Shadorma: Small world

Twelve acres reduced
To just six square feet.
Pines, thick underbrush,
Sheer rock faces,
Windmill rusting in a wide yellow meadow,
Lonely grade crossing, wire fences.

The railroad runs
Right through it, winding up
From Fiddle Creek
To Ridgewood Junction.
Locomotives labour, hauling coal, boxcars, Canadian wheat
Bound for who knows where.

It’s all mine –
Made in my own image –
And it’s good.
From glue-and-paper hilltop
Down to dusty riverbed; created, ordered, set
In motion by my hand.

Some men forge
Empires, fortunes, palaces. Not me.
I have built
My own country:
A land I’ve long seen in dreams
That will never come true.

A small world –
Scaled to my own ambition –
I may command,
Shape, or destroy.
A tiny refuge, where I can be
A child – and a king.


Confession: since Christmas, I’ve been building a model railway in the shed at the end of the garden. Apart from reconnecting with a hobby I loved as a child, I suspect it’s a massive displacement activity: creating a miniature world rather than engaging with and shaping the real one, as I probably should be doing! It’s a distraction I definitely don’t need and probably can’t afford, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Two-way jorio: Freight train

Diesel hauling heavy freight,
Fighting hard. Cars rumbling
Over grade crossing, moving
Mountains, biting through America.


Ina, bless her, has upped the ante once again, by writing a jorio that reads vertically, as well as horizontally. Mind-bogglingly brilliant. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I’ve had a go, too: vertically, it reads

Diesel fighting over mountains,
Hauling hard, grade biting.
Heavy cars crossing through;
Freight rumbling, moving America.

Hurts the brain, but this could become dangerously addictive. N.

Union Pacific

Wish I could buy me a ticket
For the Union Pacific:

I might go to Idaho, lie low in New Mexico,
Hear that lonesome whistle moan across the sage in Arizona
Or the roaring of the motor on the road to Minnesota.
Wander far in Iowa, spend days roaming in Wyoming;
Watch a mile-long line of freight wind across the Sunshine State,
Armor Yellow and Old Glory flying proudly through Missouri.

Texarkana to Topeka, San Francisco to Chicago
Arkansas and Colorado, Texas, Utah, Tennessee:
Oklahoma and Nevada, Illinois, Louisiana
Manifests from east to west. But there ain’t no ride for me.

Long ago I could have planned to take the fabled Overland
Hopped the City of Salina or the westbound Columbine.
Now intermodal double-stacks and bulk coalporters own the tracks;
For the drifters and the dreamers it’s the end of the line.

Still, I can take a journey just by reading down the list
Of the states and mighty cities spread through Uncle Pete’s domain.
And perhaps some day I’ll stand beside the line and raise my hand
To the shade of Casey Jones – but I’ll get there on a plane.


If, like me, you love railways, living in Britain is like being a vegetarian in Texas. Our railways are under-funded, overcrowded, and have the most expensive fares in Europe, if not the world. As the journalist Matthew Engel says in his witty and erudite book Eleven Minutes Late, they’re regarded as a national joke, when in fact they’re a national disaster.
Post-privatisation, we have a plethora of different companies running our trains, and not one of them has a name so resonant as the Union Pacific, which operates across more than 20 US states from Washington to Wisconsin. These days, it’s freight-only: passenger traffic ceased in 1971.
For my generation in particular, much about America remains impossibly romantic. To my US readers, names like Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City and Chicago probably sound as enticingly exotic as, say, Doncaster, Swindon or Crewe might to us here in the UK. Yet to me, they read like an incantation, summoning visions of empty lands and wide horizons. I’m sure the reality is nothing like my dreams. But for now, dreams is all I got.