The 16:40 ‘Express’ from Barnsley to Nottingham via Meadowhall and Sheffield isn’t a place where one might experience a revelatory moment that exemplifies the power of art, but yesterday’s journey turned out to be one.
As I walked along the Huddersfield Road with two fellow students, with whom and three others I had spent the afternoon at OCA HQ, I realised that if I didn’t offer my apologies and leave them and hurry to the station I would miss the connection to Sheffield. This late afternoon commuter train I have found in the past to often be full of excitable young students returning home from Barnsley college and this journey was no exception. It was with some with some relief, and about a minute to spare, that I found one of a very few vacant seats for the short journey to Sheffield. That the “Cross Country’ main line express that was to take me home was going to be delayed by half an hour meant that I had some time on platform 6 in Sheffield to reflect on the experience I had just witnessed just a short time before.
Sitting opposite me in the Northern Train’s compartment leaving Barnsley was a young man, I would estimate at around seventeen, avidly reading an old beaten up copy of “East of Eden”. I casually wondered perhaps if it was a “set” text, but if it was so, then it had certainly captured the imagination of this man of tomorrow. I suppose it was his focus on the words that I noticed first as they sped across the page; he was nearing the end of the book, maybe five or so pages to go. As I continued to watch I started to notice how entranced he had become in this book, that the author reckoned to be his best work. The reader’s expression turned at once from a deep frown to a smile, back to a frown and then a full, teeth bearing smile, as he raced to the end. By a curious coincidence the traveller in the next seat to me pulled out a “Kindle”, and I noticed the portrait of Steinbeck on the screen, almost as if the author had also come to witness the scene that was about to unfold opposite me.
The train takes about twenty minutes to make its journey from Barnsley to Sheffield, stopping at Meadowhall after about two-thirds of the distance. The book was just about complete by the time we left to make the second leg of that journey. The reader had turned to the last page and revealed what I think most readers sometimes dread, that realization that the writing is going to finish, the story will end with that final full stop. The intensity of his eyes seemed not to diminish as he held the book after clearly finishing the final sentence. Holding the book in the same position his eyes very slowly rose from that final punctuation mark to the top of the page, looking stunned at the ending. I wondered at first whether it was the realization the story had finished that engendered the change that overcame him, but I soon became to understand that it was the story. His eyes started to well-up, his chin started to tremble and I could sense a real battle commencing to control his emotions and to not to burst out into a full blown sob. While still holding the book in one hand his other slowly closed the book and he covered the back cover page, seemingly to hide any more words connected with the story, as if, in his present state of near emotional collapse he wanted to distance himself from the power of Steinbeck’s words.
After a short while he sat up and fixed his attention to that of the passing Yorkshire scenery, again his eyes twitched left and right trying to fix on objects, though his eyes were still filled with tears ready to flow. I watched as he turned his head toward the centre aisle mouthing the word ‘bastard’. I wondered if this charge was aimed at the author for upsetting him so in such a public way, or perhaps towards a character in the novel. He turned back to the book and read once more, I presumed, the back cover before slowly opening the book at the last page and re-reading that again; almost as if the re-telling of it might hopefully reveal something he had missed. But no, he very slowly, almost imperceptibly, shook his head, realizing that he had read what he thought he had read. That the ending was what he had understood and the reason for his expletive was warranted. And so, as his eyes once again started to risk a loss of control he again fought this turmoil for another time; sometimes frowning as he sought to comprehend, sometimes smiling, seemingly at himself for his foolishness at being so emotionally involved in what are, in the end, just words.
Steinbeck could never have imagined the intensity of emotion that his novel, set in California at the turn of the previous century could possibly have on an English teenager in the twenty first century, but I suspect he would have relished the thought that his words, his craft, his art might have the power to move so eloquently, and provide me, this moment of exquisite beauty.
That I was half an hour late home was a price worth paying for witnessing these few minutes on a bustling noisy, student filled train, and one that I would have made had I been offered it at the beginning of the journey.