Don’t put your daughter on the train, Mrs Worthington
This month I spent a weekend in Bruges, travelling most of the way by Eurostar, which for this kind of trip easily beats air travel for speed and is, of course, incomparably more comfortable. I love trains. All my early childhood in north Staffordshire, from four to 12, I travelled every day to school on a funny little LMS puffer on the so-called Loop Line, which went through the various Potteries towns and deposited me at Stoke, where it rejoined the main line. Historically, rail was the most efficient, cheap, safe and customer-charming form of travel devised for ordinary people. Like the 19th century which gave it birth, it promoted civilisation, manners and prosperity. Our Loop Line ran from six in the morning to midnight, every 20 minutes. In all the time I used it, it was never even a minute late. No accident was ever recorded. Drivers, guards, porters, even station masters knew you by name. ‘Morning, Mr Earnshaw!’ ‘Hello, Little Paul!’ My big sisters and I loved the LMS, with its maroon livery. It was our railway. The LNER (yellow) was ‘common’, the Great Western (brown) was ‘stuck up’, the Southern (green) just ‘boring’. Our engines had reassuring names: Victoria, Albert, King Edward, Alexandra and (new ones) George V and Queen Mary.
I have been devouring a splendid railway book by an enthusiastic amateur in the field, Andy Garnett. He is a versatile and highly successful businessman, familiar with engines of all kinds, who has roamed all over the world collecting facts. His book is called Steel Wheels: The Evolution of the Railways and How They Excited Engineers, Architects, Artists and Writers. Characteristically, Garnett has printed, published and distributed the book himself (Cannwood Press, Waldenbury, Chailey, East Sussex BN8 4DR; email: email@example.com). It deals with rail from the beginnings to the present, all over the world, above ground and below it, and describes many of the astonishing buildings, bridges and hotels which rail inspired.
My favourite railway station is also one of Garnett’s, the Victoria terminus in Bombay. Designed by F.W. Stevens, it mingles Gothic Revival, Mogul, French Renaissance and Romanesque, having a large tower and dome topped by a huge statue called ‘Progress’. Stevens refused to put in a lift to get you up the tower, reasoning that ‘Europeans who will use the lift are comparatively few in num ber and only ascend probably once a day and the exercise is extremely good for them.’ (The last touch truly Victorian.) Garnett also likes, as I do, Grand Central Station in New York, or rather its main concourse. Since the tracks run beneath it, you are hardly aware of their existence. I go there every time I am in the Big Apple just for the fun of being in this monumental space, built 1903–13. It has a marble floor, walls the colour of honey, an amazing blue-green ceiling with a gold-leaf astrological mural, and ornamental balustrades connecting flights of stairs, modelled on those in the Paris Opera House (the proper one, Salle Garnier, not Mitterrand’s no-hope vanity-box). You can get by lift to all sorts of places in the neighbourhood, and just below is the world’s best oyster bar, with its delicious Maine Monsters. Once there, I can imagine I’m about to step into the Twentieth-Century Limited, Hollywood-bound, along with Bogie, Marlene, Zsa Zsa and the young Marilyn. But just watching the people is fun. There is a little café where, I’m told, the fantastically gifted (and tragic) Hutch used to tinkle the ivories and sing in his three-octave voice, the same man reported to have slept with more women than any other in history (even Simenon, whose claims of 20,000 will not stand up). At Grand Central, you come closer to a composite view of global humanity than anywhere else on earth, proof of my contention that people who are antiAmerican really hate the human race. This busy scene, just before Christmas, inspired one of Norman Rockwell’s greatest paintings, worthy to stand alongside Frith’s masterpiece, done at King’s Cross. I rate it the most moving thing done by any painter in the mid20th century. It illustrated the prophecy made by Théophile Gautier in the 1860s:
The Railway Station will soon be the Cathedral of humanity, the meeting place for nations, the centre where everyone gathers and the centre of gigantic stars with steel rails stretching to the ends of the earth ... In antiquity, architecture provided the temple, in the Middle Ages the church, and in our day it will build the railway station.
That was true until the second world war, and the airport has never replaced the station as a theatre of history and romance. Airports are disquieting, confused, shoddy and shifty, indistinguishable one from another, characterless and filled with hate. Hard to imagine anyone using an airport to make a powerful and moving love story like Brief Encounter, which was filmed not in a mock-up but an actual station, Carnforth in Lancashire, which I have often visited. Indeed, as an undergraduate I once picked up a girl there, who later taught me the tango in Blackpool.
Garnett told me a lot of curious facts I did not know. Dvorak was a keen train-watcher. Strauss used train rhythms in a number of his waltzes, and Rossini and Berlioz were also fascinated by the rail-beats. The oldest surviving toy train, dating from the late 1820s perhaps from even before the Stockton and Darlington provided the first regular service in the world — is in the Bowes Museum in Durham. The boiler has cladding of painted wood and a chimney like a stovepipe. There is an inclined track with sleepers under the rails. It belonged to John Pease, son of Joseph Pease, who built the first commercial passenger track. I did not know that the dead body of Abraham Lincoln first promoted luxury rail travel. During the Civil War, George Pullman had built a superb railcar called the Pioneer. It cost $20,000, five times more than any other sleeping car. It was known as ‘Pullman’s Folly’, because none of the rail companies would touch it. When Lincoln was assassinated, his body had to be transported from Washington to his home town, Springfield, Illinois. Mrs Lincoln insisted it must ride in the greatest possible state, and the Pioneer was chosen for the task. The journey caused such a sensation that the Pullman Company was able to launch luxury travel in America. Garnett’s book has a lot about special coaches, including Ludwig of Bavaria’s, Wagner’s friend, perhaps the most ritzy ever made; the wagon-lit in which King Carol of Romania and his mistress, Madame Lupescu, had to shelter in the iron bath-tub to escape a hail of assassins’ tommy-gunfire; and wagonlit No. 2419, in which the German army surrendered on 11 November 1918, the French capitulated to Hitler in June 1940, and which the SS finally destroyed in April 1945 to prevent the Allies using it a third time.
I end with a gruesome ditty from the trainbuff and misogynist A.E. Housman about a Salvation Army lady:
‘Hallelujah!’ was the only observation That escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane, When she tumbled off the platform in the station And was cut in little pieces by the train.
Mary Jane, the train is through yer!
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’ We will gather up the fragments that remain.