At about noon on Saturday, I boarded the train in Topsham, travelled as far as Exeter, changed and waited on a strangely quiet platform for the train to Plymouth, and journeyed westward. Probably five minutes into the westbound trip from Exeter, trains run along the western edge of the river and estuary that are my village's western border. I look across and see my village, laid out along the farther shore, and I watch the water (and the tidal mud) as we go south down the side of the estuary. And then the train turns westward again and, in its curve, brings us alongside the sea itself. Yesterday, even though some of my fellow passengers in the Quiet Carriage seemed not to be paying much attention to the directives implicit and also explicit in that carriage's existence, the scenery outside of the train couldn't have been much more serene. There was the rock arch west of Dawlish, the one a flatmate and I once tried to hike our way to, having no idea what we were doing, when I was a student at Exeter almost half my life ago. There were the ships nearing or leaving various south coast ports. There was the sea itself, rolling in slow, low waves.
I saw a play in Plymouth, and to my delight, when the play was over there was still visible light in the sky. (It was 4:20; the sun was down, but at least dusk still lingered.)
The pedestrian area that runs through much of the city centre in Plymouth has become a winter carnival, and one ride in particular grabbed at my gut. This one was called the Freak Out, but in my inner life, it was Giant Dutch Shoes.
When I was eight, my family, having moved to southern Indiana only the winter before, went to the first county fair I could remember. There were fair rides everywhere. One of them looked particularly exciting to me: the one we call the Dutch Shoes. I don't know whether it's actually called the Dutch Shoes. Searching for a carnival ride so named yields me nothing, and this is about as close an image as I can find for you.
And here's an image of what my memory of actually going on that ride felt like. My father obligingly went with me. (In writing this up, I'm realizing that I need my mother's memory too: what was the amusement park we used to go to in Buffalo? the one that may have been semi-permanent? and had a ride that had red cars and was maybe an alpine track? That ride was my speed.) And things were okay on the first couple of swings--as we, strapped into our little blue metal bullets, swung more or less gently back and forth. But, as is the way with this particular ride, we swiftly began to swing up higher and higher, until we swung all the way up and were upside down.
I don't remember exactly what point it was when I began screaming at the tops of my lungs, screaming and shrieking for it to be over. We went around and around and around, over and over and over, probably going forwards sometimes and then backwards for awhile. It was horrific, all the way around. I'm surprised that my father retained any of his hearing after having been trapped in that metal pod with a shrieking eight year old for the five minutes or so the ride probably lasted.
When my family came to England to visit during my Cambridge year, at Christmastime in 2007, we spent a couple of days wandering around London and one day happened upon the winter funfair happening in Leicester Square. They had Dutch Shoes. "You couldn't pay me to go on those again," I said, before hastily revising that claim: you could in fact pay me to go on those again. But it would have to be a hefty sum of money. It seems to me that they also had one of those horrifying rides where you are taken to the top of a giant pole and suspended there for a little while--and then dropped at terrifying speed back to the ground. Similarly: for a hefty sum of money, I could probably be bolted into a ride like that for a few minutes.
Plymouth's Giant Dutch Shoes seemed to be moving on at least two axes (and weren't shoes, either, but whatever)--though now that I look again at these pictures I realize that I might have been seeing that extra axis of motion because the whole spectacle freaked me out. Which was appropriate, given the ride's name. I was glad to be on the ground, where the beauty was, rather than up in the air with the horror.
Both of these things--the seaside and the funfair, the beauty and the horror, the natural and the gaudy--are England, and are my time here. Sometimes the oscillations are almost too much.