The Columnist
  National Poetry Day
Motorway Ballad
  La Monolog Victorienne
  Marmaduke, the White Knight
  Elegie Composee dans un Rural Churchyard
  Clive James
  A Salute to Rabbie Burns
  Oedipus & his mum
  The Ballad of the Middle Laner
Railway Ballad
  Roman Road
  Ballad of Belmarsh Gaol
  The Bishop of Bath & Wells







         I recently told you that I was a great collector of one of the last forms of living verse, motorway ballads. To my amazement, I met an old man on a train the other day, who said that there were plenty of railway ballads as well. Like what ? I said. Like this one, he said, and he told me the following bit of doggerel.

Railway Ballad - Leaky Headphones
The lament of one long-suffering passenger


One day I thought I'd like to go
On a lovely trip by train
To somewhere nice like Oxford
And then come back again.
So off I went to Paddington
And found an empty place,
But just before the train went off
This bloke with a spotty face
Got in and sat right next to me
And pulled out a machine,
All small and round and shiny
With a bright metallic sheen.
He placed it on the table
And chose a small CD
Which he placed in the player
With great solemnity.
And then he took two earphones
And placed one in each ear,
And then he turned the gadget on
And this is what I could hear:-
"Tikka tikka tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tikka tik tik,
Tikka tik tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tik tik tikka tik . . ."
It dribbled from his headphones
Like water from a tap,
Like a leaky night-time drainpipe
Or a tree, exuding sap.
It made me think of moments
Spent in the dentist's chair,
Waiting wildly for the drill
To lay the nerve end bare.
It reminded me of road works,
And men with welding kits
And people sawing trees down
And chopping up the bits.
It made me think of cutting
The wire that ran between
The leaky set of headphones
And his CD machine,
But I had got no scissors
And he looked big and strong
So I sat a little longer
And listened to his song.
It might have been Stockhausen
Or a Xhosa language tape,
Or even Iron Maiden
Or Yes, or Moby Grape,
But all I could distinguish
Was this evil ticking sound
Which issued forth like poison gas
And filled the air around.
"Tikka tikka tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tikka tik tik,
Tikka tik tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tik tik tikka tik . . ."
First, I tried politeness.
"Could you turn it down ?" I said.
But of course he couldn't hear me
With those earphones on his head.
Then I tried detachment,
A Buddhist sort of approach,
But still I heard his music
Go round and round the coach.
So then I took some Kleenex
And stuffed it in my ears,
But still I thought that I could hear
Nirvana, or Tears For Fears,
Or whatever he was playing
- Philip Glass or Elton John.
I started to detest him,
This man with headphones on.
In order to escape him,
And bring solace to my ear,
I walked to the railway buffet
And bought a can of beer,
And coming back to the carriage
I saw that man again,
By an open window,
Leaning out of the train.
Nobody else was present
There was no-one behind my back
When I picked him up so quickly
And tipped him out on the track.
Oh, then I went back to my carriage
And the silence was lovely and sweet,
But all at once I heard a noise
Which seemed to come from my feet:-
"Tikka tikka tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tikka tik tik,
Tikka tik tik, tikka tik tik tik,
Tik tikka tik tik tikka tik . . ."
Yes, the sound of the wheels on the railway
Had come to punish my soul
And whenever I go on a train trip,
As soon as it starts to roll,
I hear the reproachful music
Accuse me of  his death.
I hear the death watch beetle
Pointing his finger at me.
I hear the accusing ticking
As the sands of time flow free.
So, to drown the sound of my murder,
I now take an iPod with me
And play my favourite music
To keep my sanity,
And the people around may look daggers,
And put Kleenex in their ears
But I'd rather have their black looks
Than face my secret fears.
And I never go to the buffet,
Even if racked by drought,
And I never open a window,
And I never NEVER lean out.


the issue of Tuesday Aug 3 04

END - back to top