The Flying Scotsman

British Rail is a thing of the past, but the British railroad experience is alive and well. It was more than a four-hour ride up from Leeds to Edinburgh, sliding through flat country carpeted with the spring grasses, sweater-pills of sheep, with four black threads on the bottom, angled on the hillsides. Change trains at Newcastle, an old mill town unexpectedly clean and bright – you might even want to carry some coals here, just to dust it up a little. Makes me think of the Mark Knopfler song, Sailing to Philadelphia – Mason and Dixon came across from ‘the coaly Tyne’ to survey the line drawn between the slave and free states, an abortive attempt to forestall the civil war.

Elsevier treats me nicely, and Sarena has booked me into a great hotel down by the Leith docks, Edinburgh’s port. My window overlooks the water, soothing – so I walk along the canal before sleep. It’s 11:15, and though it’s dark, I can still see twilight in the west. The sun awakens me at 5 am. In a month it’ll be scarcely dark all night.

Climbing the hill of arguably the world’s most beautiful city, sheathed in grey stone as solid, large, and soft-complexioned as the Scots themselves. Edinburgh’s streets wind around – overhead walks and tunnels revealing spires above and low doors all lend an air of mystery – you really could find a wizard’s shop right ‘round the corner. You don’t get long views until you reach the Bridges between the old and ‘new’ (15th century) city, where it opens up the high medieval castle and the observatory capping the hill.

Sarena presides over issues of the artwork and production schedules, and then the book designer joins us, a woman of such quiet spiritual power she fills the room immediately on entering. She rounds the table awkwardly with a limp, and forces me to shake her left hand, and I notice my offer has been to a gnarled right hand, with the flexed arm in a splint, held to her side. Sparked by the splint, I ask her what she did before I catch myself – that hand is not injured, it’s contractured – and indeed Charlie had a stroke at 29.

Without surface beauty or eloquence, and an unsure new employee to boot, Charlie nevertheless holds the room for the entire time she is there. I like her ideas, I want her to design my book.

After work, I ask her ‘round to the hotel, and we sit outside in the sun and the lapping waves for a drink’s worth, talking poetry and her history. Poor girl, she had too much power to be contained within her body, though she says the stroke was a gift – a benefit it may have been, but she paid for it. The sun fading and the drinks empty, we go in so we can work with her arm. Nothing to be done with the brain damage itself, but so little rehabilitation is done with the compensations for these brain injuries, so we set about mobilizing her neck, back, shoulder, and then centering in on her cranium – looking for the avenues of availability in movement. It seizes up whenever she thinks too hard – I can track her mind in the tension in her arm as I unravel it.

It was a gesture to a large but wounded soul, I would have to see her regularly to really move her up to her level of potential, and it would not be easy work. I want to help, make it better, fix it, but I am accustoming myself to play only the role as it is written in, not to try to write scenes on my own.

Later I realize I could have contacted my signing editor Mary Law, and gone to see her and Hamish in retirement, but it is too late. Along with Leon Chaitow, I owe her so much.

Putting paid to what I wrote a few days ago, the plane comes right up the Thames toward Heathrow, over the flood barricades, sneaking over to the left side of the plane I can see the blackened hull of the clipper Cutty Sark, burned out yesterday morning, they think by vandals. Greenwich, with the observatory, Gypsy Moth, and the Cutty Sark, was a favorite haunt of mine when I was in London – take a boat from the Embankment right past St Pauls, the docklands, and all the strange oddments of architecture that hang off the houses and walls,

Over Tower Bridge, St Paul’s itself looking so uncharacteristically small the spiky Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, #10, The Mall straight from there to Buck House (no sign of any queens), which is linked to St James Park, to Hyde Park, and ultimately to Kensington Gardens where Diana lived… London has so many large swatches of green. Track then up and north and my old haunts come into view – Soho for music and theater, Regents Park and the zoo and wide bridle pathways, Primrose Hill where, for a summer, I tried to throw the Frisbee left-handed. Highgate Cemetery, Hamsptead Heath, Parliament Hill, and Golders Green – a linked triangle that was my Sunday walk. Karl Marx’s grave usually began my route – the inscription runs something like: “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in many ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

And I thought I would give it a go…

But the rude truth is that it’s a day-to-day world that requires a lot of changing. Kew Gardens – huge arboreta and flocks of deer – is the last spot for this nostalgia tour, and we’re down from the north, back into the Mainstream, swim with the fish toward Terminal 3.


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