This is the 1.17 to nirvana: how a Yorkshire commute became a work of art

Bouquets beneath the Humber bridge, the mayor of Gibraltar in his trunks, windfarms and mudflats … the train ride from Goole to Hull has become a symphony of stories

A short while after leaving Hessle station, my daughter hands me a drawing. She’s been sketching the vast 2,200-metre-long Humber bridge, which we’ve just this minute passed under. What, I ask, are those tiny figures? The people who’ve jumped, she explains.

We’re wearing headphones attached to a laptop that is playing a work of music and poetry. It consists of 10 tracks, five to be played on the 30-minute Goole-Hull journey, and five on the return. The music is by Gavin Bryars, the poetry by Blake Morrison, whose words for the Hessle-Hull section inspired my daughter’s drawing.

While researching the project, Morrison got off at Hessle and wandered down to the foreshore, where he found cellophane wrapped bouquets laid on benches and tied to trees. Each bunch of flowers, Morrison relates, “naming a few of the hundreds who’ve fallen / – Beth, Lee, Jane, Catherine, Yvonne – / and nowhere as lonely as this place / they climbed to, high in the rigging, / above the mudflats and wind-scuffed tides, / where gulls cry and mist softens the welding”.

The words are accompanied by the viola, cello and bass of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, with an electric guitar mournfully wailing like a train whistle as we roll beneath grey skies through a captivatingly lugubrious landscape of low-lying sheep fields and windfarms, as damp and flat as Graham Swift’s Waterland, as saturnine as WG Sebald’s Suffolk.

Bryars – who was born and raised in Goole, but now divides his time between Market Harborough in Leicestershire and British Columbia – says he thinks of his native land as a melancholy place. “Despite or perhaps because of that, it has its fascinations,” he says. If this composing lark doesn’t pan out, a job in Yorkshire tourism surely awaits.

Blake Morrison, left, and Gavin Bryars on the journey.
Blake Morrison, left, and Gavin Bryars on the journey. Photograph: Maija Handover

A melancholy spectre certainly hangs over this line. As my train races on, I sense the ghost of Philip Larkin. Six decades ago, he travelled from Hull to London, a journey memorialised at the start of his great poem The Whitsun Weddings: “We ran / Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street / Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence / The river’s level drifting breadth began, / Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.”

But there’s more to Bryars and Morrison’s sonic journey than melancholy and meditations on neglected grandeur. Thanks to Morrison, my daughter and I were soon giggling after we pulled out of Goole at 13.17. In the 1960s, we discovered, Goole was twinned with Gibraltar, whose mayor decided to swim the mighty Ouse. He got into difficulty – although 30 miles inland, the river is still tidal at Goole and considerably colder than the Med – and pitched up three miles downstream “on his last legs and colder than an ice tray”. There he introduced himself to bemused farm workers, who – or so Morrison relates – said: “Get out of it, you daft bugger.”

At Brough (13.29), Morrison had fun explaining how to pronounce the town’s name: “[N]o, not like cough, like tough. / Not like Slough, like rough. / Not like through, like Clough (Brian).” Bryars and Morrison imagine in their sonic journey as a trip from the everyday treadmill to nirvana, east-Yorkshire style. Admittedly, such train-borne dalliances with zen were prefigured in Larkin: “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone.”

A view of the Humber Bridge.
A view of the Humber Bridge from the train. Photograph: Sara Teresa

But Morrison goes one better: his passengers are not Larkin’s carefree holiday crowd, but a throng driven nuts by inexplicable delays and lack of mobile coverage. This soon leads, however, from misery to mystic transformation: “You’re in the clear, / purged of everything, time, / place, worry, other people, / even yourself, only sky is left / and sea, and milky emptiness.” Not only that, thanks to the Rail Passenger’s Charter, you can apply for a refund if your train’s delayed by an hour or more.

How this sort of stuff will play with westbound commuters dragging themselves home from Hull, or eastbound shoppers heading back from Doncaster laden with Primark bags, is anybody’s guess. To be fair, the train we rode was, if anything, too quick – a curious feeling for users of Britain’s railways. We departed stations before the relevant track had finished, leaving strings and words dangling. What we really needed was a cow on the line. But rogue livestock rarely intervene to help with site-specific sonic art.

Although the piece was written to be experienced while travelling through the landscape that inspired it, when it becomes available this week, you could play it anywhere: on the 73 bus in London, down in the tube station at midnight, on the Orient Express, in bed.

Morrison and Bryars at Goole station.
‘Maybe we’ll cause a tourist boom’ … Morrison and Bryars at Goole station. Photograph: Maija Handover

My daughter and I arrived at Hull at 13.55, leaving only 15 minutes before the return journey, so we snaffled frozen yogurts in Saint Stephen’s shopping centre, noted that next year the city is capital of culture, savoured the majesty of Hull Paragon station, and got the same train back. I’d like to apologise to Hull for this perfunctory treatment.

A few days later, I meet Bryars and Morrison at St Pancras station in London. We sit in the champagne bar beneath the station’s thrilling iron-ribbed roof and beside the platform where Eurostar trains come and go. Behind us is a statue of another poet who casts a shadow over these train journeys, John Betjeman, for whom romance and rail were entwined: “Dear Mary, / Yes, it will be bliss / To go with you by train to Diss, / Your walking shoes upon your feet; / We’ll meet, my sweet, at Liverpool Street.”

Bryars and Morrison are quick to tell me that they’ve now edited their piece to fit better with journey times. Were there ego problems as to who should be cut? “On the contrary,” says Morrison, “I suggested we cut the words. Gavin suggested we cut the music. We were outdoing each other in self-deprecation.”

The Goole-Hull piece resembles some of Bryars’ other collaborations with artists. In I Send You This Cadmium Red, John Berger and John Christie traded letters about art to his music; in A Man in a Room, Gambling, the late, great Spanish artist Juan Muñoz narrated his own text about card tricks while the Balanescu Quartet interpreted Bryars’ score.

There are, I say to the two men as we sip champagne, so many pieces of music and words evoking rail travel. I’m thinking of Kraftwerk’s laconic Trans-Europe Express (“From station to station back to Düsseldorf City / Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”); Steve Reich’s unsettling meditation on the Holocaust, Different Trains; and of course Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s collaboration for the 1936 film Night Mail, made for the GPO Film Unit.

Bryars and Morrison demur when I suggest similarities between their piece and Night Mail. Neither goes for its clinkety-clonk prosody (“This is the night mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order”). And yet there are parallels: Auden’s text had to be cut to fit the visuals (lines such as the one describing Scottish hills as “heaped like slaughtered horses” got junked), while Morrison’s text had to be trimmed to fit train times.

Sonic Journey: Gavin Bryars + Blake Morrison ‘The Stopping Train’

To help him write the music, Bryars says he shot a movie of the Goole to Hull journey on his phone. “I found myself playing that film while I was going through the Channel tunnel on Eurostar,” he says. Fellow passengers were, he adds, spooked to see east Yorkshire drifting by on his laptop as their train cut through submarine darkness.

Did either think they should have made a sonic journey on a more photogenic railway route? Fort William to Mallaig, Moscow to Vladivostok – or perhaps even Settle to Carlisle (which, even though a massive land slip has closed part of the line, is still open for business on the glorious stretch over the Pennine hills and the famous Ribblehead viaduct)?

“Nah,” says Bryars, finishing his champagne. “One of the appeals was that it was a journey to somewhere few outsiders go.” Draining his glass, Morrison adds: “Maybe we’ll cause a tourist boom.”

Contributor

Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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