Notes from Overground

At two periods of my life, I commuted from Oxford to London: in 1974–1976, when I worked at Bedford College, and 1986–1997, at my present place. In retrospect, it is not clear how I survived it. The train journey is at least an hour each way, then add 25 minutes to cycle to the station in Oxford, 25 minutes to walk to Regents Park (longer to get the tube to Stepney Green), and you have four hours a day spent commuting. The only thing that made it possible was the fact that two of those four hours, on the train, were uninterrupted time when I could get on with work. (This was before the days of mobile phones.) Indeed, I got a lot of writing done on the train!

In the first of the two spells, I was just beginning to make my first tentative steps from the finite to the infinite. Inspired by some lectures by Graham Higman, I considered the class of permutation groups G, acting on a set Ω, which have the property that the induced action on Ωn has only finitely many orbits for every natural number n. Of course, then there are things that can be counted, which as you know is what I like to do.

I needed a convenient name for this class of permutation groups. I knew what sort of name I wanted. If such a group G is a group of automorphisms of a structure M on Ω, then up to isomorphism there are only a finite number (i.e. a few) of isomorphism types (i.e. shapes) of n-element substructures of Ω for all n. I wanted a word whose etymology was “few shapes”. I thought the Greek word “oligomorphic” would fit the bill.

At the time, the commuters on the Oxford-to-London trains were a fairly convivial crowd; we knew one another, exchanged a few words on the journey, and threw a party for anyone who gave up commuting. One of the crowd, Roger Green, was a near neighour of mine in Wolvercote, and a scholar of modern Greek. So I put the problem to him, and he independently came up with “oligomorphic”. Thus was the name invented.

I learned much later that “oligomorpic” is also a technical term in computer science, where it describes a computer virus which can only exist in a few different forms, as opposed to a “polymorphic” virus. (I am not at all sure where the border between “few” and “many” is drawn in that application.)

Roger Green was a skilful logodaedalist. One of his coinages was siderodromology, the study of railways. (I puzzled over this, but the OED gives two meanings of “sidero-”: a combining form relating to the stars, or a combining form relating to iron.)

Roger wrote a remarkable book about commuting, entitled Notes from Overground. Compiled over several years, it records what he saw from the train, who he saw on the train, fantasies such as a beautiful passage beginning “I, the writer, am the Regional Controller. Words my rolling-stock”, slogans such as “Commuters of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your trains”, small sequences including Commuter’s Calendar, Trackside Industry, Overheard, Headlines, Anti-Kontakion, and a questionable Loose Couplings including all the names of stations from Paddington to Oxford (via Maidenhead Junction).

Notes from Overground

He imagined the book as his lifeline while he served his time in Stalag Zug, smuggled past the barrier every day lest They find out what he was up to and increase his sentence. After a while, he found a role model. The book is a Premeditated Notebook, somewhere between a verbatim diary and a crafted literary production. As Jorge Luis Borges said of Franz Kafka’s work, any literary form creates its precursors. After trying out various antecedents such as W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand and Samuel Butler’s Notebooks, Roger reallised that in the case of the P. N., the best precursor was the remarkable little book The Unquiet Grave by Palinurus, a nom-de-plume of Cyril Connolly who used it to write himself out of a black depression. So Roger used the nom-de-plume Tiresias for his volume.

I have just been re-reading it. Very amusing and brings back old memories. One in particular was of a piece of graffiti just outside Paddington, which read “FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE”. Roger and I speculated about its origin and meaning several times. When it began to fade, it was re-painted. But eventually the wall on which it was written was demolished.

Roger was a championship-standard solver of The Times crossword, at that time the most literary of the cryptic crosswords in British national dailies. Here is his comment:

I always tackle the crossword puzzle first. Believe I have my priorities right (insofar as anyone who spends at least two hours a day in trains can be supposed to have his priorities right). Could happily dispense with the rest of the rag, given a crossword to take me at least an hour to solve. [This is disingenuous; I never knew him take anywhere near that long to solve a crossword.] The crossword alone offers truth – perfect, Euclidean truth, the search for which can gratify and fill the mind to the exclusion of all else. My grounding in the Classics and English literature at last comes into its own. All that education, which seemed so pointless, was aimed towards this solving of the daily conundrum. Clearly our mentors did not explain this at the time, even when we questioned them, because they knew we lacked the maturity required of initiates of the mystery.

Interestingly, he later compares the crossword to poetry.

The index of a book is often interesting reading, and Notes from Overground certainly delivers. The index runs from Abdul & Arthur (two characters I borrowed for homework problems when I taught Probability) to Zen, by way of Adelwhat?, Great Uncle Bulgaria, Noh, and Spook Erection.

Roger comes over as a fairly gloomy person, etiolated by commuting. Did he escape to a more fulfilled life? He did escape, yes, and went to live in Greece; I believe he shared a house on Hydra with Leonard Cohen at one point. But I don’t think he became a happy, fulfilled individual. There is a moral there!

But re-reading it suggested to me that the Premeditated Notebook does have a little in common with this blog. I always write things in advance, beginning with one or a few ideas, and get them into reasonable form before posting them; I almost never type directly into the box on the WordPress page. But, on the other hand, I don’t polish the pieces to perfection; at a certain point they tell me that they are finished, and I leave them there. I jump randomly from one topic to another, but also have short sequences, notably the one on the symmetric group. I really don’t know whether I learned a trick from Roger or whether this is just my natural style.

But no matter, it seems to do for me something similar to what it did for Roger and his role model Cyril Connolly. If I am really annoyed by something, this is a very good way to get it out of my system. It really does seem to help me keep my balance.

So I shall probably go on for a while yet.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Notes from Overground

  1. Pingback: Notes from Overground by Tiresias | New Escapologist

  2. And more – Simon Hoggart (no less) wrote about it in the travel section of the Guardian last summer:

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