Railways, Sir?" "Do I look Railways?" I wrinkled my forehead and looked over my half-glasses. He agreed I didn't. When I asked him what he thought I might be, he responded with "professor". He had clearly read too many Enid Blyton books. I helped him out by explaining that I was a peripatetic philosopher. And asked, why did he lie when there was a chance to tell the truth?

"More than my job's worth."

I motioned him to sit beside me.

One of the benefits of the "Regional Railways Public Relations Experience" is that guards are encouraged to invest time in explaining the intricacies of their professional lives to passengers and therefore are encouraged to sit down beside you if you ask them to.

As the train passed through Kinsley Henry grew expansive and though he reiterated at least one more time that it was "more than his job was worth" he was so deep into the problems of privatised rail that just as we passed below the M1 and into Doncaster's Urban District he got intimate and mentioned that he had "a wife and family to support" so he mustn't be too open with all these redundancies on the cards.

"So you have children?" And then I asked with unnecessary directness, "Do you encourage them to tell lies?" We did not speak again though I heard him over the loudspeaker. As we pulled out of Doncaster he announced: "We are sorry for the delay. This was caused by technical difficulties in Leeds." By Sheffield it was: "The delay to this train was caused by manpower difficulties." I don't know what he said at Chesterfield for I had dozed off, but at Derby I awoke to hear him announce: "Sorry for the late arrival of this train but the driver failed to turn up."

That was six months ago. Today, there is no sign of Henry. But the stop-off in Birmingham is fun. The new tutor has a studio in the basement of the prestigious Barber Institute, is an authority on the paintings of the medieval Siennese master Simone Martini - you don't meet many of those - and uses haloes and stippled gold in icons of Elvis and Jimi Hendrix. The creative textile tutor designs felt-tufted catwalk garments from an artists' community called The Custard Factory.

In New Street, rushing to the station, I am accosted by a Sunni Muslim who presses on me a glorious copy of the Qur'an; black with incised Arabic. Experience tells me that if I place it beside me on the vacant seat no one will disturb my golden slumbers. I am often taken for a mullah. This is because I always have a trim at Mr Hussain's who likes to say: "For 900 years my family have shaped beards."

There is an etching by Rembrandt which shows Jesus on what looks to be a stage, stripped to his loin cloth, thorns on his head, looking positively bewildered. I have always imagined it to be the moment after the Roman governor had asked, "What is truth?" Some pictures are good because you identify with them. I often feel like I imagine Jesus did in that etching when I arrive at a station on time to hear three reasons why "the train to Exeter St David's will be delayed". That's when I stare up at the monitor - usually in the wrong glasses - and wonder why on earth I bother, as a matter of principle, to travel by public transport.

Today, the monitor informs me that the Devonian will be 18 minutes late. I go back to my book, read on and listen to announcements. When I next look, the monitor says the train is now 42 minutes late. Thirty minutes later still, my study is punctuated by a Stentorian announcement: "The timing of the 4. 22pm to Exeter has been rescheduled and is now the 6.28pm from Birmingham New Street. ' At that the monitor flickers and adjusts itself to read, "Exeter - on time".

"What is Truth?" asked jesting Pilate and did not stay for an answer.

Brian Lewis is the student director (UK) of the Open College of The Arts, Barnsley

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