I used to pass the time on train journeys to university by gazing out of the window at the fields and trees rushing past. I did this for three years. In truth, I wasn’t passing the time. Time was passing through me, through the vacuum in my mind. It was as if I had a gaping hole in my head through which life whistled through. I paraded around university, sat in lectures, took exams, all with this hole in my head, everything seeping out. I feel sad to think how much time I wasted – but I also know that it couldn’t have been any other way. Besides, time is still whistling through my head. Who put that hole in my head? I know I should take part of the blame but it was society that put that hole in my head. I wasn’t born with it – how did I learn language and grammar, how did I learn to walk and speak. Society doesn’t rear its children properly. It alienates them and turns them, most of them, into particles, alone, with holes in their head, through which, to varying degrees, life passes unnoticed.
Nowadays, I try not to gape thoughtlessly out the window. Today, I got out my book, a heavy and venerable tome by Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States. I started to read and soon, I was looking into a haze at uprisings in 1700s Boston, Orange County and other alien places. Class conflict was taking place. The rich elite grappled to retain control as the working class rioted and railed about unfairness. Farmers fought Indians. Working class fought farmers. Sheriffs imprisoned, other sheriffs were imprisoned by mobs. The British sought to impose a new tax. The mob retaliated and the Boston Massacre took place. The Brits blamed negroes, “saucy boys” and other riff raff. The rich American elites watched the working class insurrections nervously.
It was as if I was back gaping out the window but now, instead, of impassive trees and scrapes of poetry, injustice and resistance rushed past. And, yet, there is a fog that obscures the vision. It is the fog of lost time. The action is not compelling, nor the injustice. It is all too far away and chaotic. The train is going too fast for the visions to mean anything.
Why am I reading this history? On the way back from work, the train carriage is busier. At every stop people trundle on and off. The book is on my lap and I’m reading – the revolution against British rule is approaching – but I fold the corner of the page and put the book away.
I close my eyes from the window and the rushing world outside, lean my head back and try to doze. It’s too much. It feels futile. Whether I look out the window at the hieroglyphics of nature or at the window of the page and its litany of revolts and retaliation, everything seems to pass through the hole in my head.
Why read history’s grubby entrails of ignorance, injustice and suffering if it will merely tickle and blow away? It is better to doze, without expectation and, therefore, without much disappointment. Of course, perhaps, if I read enough history, it’ll fill up that hole. But, it didn’t work with nature, whilst I was at university.
I reach my stop and heroically rise, bag slung my shoulders, and leave the train, and start to walk home. I am alone and the train of history is safely closed and zipped in my bag. I will try to ride it again. I will try to reach the end. Yet, if I want my train journey to mean anything, I have to turn inside, to my neighbour and look back at the scene together. This is the solution to the hole in the head. Society tears us apart and then throws us together, incomplete particles, offensive to each other. We particles watch life stream right through us, dead bodies and all. We need to bridge the gap between our seats if we can ever hope to reclaim life and take the till of history towards justice. We need to stop being scared of strangers.