RN 95 - The romance of the railways
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World of books
By A. N. Wilson
The romance of the railways
Steam trains are still to be seen chugging through English and Welsh valleys, especially during the summer months, but there is something melancholy about them. The melancholy is not the sadness which Tolstoy evoked when he first introduces us to Anna Karenina sitting on a train and hearing the clinking of the couplings. The sadness is for the fact that these lovely old machines are now nothing more than toys for hobbyists and tourists.
The wheezing monsters which inspired Auden to write Night Train are no more, and mine is the last generation who read about Thomas the Tank Engine and friends and who had actually seen the Flying Scotsman whizz through the snow-flecked night.
"The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag - how weighted with ritual have the railways in their brief century become!" So begins one of my favourite Michael Innes mysteries, Appleby's End, the one in which Appleby meets, not his end, but his future wife.
The title refers not to his murder but to a station. As darkness falls in the second chapter, "the engine, while daylight lasted simply an obsolescent locomotive tugging grimy carriages across English ploughland, was now a creature alien and dragonish, panting on some vast and laboured quest".
There are many memorable railway scenes in Innes's oeuvre. Perhaps the very best is in the novel which itself takes its name from a railway poem, one of Thomas Hardy's The Journeying Boy. Particularly good is the train journey through Northern Ireland: "The train had slowed down and on the parapet of a stone bridge he could read the inscription prepare to meet thy god".
These passages in Innes would not be so interesting if the train in question were one of the present-day Virgin or Inter-City trains, where passengers are constantly harangued by loud-hailed admonitions to read the safety instructions, or invitations to sample the unappetising selection of hot and cold snacks in the buffet. How inevitable it was that the Hogwarts Express, for example, though apparently conveying Harry Potter and friends to school in our own day, should be an old-fashioned steam train.
These themes are explored in an excellent book by A F Garnett, who combines the qualities of the railway buff and the man of taste. Steel Wheels (Cannwood Press, £18.50) reminds us of many of the great railway moments in literature, from Dickens's Mugby Junction, to the ominous use of Willesden Junction in Trollope's The Prime Minister.
It recalls one of the finest novels of Zola, La Bete Humaine, which starts on a railway. "Zola, complete with pince-nez, and stiff collar, travelled on the footplate from Paris to Mantes as part of his research and the novel describes the happy comradeship between Jacques Lantier, the engine driver, Pecqueux, the fireman, and La Lison, their engine, as a menage à trois."
As well as being an evocation of the railways as they inspired the novelists, the poets, the songwriters and the painters, A F Garnett has also written a book which touches on the place of the railway in history, from Lenin's momentous arrival at the Finland Station, to the murderous use of railways by the Nazis to transport prisoners to the death camps. But the book is primarily a celebration, and its core is a first-rate history of the railways themselves.
I wish he had written it before I completed my book on the Victorians. Here is a man who is a first-rate engineer writing with authority about the evolution of railway technology. I am not a trainspotter by instinct but I read enthralled his chapters on the engineering heroes, Stephenson and Brunel, and on the spread of railroads over England from the 1840s onwards. His chapters on the spread of the railways across other parts of the globe, and especially in America, are also wonderfully exciting.
Garnett's book leaves the reader full of nostalgic anger - against Beeching for wrecking our national rail network, against those who pioneered motorways and encouraged the public to buy cars. But this sort of pointless fantasy-rant is absent from his good-humoured and well-informed pages. Rather, the book ends with an analysis of the sort of railways, and systems, which should be in use in the future.
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