Conrad Landin

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Being carried sideways through the night

Every now and again since I’ve started writing this blog, an alarm bell has rung in my head – too much politics, and not enough of everything else.

I’ve tried divulging through poetry in the past – so I’ll do so again now – the title is taken from a poem by Norman MacCaig, entitled Sleeping Compartment:

I don’t like this, being carried sideways

through the night. I feel wrong and helpless – like

a timber broadside in a fast stream.

This poem is evidently a favourite of Alexander McCall Smith, as he seems to quote it whenever his characters discuss their adventures on the Caledonian Sleeper. But you can see why, it’s such a powerful image.

The Caledonian Sleeper – which has portions reaching Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William – is known for a number of key aspects: beautiful scenery, comfortable beds, the last train in Britain to allow smoking, a distinctive Scottish feel and stroppy stewards.

A sleeper cabin

We’ll start with the latter. When I boarded on Sunday night, I decided I’d pre-book my usual Haggis with Neeps and Tatties as, at least on the Highland sleepers, this tends to sell out pretty fast.

So after dropping off my baggage in my cabin, requesting tea rather than coffee in the morning and squeezing past some rather miserable and self-satisfied passengers sleeping several compartments down from me, I made the journey down the long, narrow corridors to the lounge car.

Without prompt (he must have heard my entry), the steward shouted from the kitchen with a mixture of familiar jocularity and gruffness: “You’ll be lucky!” I think he was referring to the fact that he wasn’t taking orders yet, but perhaps he had predicted what I was about to order.

Given the station we departed from, I should have asked him to pick up his walkie-talkie and commence: “Euston! We have a problem.”

To cut a long story short, the stores were short of neeps and tatties, and thus it came to be that my haggis was given a twist of the Indian sub-continent. Neeps and tatties? Nah, mate. But I could do it with a naan. And some salad. We could do you some lettuce leaves. (Steward No. 2 chimes in.) And a couple of tomatoes!

But that didn’t compromise the charm of the experience of speeding through Hertfordshire enjoying a decent meal. Not badly priced, either, at £5.00. And unlike in Sleeper experiences previously related to me, after this the two stewards softened up and didn’t insist at any point I clear out (they have been known to want a break and clear out the lounge car altogether).

The lounge car: the most comfortable railway carriage in Britain?

I didn’t exactly sleep like a log, but got a good few hours in here and there; definitely more than you get without a bed. It is amazing, really to think that within a train you can have hundreds of people sleeping in bunk beds in the Twenty First century. Long may the service live.

And a few bonus points for taking us through my local station – Gospel Oak.

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