Railway art, crocodile tears and Hamlet.

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You never regret a railway journey, no matter how crowded or hot the train may be or how glum your fellow passengers are. There is always that childish air of promise, some surprise to intrigue or divert  your mind. Your companions may be caught in a moment of suspended animation or indeed in animated conversation. The train presents opportunities for concentrated people-watching, probably the oldest entertainment in the world. You must keep an impassive poker face. Or you can look out the window. A vast cyclorama unfolds as you go along: sheep grazing, a man ploughing with a tractor, birds descending on the furrows, golfers deliberating, boats on the dry, back gardens with the bric a brac of family life strewn about the lawn, projected suburban developments long abandoned and overgrown with weeds. Three jet planes there, racing westwards. The passengers are too high to see the ducks in Rogerstown estuary or the reflections of the trees where once there were orchards and strawberry beds.

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The young lady beside me was applying her mascara, preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets. It’s a delicate process. It took her all the way to Malahide to get it to her satisfaction.  I thought she looked okay before she started. Strange stuff, mascara. I looked it up. It was used in ancient Egypt by priests and pharaohs and notably by Elizabeth Taylor. It was compounded from wax, kohl, soot, the juices of berries and crocodile stool. I looked that up too. You don’t want to know. Victorian ladies were very fond of mascara and spent hours every day, applying their cosmetics. There was no shortage of soot, what with children climbing up chimneys all the time. Gentlemen used mascara to darken their moustaches. The children in the chimneys had no need of makeup. It would have been wasted on them. Kohl to Newcastle. Just a thought.

Eye liner? Young girls emphasise their eyes with black stuff. It makes the eyes small and sneaky looking. A pity. The windows of the soul.  Eyebrow pencil is a hoot. The eyebrows are painfully plucked away and then replaced further up the forehead, with black paint. It makes for an expression of perpetual surprise. I bet the crocodiles would have been surprised too, if they had known what was being done with their stools. God has given you one face and you paint yourselves another. Hamlet. W Shakespeare. The illusion of beauty might be better if it were not accomplished in public, under the eyes of strangers. Magicians guard their secrets jealously.

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The Victorians had many other accomplishments worth noting. They made cast iron a thing of beauty and utility. They built railways to link countries in meshes of steel. They strung wires and cables to create a world-wide-web. Their municipal and railway building were works of elegance. They invented new colours that a pharaoh might envy. They developed industrial war. They developed photography to record their achievements for better or for worse.  They grew great beards and Dundreary whiskers—the men mostly. They did not invent that ugly perspex, or the aerosol spray can. No wonder Turner and The Impressionists loved the iron, the light and smoke of the railway age.

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That shed had an elegance of its own. It was built by craftsmen in time gone by and defaced by modern vandals. It is difficult to admire graffiti artists. Their slogans are illegible. They appear in the most unlikely places, no doubt at great danger to the artist in question. Perhaps it is akin to the Victorian desire to place a flag on inaccessible peaks. There is an air of revolt and anger about graffiti.  I saw one once, Sod the Ozone Layer. Enough said.  And yet, in certain circumstances, they might have a point. That oil tank is more interesting, even though I can’t read what the artists have written. A lot of work went into it. Maybe like WWI dazzle paint, you don’t see an ugly tank at all.  A spot of crocodile stool might complete the effect.

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The building behind is still ‘a blank canvas’. We shall see.

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