Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Steinbeck, Scuppers and trains

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2016.]
 
 
As a child, the great American author John Steinbeck was inspired by a scene with a bird in it: a stork. He cherished a toy ‘Easter looking-egg’ which he loved to peer into through a tiny hole, seeing “a lovely little farm, a kind of dream farm, and on the farmhouse chimney a stork sitting on a nest." 
 
Steinbeck had taken this setting to be pure fantasy but to his surprise saw the same thing in real life one day in Denmark.


My own young imagination, before I could even read, had been fired by books like Margaret Wise Brown’s ‘Scuppers The Sailor Dog’ with its superbly memorable illustrations by Garth Williams. I would always ask my mother to read me this story and one scene in particular is imprinted on my memory even still. I’m sure that it fed my unconscious with a deep desire to travel.


Brave Scuppers is asleep in a warm bunk bed in his cosy, wood-paneled ship’s cabin. The ship is tossing because I can see that the light is swinging from the roof and outside through the round porthole window the sea is choppy. Under his bed are his new shoes that he picked out from a shop, pictured on the previous page. Scuppers rejected a different pair as being ‘too fancy’ because they were curly at the toe ends.


This shop (where he also bought a ‘bushel’ of oranges) had palm trees outside and a woman in a veil walking by, seemingly in a hurry. I’d never seen either of those things before and didn’t know the word ‘exotic’ then but that’s what I was thinking in my forming child’s outlook. When I got to Morocco twenty five years later and saw the same curly shoes that Scuppers had passed over, I felt what must have been a similiar satisfying surprise as John Steinbeck had once enjoyed.


Travel has a way of also emboldening us because we are out of the realm of home’s familiar touches.


Consciously, my love affair with travelling on trains began just over two decades ago when my partner Paula and I spent over three months on different forms of them getting across Europe. As a child and young adult I’d barely been on a train before but there was something either in my ancestral memory or a different kind of spark that kindled a vague interest in a different sort of transport, aside from buses or planes. Maybe it was hearing Neil Diamond on TV when I was eight years old. I still recall him singing:


It's a beautiful noise
Goin' on ev'rywhere
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track
It's got rhythm to spare


In this song too he poeticised the sounds of big city street as music to the ear and my budding brain was intrigued by this idea. Living in quiet suburbia where the high-pitched ‘ninga-ninga of summer lawn movers was the most common weekend noise, I’d never heard anything like the kind of thing in Diamond’s lyrics and his clear affection for the pulse and grind of the metropolis. It has stayed with me in the same way that thoughts on a train trip from over twenty years ago will now and then float back into memory.