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“... colonisation was about temporal, as well as spatial, invasion and displacement.”
On time, lateness and the temptation to “f*ck deutsche bahn”
Hello friends, [links at the bottom of this email]
How’s your end of the year going?
Before I dive into musings about 2022, trains and time, I want to dedicate this final newsletter of the year to anyone who’s engaged in any kind of activism. The spread of civil disobedience in the news and seeing different circles of collective organisation forming around me is probably one of the things I’m most grateful for. I don’t think I’d have found the strength to finish my PhD thesis were it not for the confidence that more people care about a better and fairer future.
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I celebrated the recent winter solstice on the rails, enjoying an unexpectedly smooth trip from Berlin to London. Not everyone was having as much luck as me that day. As I was waiting to board the Eurostar, I overheard a young British traveler talking on the phone: “Don’t get me started … Today was a nightmare.” They shared details of their very delayed journey before concluding: “We’re being told that we should avoid flying but honestly: I don’t know if I can put myself through this again.” And I can’t blame them!
I spent a ridiculous number of hours on delayed trains this year. Some situations really pushed me to the edge of my ethical commitment, testing my love for grounded traveling and for experiments in patience. On some occasions, I’d already spent the previous day or two on a train and was exhausted from performing, only to have the journey back stretch from the planned 10 hours into 14 (or even 24 …). Headed home some Sunday evenings I was consumed with anxiety, stressing about having to work the next day (“real” work that is, not gigging), feeling lonely or bored or doubtful or all of the above. I even ended up creating a group chat where me and my “frequent train-er” friends can safely complain about our difficult journeys.
If 2022 was the year you decided to experiment with grounded travel yourself, you’ve likely encountered some challenges. In February, I got stuck in not one but 3 storms – Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – on 3 consecutive trips. Over the summer, heatwaves and fires slowed down grounded traffic all over the world. Climate catastrophes are impacting sustainable travel. Traveling this way also makes these extreme weather events more real to those of us who otherwise spend our time in one urban space or another.
In 2021, floods in the West of Germany caused huge damage that took weeks to repair. The German railway network has been picking up a bad reputation for years. Since 1994, passenger traffic has increased by 40 percent and freight traffic by as much as 80 percent, but the infrastructure hasn’t been updated for this growth. When two freight trains collided last month on the Berlin-Hanover line, cancellations and delays went into overdrive. Whilst Angela Merkel once declared that “only with rail will we achieve our climate goals”, her governments never subsidized or supported rail travel as much as aviation. Now some parts of the German network are finally being improved, but the task is enormous and will cause extra delays.
During some particularly demoralizing journeys, I’ve felt quite humbled by the patience and solidarity among passengers, thinking: “maybe humanity will be able to address the more drastic challenges that await us in a unified way”. In other circumstances, though, I’ve heard a fair amount of “fuck Deutsche Bahn”s. Witnessing passengers having a go at modestly-paid employees who are held accountable for the poor state of the rail network is sometimes heartbreaking. Who’s at fault here?
Sure, there might be better ways in which transport companies or even the European Parliament could be addressing delays. In her book Zero Altitude, Helen Coffey spoke to the famous “man sat in seat61” : “It’s one of the issues Mark Smith is most fervid about, in fact - that there should be parity between EU air passengers’ rights, which are comprehensive and protect the consumer, and train traveler rights, which are a different kettle of fish altogether. [...] ‘Europe needs to address passenger rights for a world where there are no through-tickets,’ says Mark. [...] Although the EU would say they’re trying to create a level playing field between train travel and air travel, their focus is on the wrong issues according to him: ‘They’re obsessed with delay compensation. They haven’t realized that people are making through-journeys on multiple tickets because they have to. And the biggest issue is not getting back 20 percent of your 29€ ticket, it’s what happens when you miss that 29€ train because the preceding train is late, and they want you to buy a 130€ full-flex ticket to get you to your destination. That’s a much bigger issue.”
Quite frankly, I’ve experienced such states of precarity this year that knowing I’d get a tenner or two in compensation radically improved my ability to sit through endless journeys. Because if there is one thing I’ll tell you, my friend, it’s that being the DJ who doesn’t fly DOES NOT pay the bills.
I’m still wondering what the balance is for performing artists who avoid flying. Another job, maybe … But then how and when do you do that job? And how and when do you recover? Like, sitting on trains takes time, and that time isn’t always relaxing, especially if the trains are delayed. And then you’re hoping you can make it on time for the gig at all. A friend reported hearing a DJ play a track featuring a looped sample saying “f*ck Deutsche Bahn”. It’d been recorded by an artist who’d missed a gig due to late trains, a situation I’ve experienced in the past. It’s not fun. I didn’t get paid. I wasn’t rebooked.
Looking at this from a post-growth perspective, we could say that the grounded travel model is inseparable from a shift in our western ways of living: fewer working hours, more leisure time and, potentially, less traveling overall. The touring artist model – as it is often promoted by contemporary club culture – seems ill-fitted to this shift.
It’s fascinating to me that musicians, whose mode of expression is essentially a sublimated experience of time, are themselves trapped by its constraints. We’ve all heard quotes comparing time to a currency or reflecting on its relativity … But please bear with me, I’m going to get romantic for a second. Some of my favorite train journeys took me through Austria, Switzerland or Italy, offering stunning views of the Alps through the window. Witnessing mountainous beauty and daydreaming about time dilation makes my head spin softly. According to the theory of general relativity, time passes faster on top of a mountain than it does at sea level. So, dare I write it … I think I may very well write it … What IS T I M E ??
In The Colonisation of Time, Giordano Nanni attempted not so much “to understand what time is” but to study “the manner in which time has been constructed and understood, [...] the meanings and values that have been attached to it, and [...] the ways in which these have operated as a means of crafting identities and civilities”. One of the key premises of the book is that “the experience of time is a human universal – one that all societies share in common – but the ways in which that experience is measured, perceived and conceptualized can vary widely from culture to culture”. He adds that “colonisation was about temporal, as well as spatial, invasion and displacement”.
Somewhat paradoxically, given the theme of this newsletter, Nanni quotes Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book Walden: “Have men not improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? … To do things ‘railroad fashion’ is now the by-word, and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.”
Nanni adds that “the mid-nineteenth century marked [a] watershed in the formation of a Western culture of time insofar as it witnessed a major step in the abstraction of human-time from nature’s time. [...] During the process of this shift, the rhythms of society were gradually reoriented around a new source of temporal authority, driven by the exigencies of major business and mercantile interests – a new Chronos, of which the train was an apt symbol: fast, linear, unidirectional, and confident of its destination. [...] Indeed, the train became a symbol of speed and efficiency, of man’s triumph over the limitations of nature, providing a new paradigm for the concept of ‘regularity’.”
Perhaps this isn’t simply a paradigm of the past. Earlier this year, Alexander Kamyshin, the CEO of state-owned Ukrainian Railways, compared the network to “a second army”. He added, “we’re disciplined, we’re determined. We know what to do. Everyone knows what to do. We simply do our job.” In the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian trains evacuated 4 million refugees. Hundreds of rail workers died or were injured. Later, trains brought citizens back to their liberated homes. As it has been nearly impossible to fly within the country during the war, trains also brought the likes of Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Ursula Von Der Leyen to Kyiv. Maybe all of us can train, when the conditions allow and/or require it. I don’t know, conditions like the climate crisis, for example.
My point is: in the “f*ck Deutsche Bahn” conversations I’ve had, I’ve often wondered what we’re actually swearing at. Is it that trains are no longer delivering on their old promise of efficiency? Or that our needs are greater now? Do we actually want to wipe out those needs put upon us? Either way, who exactly are we holding responsible for all this? Why is a delay (or are some delays) so unbearable? Isn’t it a small price to pay for something bigger than us? How does our impatience compare to the determination of activists and volunteers dedicating so much time to climate justice?
Does that frustration come from a place of entitlement? What is it being turned towards, transformed into? Are we expecting lives built around hypermobility to be a basic human right? Is a well-working, potentially faultless transport service a divine or political dueness? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m genuinely curious – and include myself in the interrogation. Ultimately, are we annoyed at time itself?
I experience a similar nervousness when I am trapped in a conversation about winter being a cold, wet and gray season. I sympathize with the trouble this may cause, but often wonder if there is an implication that someone is at fault? And if so, who? I don’t know, maybe the Gods, for inventing seasons? The same sadistic Gods who devised the space-time dimension we exist in? The very Gods who are not letting us bend its rules smoothly, cheaply and without hurting the various forms of life we’re sharing it with?
As well as quoting several organisations which campaign for improved public transport, Helen Coffey defends the '“use it or lose it” mantra. In Zero Altitude she quotes Bring Back British Rail’s Ellie: “It is important to use the public transport system we have, no matter how bad it is. I dream of the day when public transport is a joy to use. But we need to keep fighting in the meantime.”
Along with urgent structural changes, which include fairer investment, technical improvements to the rail networks, better conditions for their workers, revised passenger rights and shifts in our ways of living, I wonder if there also needs to be a transition in the way we think about time itself? And sure, trains alone are not going to save the world, but, hey, they may not hurt either!
If you couldn’t join us for our last party, reply to this email with your postal address and I’ll send you a copy of the zine for free.
We posted a short recording of the b2b with Abibi and Beneath :)
… and we have a telegram channel with updates!
A final festive round-up:
If you’re feeling generous, I recommend my friend Tash’s surgery fund.
If you’re wondering what the future could look like, I recommend my friend Ollie’s excellent blog posts, including this one about degrowth.
If you’re looking for unusual xmas company, Sophie Lewis has some interesting thoughts.
… and if you’ve been waiting for a reply from me, please be patient, I’m very slowly catching up, as the good old delayed train that I am.
Be well, friends! xx