Andy Willoughby finds himself transported on a mock epic, high-octane locomotive beat journey from his native post-industrial Teesside to deepest Siberia and back again. With an improvised soundtrack of half-forgotten Irish Catholic hymns, Fenno-Ugrian magic chants, Russian folk tales and a battered old Bob Dylan cassette, Between Stations ricochets between present and past with a raggle-taggle bunch of Finnish fellow-travelling poets and the hallucinatory shades of Blake, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein and Mandelstam on a ramshackle quest for the Golden Woman of Khanty Mansiysk.
From Middlesbrough to Saltburn past Coatham Marshes as early winter comes sweeping in today from Siberia. Restless snow flurries start to obscure looming shapes – the final historical remains of ironworks, steel mills, stranded black locomotives that pulled the smelt in pigs from weary morning to never-dark childhood night, to be converted into steel that still spans the globe. Abandoned buildings, that still spew out smoke in my attic-stored adolescent sketch books, haunt the eye like shells of bombed cathedrals. This was all marshland once; hidden slag-heaps lie under grass covered bumps lining the sides of trickling inlets of the Tees with its metal cranes: intricate insect totems poke their heads at the North Sea. Giant deer, elk and other ancient mammal bones dissolved into this bleak beauty by the estuary: through whirling flakes you can see them still. Easy too, to see the Conqueror lost in fog here only a few feet away from Northern swords sending Norman soldiers to their long grave but the thick sea mist that cut him off saved his neck: no resistance then could stop the North’s razing and now no entreaty too could save the Salamander in the lone blast furnace: the fiery heart – last survivor of the hundreds that lined the river banks an age ago, making this the land of dragons with satsuma skies welcoming the Welshmen who came to Eston mines, recent death by neglect the final chapter of the onslaught begun back then by the blunt headed warrior king they cared to name our next Prince of Wales after. I finger my faded neck scar where the tumour was and meditate upon the random nature of survival of peoples, of kings, of dreams, of fragments of memory and this train becomes another one over a decade ago. Window blur of winter bleak and re-hashed history takes me back to the vistas from the Siberian train when, in silent moments I looked into endless forest passing by in flashes of Autumn gold and silver birch: felt cold fear that stretched back beyond our time, conjured up the masses transported past those trees, and compromised poets punished for incorrect lines looking over the steppes to the edge of the forest, looking for the Baba Yaga’s chicken legged house – oh to be caught in it running away into the pines! Hungry skinny witches preferred to slow gulags. You slowly revolve what sent you there: chance chain ricochet from London heartbreak to the shores of Suomi to the Far North and windswept steppes and the shaman of the Khanty who told us the hour of the wolf is at hand. At Helsinki station at the trip’s outset I knew nothing of the tribes of the North, just chancing it on instinct that something there would stitch the wound I‘d been worrying at for years, some vision would restore me beyond the state of defiant ursine roaring to calm. In Turku I ate karhunliha, the flesh of my familiar: bumbled and stumbled like a half mad circus bruin sleeping down in the cellar of my old friend’s house, drank through panic attacks, began to meet the cast of the northbound trip, that endless locomotive hurtling. I wildly fancied eating bear in a restaurant would fix the holes of broken relationships, years of wandering, constant weeks of separation from my young child, and it seemed that the soothing salve of friendship too had brought me back to some innocence, some seeing that happened at that moment the ice broke on the Aurajoki that Easter morning and the black icy lump broke inside me, but the healing was incomplete: I could not make love my own season though spring sent me the unearned gift of a welcoming girl, the dark of the market town, the weight of the past, unquenchable thirst, kept me stumbling full of appetite and rage, making every offer of a home like the tormenting doors of a cage. So when once upon a summertime’s third day’s drinking in mid-festival floating with minds beautiful and far away, a lost poet with flowing hair offered to take me to Siberia for Fenn-Ugrian congress of course I growled an affirmative. In this little hometown train carriage I ponder my choices wonder if it was random chance or some norn-woven web that always said solid blonde Kalle and wild wanderer Esa were meant to be the poles at the extremes of my journey; the three of us surrounded by the other travelling writers a triangular conundrum in a circle at the centre of a puzzle I’m still seeking to solve, wild men, clown seers, holy fools the drinkers of fire and milk, salt sucker truth seekers suspended but still moving in the eye of Blake’s eternity in the land of strong vodka, white tigers and great bears. The marsh here, nestled between the busy road to Redcar And the murdered furnace, contains its own totems: the swan, the frog, the hunched monkish grey heron, the blizzard obscures them but they are memory-solid and are eternal as they are short-lived. The dark tower in the distance once held that precious fire breather, the molten core beast that needed constant feeding as sharp beaks of vicious speculators hovered above: as deadly as the heron with about as much compassion. It was the last of its kind and the people here know it. We are all proud of the Dorman Long signs on tracks, girders and bridges studied on travels, that confirm for us that these towns have made their mark though we know too well that blood and sacrifice paid for our identity tags: legends of fallen lads pushed down into the furnace smelt by their own grim fathers to end their molten sufferings, 400 men and boys crushed and broken in our mines, with their cathedral height shafts and heavy rock falls. Who are we now without our steel? Nationalist graffiti sprayed on house walls and the distant flag of St George planted at the top of the iron drained hills in a game of put-up-to-be-taken-down, put-up-again-to-be-taken-down, begs the question of where we came from in these towns. Long ago there was only a line of small villages here in swampy grass filled bogland with a coast of giant cliffs, after bronze age tribes and millennia of small farms raided and settled by viking invaders who left their legacy in names of places that Danish visitors recognise, and some hidden in transformations: from Odin’s Berg to Roseberry Topping, sacrificial mound to summer idyll, the ferric seam magnetised them: haphazard pilgrims Celts and Saxons, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Scots and Geordies Yorkshire folk, Norfolk exiles, Christian, Sikh, Jew and Muslim. Where are the tribes of Siberia’s far north now I wonder as the industries that spawned us here have taken away and destroyed their own sacred lands, brought strangers desperate for some work to outnumber them by the million, whilst we dolefully mourn work’s gradual withdrawal here, count the cost in benefits and workless agony of dead fires? Can it be what sustained us for so long has destroyed them? The stock still grey heron’s growing too big in my mind’s eye I don’t want to think of the sinister totem birds of Den Haag that haunted me horrendously after the death of my mother, and flapped towards me again as I waited for the removal of the ominous neck lump I sensed must be a malignancy, and spread its wings over our marriage bed as seas raged down the winter sea front outside our Amber Street window. It’s much better to think of what was survived once long ago; more than ten years gone since we rioted north before the snow, a comic book version of Kalevala with an extra clown in tow. That night you threw dice that came up Khanty Mansisk You’d been drinking away the days with Esa Hirvonen, pondering the significance of his name: why would Jesus of the Elk have been sent to you as a compadre if you weren’t meant to see something in the wilds? Why had you met Kalle the storyteller outside the Alko that time if you weren’t meant to need his rocky strength and his absurd wit to temper your wild flights of fancy? You didn’t know one day you’d be godfather to his child – but predestination is not a belief I can easily sign up to. There is only the present, I chanted as the waves rolled that day when I got the diagnosis of three death spots, dark multiple headed dragon I foresaw and faced down with a grizzly roar during a meditation spirit vision, all that matters is how we handle this coming wave: that one now – breaking loud on the Cleveland coast – the one you throat-sing as it breaks into surf for the shore. Joe Strummer was right I hoped, the future is unwritten, physics tells us there is no future in the now, just futures, moved to by accident or design: I could have disembarked after all in Petersburg or Moscow and stayed there for good could have opted not to go to see my doctor in time, ignored my wife’s concerns and let the lump further ripen, found out the true meaning of that beautiful word metastasis, could have backed out of Ville’s offer made down the phone I could have been Billy Liar and stayed unsafe at home; (That film made as many choices as On the Road for me I’d never be the one to turn down the trip with Julie Christie.) My heads packed full of this stuff: on a red brick estate it’s all you can build your eventual escape routes from; the lucky detritus of art and culture fallen from the table, just enough inspiration to keep going, to see it through – the loneliness of the long distance poet, Sisu in Finnish tempered by poetry, comedy, punk, flashy shards of rock’n’roll.
‘Andy Willoughby is an urban shaman, calling on the small gods to kid us through a journey of transformation that takes us from beginnings to endings and back again. It is a mapping of the liminal space, by one of the masters of the working-class biro in a blue ink tattoo on the inside of his arm.’
‘This is the voice of a writer firmly rooted in his own time and place, who casts a blistering eye on everything he sees, weaving a multi-layered vision linking landscapes, journeys, people, politics, music and childhood memories. The pace is furious and exhilarating.’
‘I will never forget being on the Trans-Siberian express with Andy Willoughby, and believe me I’ve tried. But my memories remain as clear as the purest vodka.’