On the pleasures and pains of joining up with other people after a long, quiet time in the Covid doldrums.
I am traveling on a train, reading a book, glad to be alive.
Reading a book while traveling on a train is my favorite thing to do in the world; the well-being derives from staring out the window as the scenery rushes past, knowing that if I drop my eyes a book will be there to catch them. This is as good as it gets. Or better.
Today, the book is Rupert Everett’s “To the End of the World,” the actor’s characteristically waspish diary of the making of his directorial debut, “The Happy Prince,” a film in which he also cast himself in the lead role of Oscar Wilde. It is not yet 9 a.m., and I find myself alone in the rear carriage with “something sensational to read in the train.” I am not merely glad to be alive; I am jubilant.
For obvious reasons, over the last couple of years there hasn’t been much opportunity to do my favorite thing in the world. Today I am doing it en route to London, where I am going to do my second favorite thing in the world: sit in a darkened room all day with strangers — and a few friends — watching old films and television programs.
To mark the centenary of the birth of the pioneering British writer Nigel Kneale, the Picturehouse cinema in Crouch End is hosting a daylong celebration of his work. There will be screenings of shows like “The Quatermass Experiment: Contact Has Been Established” (1953) and “Murrain,” a rare episode of the little-seen television series “Against the Crowd” (1975). There will be panel discussions with experts from the British Film Institute and a reading of a “lost” radio script by Kneale. In something of a coup for the organizers, the actress Jane Asher has agreed be quizzed about her part in the folk-horror classic “The Stone Tape” (1972).
I fully anticipate the sort of event where audience members shout “WOW!” when shown a comparative presentation of digitally upgraded 35-millimeter film stock. Not only am I jubilant, therefore; I am actively jubilating.
The first fans of Arsenal Football Club to join the train do so at Sittingbourne. Six ruddy-faced men in red and white replica shirts settle themselves nearby, noisily opening cans of strong lager they pronounce to be palatable — no, not palatable, delightful! — though not in those exact terms. It is 9:08 a.m.
As I get up to move seats, trying not to draw attention to myself, I recall that, as a writer, Nigel Kneale was fascinated by the tension between the individual and the crowd, a tension I feel squarely between my shoulder blades as I exit the carriage.
The same thing happens at Rainham, the next stop down the line, and again I get up to see if I can find a quieter seat. Ever more Arsenal supporters join the train, bantering and shouting and proposing a morning toast to their team’s fortunes with Special Brew. (In a few hours’ time, Arsenal will play a football match against a rival team called Manchester United, hence the influx of “Gooners” this early in the day.)
With all this commotion, I am finding it increasingly hard to focus on “To the End of the World” by Rupert Everett. “I love trains,” he writes on page 282. “Oscar is all about trains and absinthe.” I try adopting a Wildean attitude toward my fellow passengers. After all, what is Special Brew if not the absinthe of the masses?
But when, at Chatham, I have to relocate for a fourth time, I do so petulantly. The little metal tray table in front of me bleats tinnily as I jab it back into place. I hasten from the scene muttering failed epigrams. When I plonk myself down again, two carriages along, I realize I have misplaced my glasses, without which I cannot read a word, and I feel too embarrassed to go back and look for them. This is a fugue of my favorite thing.
Most discussions of whether it is better to travel or to arrive fail to take into account a third option, which is that perhaps it would have been better to stay at home. In common with many people, I have found it more difficult to return to the world than I had thought I would in the doldrums of 2021. Was everything always this tiring? Another epigram bubbles up: “What’s the point of going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.” Thank you, Homer Simpson.
I may not be able to read my book, but I can still gaze out of the window. Rochester Castle, with its 12th-century keep, glides past, and already there are children playing on the grounds. We cross Rainham Marshes and I spot scattered groups of bird-watchers who have been at it since dawn. Coronavirus remains rife; the economy is lurching out of control; the planet is on fire; there is war in Europe. As more travelers join the London service, some bound for the football, others to go shopping at Westfield Stratford, it occurs to me that no one on this train is ever going to return to normal, because normality isn’t where we left it. But who would blame us for trying?
As if to confirm this unexpected epiphany of fellow feeling, a tap comes on my shoulder. I look up. Holding out my glasses to me is a man in an Arsenal shirt.
Later, safe in the dark of the Crouch End Picturehouse, there will be a screening of “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967), the film adaptation of Kneale’s 1958 teleplay. The original version concludes with words from Professor Bernard Quatermass delivered amid the smoking ruins of the capital city: “Every war crisis, witch hunt, race riot and purge is a reminder and a warning. We are the Martians. If we cannot control the inheritance within us, this will be their second dead planet.”
I’ve seen this film before. I go to the pub instead.
Andy Miller is the author of “The Year of Reading Dangerously” and the co-host of the podcast “Backlisted.”