On the rails to Wigan: peer

As you move northwards through Warrington Bank Quay, look to your left. There sits an enormous power station, eight fat stacks pumping grey into grey. At about this latitude the landscape starts to become brown and gorsey as much as green and grassy. But take a step back south for a moment. Imagine you’ve just passed through Dudley and are on your way to Wolverhampton, the Midlands sweeping past you. The train rattles along close and parallel to a canal. Its waters are black like treacle or even sump oil under the glowering sky. A bit closer and it would be easy to dip your hand into it, disturbing the surface with a ripple that will bend straight and perpendicular to the banks, and then travel for miles and miles. Suddenly there’s a junction in the waterway: an impossibly straight channel flashes briefly into view, stretching to invisibility among warehouses and factories like a crack in the very earth, filling with grey light as the angle to the clouds changes. Maybe if you could see far enough, in that fraction of a second, if you could unvanish the vanishing point, then that grey no longer black might become, at the furthest point of the canal from the train, pearly, opalescent, then white, brilliant white; but as you’re thinking about it then it’s already past, and for the first time you can feel the North up ahead like a gathering storm.

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