English is a pretty good language. It’s got a stupidly large and insanely flexible lexicon and so it’s disconcerting when you see or feel something and don’t have the word for it.
I found myself in such a situation this morning, Sunday, at Clyde Street lights by the old signal box.
In olden times, which these days seems to be a period frighteningly close to when I was a young man in my prime, signal boxes like these were manned (yes, manned, not staffed – I’m willing to bet that only 1950s Soviet Russia had lady signal operators) by men who pulled great big levers, levers that wiggled the points back and forth and sent locos to wherever they were supposed to be going.
Like everything that once required human effort, there’s now an app for it. Or something electronic that dwells in “the cloud”. So I’ve been watching the demolition guys over the last few weeks as they strip the box of its asbestos sheeting and prepare it for its final destruction.
For a while it stood naked, just its oregon timber frame and the steel joists, and yet somehow it was still the signal box. On the second storey you can just make out the items that define this wooden-framed box and tell us what it once was; that is, the levers that the men pulled and pushed to move the points to send the trains along their way. As long as the levers were in place it was still, somehow, a signal box.
But on Saturday afternoon, as Jambo and I headed towards the dog park, I heard a crushing, grinding noise the closer we got to Clyde Street lights. And there it was; or, rather, there it wasn’t. A big scoopy diggery thing had smashed it down: timber frame, steel joists, big levers and all. The Islington Junction signal box was no more.
I felt sad – not necessarily for the asbestos sheeting and oregon timber, but for something else indefinable. Something that was focused on the row of levers. I got it into my head to go and get one, but there was still someone guarding the site quite late, and when I headed down on Sunday morning the crushing crew was already there, the huge mechanical monster crunching up the last remains and dropping it, scoop by scoop, int a waiting truck.
I asked one of the guys if they’d taken the levers out first but he said, no, they’d gone the same way as the frame. He asked me why I was interested and I said that I didn’t know, that it just felt a shame. He agreed, and we stared in silence for a few minutes at the digger as it scooped up splintered timber, metal and busted levers and piled the dump truck high.
That was when I felt the undefined sadness. It was a sadness partially for the loss of the building itself but perhaps more for what the building embodied: the thousands of hours of the presence of men working and talking and joking and arguing within its walls. The funny incidents. The narrowly avoided catastrophes. The pranks. The sadness.
I have some photos of the interior from a few months ago. There were stacks of time sheets and log books that had all been filled in with great care and diligence, yet now they lay scattered among the filth and rat crap.
And the levers, all ranked in line and looking like they were ready to go back to work at a moment’s notice.
I couldn’t think of an English word for what I felt. Not nostalgia, because I never worked in the signal box. Not poignancy. Not German Weltschmertz or Portuguese saudade or anything else that I could think of. Perhaps wabi-sabi, a Japanese term for “a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay”. That’s not bad. Wabi-sabi would fit for the feeling I get when I see tumble-down all cottages, such as this one at Tighes Hill.
Beauty in decay. In the midst of life is death. And on that happy thought, dear reader …