Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has MacHeath, babe
And it keeps it way out of sight
When that shark bites with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows begin to spread
Fancy gloves, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red – Mack the Knife (Weill/Brecht)
I have to accept that I am not a shark.
A shark. A lone predator moving remorselessly forward. Never stopping. Everything is progress, conquest, advancement. Self-propelled and self-determined, no backsliding, no dallying, and absolutely no faffing about. The John Williams badass Jaws theme ringing in my ears. Wait, do sharks have ears? There you have it. How could I possibly be a shark if I don’t even know what’s on the side of my head.
I’ve never aspired to be a shark. I labour under no illusions of predatorial majesty. I’m not even a particularly efficient swimmer. But I do think I continually trick myself into believing that I’m progressing all the time. Getting closer to a desired endpoint. Forward, upward, onward. Never stopping. Because stopping means death. It does for a shark, anyway.
Where exactly I’ve convinced myself I’m progressing to, I’m not sure. The top of the mountain? The end of the line? The other side of the desert? The place that is not here, and never will be? These are all metaphors, of course. The real destination must be something more like fulfilment or realisation or actualisation. Or you know, the ever-elusive ARRIVAL. But these are woolly and abstract and wide open to interpretation. Tricks of the brain, if not the eye.
Would a shark express its destiny that way? If I bumped into a Great White and managed to engage it in existential conversation, how would it interpret or frame its relentless forward momentum? “Well, Puny White,” it might say, “I don’t know where I am going, but I know I am getting closer all the time. Am I looking for fulfilment, realisation or actualisation? Perhaps arrival of some kind? Hard to say. I do know I need to keep moving and keep eating. So that’s what I do. That’s what these shiny teeth are for. See? Oh look, a seal!” And off that awesome killing machine would go, fading into the aqueous miasma of the deep, deep sea.
I’m not a shark. I don’t have the teeth and I don’t have the hunger. And in spite of over a quarter of a century of karate, I don’t feel like an awesome killing machine. I’m scared of everything in the water that isn’t me.
And let’s face it, a shark is right up there with highest echelon of predators. Cool, calm danger personified. Silky menace, with a nose for the kill. No, definitely not a shark. I feel I belong at the opposite end of the pool. Something totally innocuous and non-threatening. Mundane, banal, beige. Invisible and indistinguishable. I am a man in a hat. On a train. I…am…a…commuter!
What could be less ominous, less edgy, less enigmatic than a commuter? I am just a guy looking for a connection. And if I miss it, I’ll sit on the platform and wait for the next train to come along. Watch out! I’ve got a briefcase and a lounge jazz playlist! Don’t get too close, I’ve got some man-spreading to do. And don’t worry, conversation and eye-contact won’t be forthcoming because every minuscule item on my newsfeed needs to be pored over before I disembark. Yes, that kind of commuter.
Or maybe not. Not exactly, anyway.
The anonymity of this commuter doesn’t actually lend itself very well to the analogy I want to make. So I need to tweak things. Let’s forget about the suit/drone/automaton nature of the commuter and think more about the movement and the momentum and the agency of his daily routine. Going somewhere to get somewhere. Looking at the map of the network and working out where and when to get which train. Scrutinising those strangely beautiful infographic posters with their colourful lines zig-zagging and looping and bisecting the cities on which they’ve been overlaid. Those vivid reds and yellows and blues and oranges divided into myriad placenames which always throw up the welcome thrill of the unexpected – Cockfosters? Sunshine? Knickerbocker Ave?
In real life these are the metropolitan rail maps of New York, London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Toronto, Berlin, Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney and many more. But my commuter is not so literal. He is not spending his life negotiating the beehive population centres of the world. No, the network he is concerned with is mapped across his life. His metro maps are deployed along the matrix not of his daily commute, but of his lifetime commute. And the stations are not stops of tiles and steel and underground archways and escalators, tunnelling and funnelling the irritated masses from one location to the next.
They are not stations, but spheres of personal history that are memorial, sensorial and emotional. They are zones that interlink like the circles of a Venn diagram and overlap like spilled tiddlywinks. They are the storehouses and holding pens of lived experience. They are tone poems. They are songs of joy and sadness, skies of dark and light. They are the people, and the places with which those people have become inextricably linked, that are the signal lights of his story. And the scope of his story takes in his past, his present, and his future.
And the mode of transport is the people to whom time binds him. And I think that is true for all of us. You. Me. Everyone. There can be no disavowal. No cutting off. No removal. No amputation. No Lone Wolfery. If you live in this world, you have been affected. Life has happened to you, as it does to us all. You have been impacted. Touched. Impressed, shaped, moulded. Whether we like it or not, we are connected. As much as we may at times crave it, we do not live in vacuums. Our lives intersect. They travel side by side. They move towards and away from each other. They go into tunnels and emerge into the light. They overtake. They speed up and slow down. They undergo maintenance. They set out and they terminate. And yes, they get derailed. But mostly, they keep moving.
Like a shark!
No, not like a shark. Like a commuter. I want to make my connections. I enjoy being on the train. I enjoy the journey. And I like waiting for the next train. I like seeing the lights coming down the track. I like reading the destination above the driver’s cabin. I like knowing that this train is going to bring me to that place. And that train is going to bring me to this place. I enjoy new trains and stations. And I enjoy the familiarity of those I’ve long travelled on and walked through.
I am reflecting on this now because I recently spent a month back in Ireland with my wife and daughter. And Ireland represents to us a substantial sphere of things memorial, sensorial, and emotional. That rail map is quite the tapestry. There were myriad lines and stations to take in. There were many trains to board, and a lot of track to be ridden. But we did it, and it was exhilarating and moving and lovely. Some train rides were short and some were long. Some we went on multiple times. Some trains we hadn’t been on before. Some trains were on time, some ran late. But along they came. And we were able to get on board.
I had better be careful or I’ll start to sound dangerously like a trainspotter. But of course what I am talking about are not about metal carriages but rather the human vehicle whose fuel is society. We are social animals. I am a social animal. That society, and those connections, are my fuel. I am not a shark. I am happy to stop and share the moment. I am able to stop and share the moment. I want to stop and share the moment. I want to share the journey.
All I need is a train. I paid for my ticket, I’m entitled to safe passage. I just need the right train to come along. But you know what trains are like. They can let you down. Some don’t stop and some don’t turn up at all. And I realise more and more that some trains, no matter how much you want to make that connection, are never going to stop. Because some trains are not taking passengers and never will be. They’re on automatic pilot and they don’t jump rails or change networks. Not for you. Not for anyone.
But I’ll still find myself going back to the stations. Just in case. And when a commuter train does eventually come along, I’ll hop on, hopefully find a good seat, and I’ll get where I have to go. And when I look up to see who in whose company I am travelling, I am pretty sure of one thing – there won’t be any sharks.
So, what are you? A shark or a commuter? How’s your rail map looking?