Novelist Andrew Martin presents a documentary examining how the train came to shape the work of writers and film-makers, from Wordsworth and Dickens to The Railway Children.
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This is the Euston Road.
And the only good thing about it are its three railway stations.
Yes, our railways carry us from A to B...operating difficulties permitting.
But, unlike motor cars, trains have entered our hearts, bequeathing us a rich cultural history.
And by walking into a station in London, you can connect straight to it.
St Pancras was one of the London railway termini
used by those regular off-peak travellers Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
The ghost of John Betjeman gazes upwards at the roof of the station he helped save.
Imagine a poet battling to save a motorway.
As for Euston Station, well, one can still read in the station bookshop
of the great fermentation involved in the construction of its lines.
'And down the road at King's Cross, well, that has Platform 9 and three quarters,
or, at least, a sign coyly indicating it,
and a sawn-off luggage trolley, cooed over night and day by Japanese tourists,
because this is the magical portal for the world-beating boy wizard Harry Potter.
There is an entire world of literature, poetry and film devoted to the railways.
What is the source of the railways' mystique and why have they inspired
creative minds from William Wordsworth to JK Rowling?
Locomotives and the atmospheres they brew up have inspired writers, poets and film-makers
over the last two centuries.
'My name is Andrew Martin and I've taken my place at the back of this long line.
'Over the past seven years, I've written a series of detective novels
'set against the background of the railways in Edwardian times.'
In those days, the railways were the lifeblood of the nation,
the starting point of all adventures.
A big station like York was a microcosm of the society it served.
Here, as a writer, I could bring together travelling gentlemen with chimney sweeps on the move.
Bristling platform guards could contend with station loungers,
pickpockets and other species of railway yobbo.
Stations were not just manned in those days, they were teeming with life.
I set my novels in the Edwardian period because that's when the network was at its densest.
This was a kind of vicarious revenge on behalf of my father,
who'd worked in the Finance Department of BR here in York
and was forever having to implement cutbacks.
The railways had fallen out of fashion when I was growing up in York in the '70s.
Even so, it was still a railway city.
The station was merely the focal point of a sprawling railway territory -
marshalling yards, engine shed, carriage works.
I'd lie awake at night listening to the ghostly clanking of wagons being shunted.
Because my father worked at BR North Eastern Region HQ, he seemed to me an aristocrat of railways.
And not only did he have free first class rail travel, but so did his entire family.
TANNOY: ..and Stevenage, please change here at Peterborough.
If I was at all bored as a 14 year old, I'd say, "Dad, I'm off to London."
I'd get on a train, lounge proprietorially in a first-class compartment and read a book.
On crowded services, I might be interrupted by harassed businessmen.
They'd barge in and say, "Excuse me, young man. Are you aware you're occupying a first-class seat?"
I'd say, "Yes. I am, thanks," and go back to my book.
To me, trains are a bit like libraries. I associated them with reading.
Whereas there's no point taking a book with you on a car journey.
You just got carsick if you looked at it. Trains were generally superior.
They had a weight of history and culture attached to them.
'The experience of travelling by rail was not always so sedate.'
In the early days, you might be too busy gripping the arm rest of your seat to read a book.
Imagine the shock of this form of travel when the quickest thing you'd ever seen
had been a racehorse or a stagecoach.
These were enormous, cataclysmic changes that were happening to everybody.
And, of course, everybody then started to think, you know,
"We get carried in a carriage at 10mph?
"Our brains will fly out of our ears."
It was that sensation that nobody had had anything like that at all.
And that would engender such strong feelings. It was a massive change.
One day, in 1843, the artist Turner was travelling on the Great Western Railway.
He stuck his head through the window of a first class carriage during a rainstorm
and he was most forcibly impressed.
Turner was met with the breathtaking force of travelling at high speed through clouds of smoke and rain.
The experience would give rise to one of his best-known paintings,
Rain, Steam And Speed - The Great Western Railway.
If you want to be pedantic about it - and railway people often do -
you'd say that the painting showed a Gooch Firefly 222 locomotive. But that's hardly the point.
The image presents the viewer with something very like a bullet aimed straight at the heart.
I once got into trouble at the National Gallery for reaching too far towards the picture
to point out to my son the hare running in front of the locomotive.
The point being that the hare, an extremely fast animal, is being caught up by the engine.
Man is getting the upper hand over nature.
The railway revolution was profoundly disturbing.
It makes the arrival of the internet seem like a minor embellishment of lifestyle.
90% of our current route mileage was authorised in the three years from 1844 to 1847.
These vast iron gatecrashers thundered through house cellars,
back gardens, beautiful meadows and social conventions.
From the outset, they attracted the scornful eye of writers
and anyone with a vested interest in contemplation.
In "a just disdain", William Wordsworth wrote of a rural England
being blighted by the age of steam.
"A power, the thirst of gold, that rules o'er Britain like a baneful star,
"wills that your peace, your beauty shall be sold
"and clear way made for her triumphal car."
One man acted as a lightning conductor for all the railway anxieties of the time,
His railway novel, Dombey And Son,
contains one of the first descriptions of scenes flickering past a train window.
"Through the hollow, on the height, by the heath, by the orchard, by the park, by the garden, over the canal,
"across the river, where the sheep are feeding, where the mill is going, where the barge is floating,
"where the dead are lying, where the factory is smoking.
"Away with a shriek and a roar and rattle, and no trace to leave behind but dust and vapour.
"Like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death."
A theme of Dombey And Son is the destruction wreaked
by the building of the London and Birmingham Railway line that runs to Euston Station.
This was the first railway to come into north London.
Unfortunately, when it came to be built in the 1830s, Camden happened to be in the way.
To get a sense of the trauma inflicted upon Camden at the time,
you have to go onto the parcel deck of the current station.
Here's one of the main railway canyons running through Camden.
It was being gouged out in the years before Dickens wrote Dombey And Son
and this is the work described in the book.
Dickens was a man attached to the notion of Merrie England and travelling by stagecoach.
Imagine what he must have made of this.
It would have seemed a barbarity.
In Dombey And Son, Dickens refers to Camden as Staggs' Gardens, and he knew the area well.
He'd been brought up here, when it was a village.
During the construction of the railway, he saw places he knew,
including part of his old school, being destroyed.
He was morbidly fascinated by the process.
Oh, it is you.
Oh, Mr Walter, help me.
You may not remember me. I'm Miss Florence's maid servant.
I've been trying to find Staggs' Gardens, where Mrs Richards lives.
She that was nurse to Master Paul?
Staggs' gardens? It's no more, the houses were pulled down to make the railroad.
Oh, don't say that, Mr Walter!
The railways were omnipotent,
and so, like most railway novels of the era, Dombey And Son features a death by a locomotive.
The treacherous Carker is run over by a train.
"A red-eyed, monstrous express, it licked up his stream of life with its fiery heat."
Carker! Look out! Carker!
It wasn't just the gutting of the towns and countryside that seemed wrong to sensitive literary folk,
the locomotives themselves had a murderous quality to them.
In The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope,
the villain, Lopez, is "knocked to bloody atoms" by a shrieking Scottish express.
In Anna Karenina, the heroine commits suicide by leaping in front of an oncoming engine.
Locomotives didn't just symbolise the inhumanity of the machine age.
Before they were tamed and trained, they really did have an unfortunate habit of killing people.
Steam engines, still relatively new and frightening enough when stationary,
were now being whirled about the country at fantastical speeds.
At the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830,
a cabinet minister, William Huskisson, was knocked down and killed.
No wonder British governments have been so reluctant to fund the railways ever since.
The equation was a simple one. More railways meant more deaths.
The 1860s were the darkest decade, when accidents were rarely out of the nation's news.
These "smashes", as they were known, magnetised and repelled the Victorians.
Here was a very modern way to die.
In the 1860s,
the railways were at their most dangerous. Trains began to speed up.
We had 50, 60mph trains sometimes.
There were more trains on the tracks
so the likelihood of collisions was increased.
The authorities did very little about safety until rather later, until the 1880s.
So we had this decade, the 1860s,
where more people died on the railways than ever before or since.
Cartoonists portrayed the locomotives as beasts.
Dragon-like, they were bent on the destruction of mere humans.
Returning from France on June 9th 1865,
all of Charles Dickens's railway nightmares came true
when he was involved in a horrific train crash at Staplehurst in Kent.
The accident was caused by a work gang lifting tracks on a viaduct.
They'd reckoned without the 2.38 from Folkestone to London.
Dickens helped soothe the injured and dying with brandy and his top hat filled with cold water.
Ten people died in the accident, and for the rest of his life
all Dickens' various anxieties would be subsumed in the great one over Staplehurst.
The accident would prompt Dickens to write his finest ghost story, The Signal-Man,
a superbly gloomy version of which was on TV seemingly every Christmas during my childhood.
It was in fact the highlight of my childhood Christmases.
The story concerns the fate of a signal man, stuck in a cutting next to a glowering red light.
He's at the mercy of an electrical bell, and the necessity of showing his flag as the trains go past.
An accident on this stretch of the line must be a terrible thing.
In the tunnel, say?
The tunnel collision is the worst to be feared.
Nightmares would go hard to equal it.
The wreckage becomes hideously compressed in the confined space.
If fire breaks out, the tunnel and its ventilating shafts become furnace flues.
You cannot see in the dark to get the wreckage and bodies out.
The screams of the injured and dying
echo in a most...persistent way.
Dickens' signal man is a fascinatingly neurotic figure.
Like many railway men, he has intellectual interests.
He has taught himself a language in the box.
He has worked at decimals and fractions
but he is tormented by the loneliness of the job,
the memory of two previous accidents and the premonition of a third.
TREMULOUS STRING MUSIC
What is it?
What is it?!
Where is the danger?
Tell me what to do!
What is it? What can I do?
He constantly feels the urge to send the telegraphic signal "Danger, take care." But he can't say why.
Of course, a smash is looming.
It's been suggested that Charles Dickens was the very last victim of the Staplehurst crash.
Towards the end of his life, he put down the cause of his ill health to "railway shaking".
He died on the fifth anniversary of the accident.
By the middle of the 19th century,
railways were shaping literature in other, more benign ways.
A railway journey was an opportunity to read,
and so, in 1848, WH Smith opened their first railway bookstall here at Euston station.
Station bookstores have always been about reading for the masses.
In fact, they generated a whole new type of fiction.
Books that were the forerunners of the airport novels.
They were cheap and had story lines that could withstand all the distractions of a train journey -
the stopping and starting and "Excuse me, is this the train for Birmingham?"
As Cicely says in The Importance Of Being Earnest,
"One must always have something sensational to read on the train."
An entire industry of sensationalist fiction developed,
with writers competing for travellers' attentions.
Every author hoped to find their books on the racks of W H Smith
and things are no different today.
A shop manager of discernment!
Between garish covers was everything the man or woman on the 2.22 required.
Sex, insanity and, above all, violent death.
Cheaply-bound sensational novels were known as yellow backs.
Their authors, such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon
who wrote this one, sold in their thousands from railway bookshops.
The success of Braddon irritated George Eliot, who wrote to her publisher,
"I suppose the reason my own six shilling editions are never on the railway stalls
"is that they are not so attractive to majority." Well, no, they weren't.
One reviewer of Braddon's work expressed the regret that "a book without a murder,
"a divorce, a seduction, or bigamy, is not apparently considered either worth writing or reading."
Given the Victorian nervousness of train travel, it isn't surprising
that the railways themselves would be used to unsettle the reader.
The Victorian sensation stories would play on their readers' anxieties about railway travel.
For instance, you might have a woman sitting alone in a railway compartment,
feeling rather nervous, reading a story about a woman sitting alone in a railway compartment.
Except that in the story, a man suddenly clambers in through the carriage window.
A very shifty looking man as well, with a top hat and a big moustache.
Breaches of compartment etiquette
would be depicted later on in cinema.
In Alfred Hitchcock's film version of The 39 Steps,
Robert Donat bursts in on Madeline Carroll while she's reading alone.
Darling, how lovely to see you!
Don't mind having a free meal in there!
Hitchcock appreciated railways, but he was no train spotter himself.
His version of The 39 Steps contains a notorious mistake.
Well, notorious to a certain category of railway fanatic...
Hannay flees London heading for Scotland.
He does so by boarding what is evidently a London and North Eastern railway train - reasonable enough.
Hitchcock cuts away from it.
When he cut back, it's become a Great Western Railway train,
emerging from Box Tunnel near Bath.
Then again, somebody once devoted an entire review of one of my books
to moaning about how I'd invented an entirely new class of tank engine.
I'll be right along!
Trains are quite marginal to the original story of The 39 Steps.
But Hitchcock boosted their role, in order to maximise the speed and drama of the narrative.
Things can happen in carriages because doors can open,
people can jump out or can hang on to the outside of trains.
That device he uses so well in that, particularly combining
the fact that Donat gets out of the train on the Forth Bridge.
You've got these two iconic things.
There is the train, the compartment, but then to have him coming out into
the shriek of whistles and steam onto those massive girders...
It's against all regulations to stop the train on the bridge!
-But a man jumped out. We've got to chase him.
-Which way did he go?
-He must have jumped out here.
-I cannae see him.
-You sure he jumped?
-I can't wait here any longer.
-There he is, getting on the train!
-No, that's a passenger.
-It's he, I tell you.
-Come on then!
Hitchcock also made good use of the slow-burning anxieties
that could arise from sharing a train compartment.
Might I have a look at your paper?
Of course, you'd try to weed out the nutcases as you picked your seat,
but once you'd sat down opposite someone, you were stuck with them.
When I was a boy, travelling on the railways in the '70s, I'd often stretch out and go to sleep.
Then I'd wake up and see a big fat businessman sitting three feet away from me.
I'd pretend to be still asleep but I'd be watching him.
Once, I was jolted awake to see a man reading a pornographic book called The Desire To Dominate.
It was very hard to get back to sleep with him in the compartment.
Walter de la Mare wrote in one of his short stories,
"It's a fascinating experience, railway travelling.
"One is cast into a passing privacy with a fellow stranger, and then it is gone."
By the end of the 19th century, railway travel was becoming normalised.
Locomotives that had once been agents of turmoil and social change had been tamed.
For late Victorian gentlemen such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson,
trains were not a danger in themselves.
They were something familiar, comprehensible.
Watson, we're going well.
Our speed at present...
is 53.5 mph.
I have not observed the quarter-mile posts.
Nor have I.
But the telegraph posts on this line are 60 yards apart.
The calculation is a simple one.
The two depart, incidentally, from every terminus in London except Marylebone.
The only reason they don't go from there is that it was built too late,
in 1899, by which time Holmes and Watson were about done.
Holmes and Watson weren't above recourse to that humblest of documents, the railway timetable.
Until the early-1960s, Britain's railway timetables were called Bradshaws
after the man who had started publishing them in 1841.
They were as thick as, well, this,
and they were full of exasperating footnotes. "Except Mondays."
"Should the arrival of the steamer be late, the train will not stop."
When Holmes asks Watson to reach for the Bradshaw, our pulses quicken.
The game is afoot.
We can just catch our train to Paddington!
Watson, would you be so kind as to bring your field glasses? Ha!
Even for all his powers and his influence with the police, the railway are not going to say,
"Well, yeah, we'll hold a train up for an hour, Mr Holmes, while you do this or do that.
"Go and see that guy."
It's not going to happen.
So, for all that's happening, these great moments,
there is also the train timetable which is there and is going to be
the guiding factor to probably what they will do next and where they go.
In those days, the Bradshaw would have been as readily to hand for any man of action
as car keys would be today.
But sometimes Watson knows the train times without looking them up.
In The Retired Colourman, for example, Holmes asks Watson
for the train times to Little Pearlington in Essex.
And, not withstanding the fantastic obscurity of the destination,
Watson immediately replies, "There's one at 5.20 from Liverpool Street."
We have here the beginnings of a peculiar new sub-genre in which the factual pedantry
of the detective novel is merged with the even greater factual pedantry of the railway timetable.
The result is something very factual and pedantic indeed.
A murder mystery with train timings at its core.
Take Agatha Christie's novel, The 4.50 From Paddington
whose provocatively dull title was changed to Murder She Said for the cinema.
A timetable and map provide Miss Marple
with clues to a murder she has witnessed on a passing train.
Ah, yes, here we are.
I calculate the 5 o'clock express to Brackhampton
overtook my train somewhere about there.
But how can you be sure?
I remember the ticket collector saying five minutes to Brackhampton.
It couldn't have been a more than a minute after the murder he came in
so that makes it six minutes before Brackhampton
at, say, 30 miles an hour.
For me, the apex or nadir of this sub-category is The Cask, a novel of 1920
by Freeman Wills Croft, which is all about the logistics of transporting by rail a particular barrel.
Actually, that does sell it rather short.
The barrel contains a dead body.
Freeman Wills Croft was an engineer and he wrote rather like an engineer.
His novels seem almost as full of numbers as they are of letters.
This is typical. "He looked at the timetable again.
"The train in question reached Calais at 3.31 and the boat left at 3.45.
"That was a delay of 14 minutes.
"Would there be time, he wondered, to make two long-distance phone calls in 14 minutes?"
Of course, this sort of number crunching would prove a gift to satirists.
I must dash or I'll be late for the 10.15.
I suggest you murdered your father for his seat reservation!
I may have had the motive, but I could not have done it.
For I'd just arrived from Gillingham on the 8.13. Here's my restaurant card ticket to prove it!
-But the 8.13 from Gillingham doesn't have a restaurant car.
-It's a standing buffet only.
Did I say the 8.13? I meant the 7.58 stopping train.
But the 7.58 stopping train arrived at Swindon at 8.19,
owing to annual points maintenance at Whisberer Junction.
So how did you make the connection with the 8.13, which left six minutes earlier?
Simple, I caught the 7.16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8.09.
But the 7.16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays.
-Yes, surely you mean the Holiday-maker Special?
-Oh, yes. How daft of me.
I came on the Holiday-maker Special, calling out Bedford, Fen Ditton, Sutton, Wallington and Gillingham.
That's Sundays only!
By the beginning of the 20th century, there was no place in England untouched by the railways.
Every day half-a-dozen passenger trains and their lumbering goods
would call at such apparently insignificant spots as Oakworth in Yorkshire,
whose preserved station may strike many as strangely familiar.
This is the Edwardian country station par excellence.
Being the main location in both the film and television adaptations of The Railway Children.
By the time Edith Nesbit published The Railway Children in 1906,
the railways had become thoroughly accommodated into British life.
We were used to their little ways.
It was now possible to see them as something cosy and whimsical as well as potentially dangerous.
And far from being the despoils of the landscape,
they'd become an honorary part of it.
The railways were losing their Gothic aspect.
An age of railway romance was emerging
in which they became something that could be romanticised, sentimentalised, loved.
For the Railway Children, the country station is both a rural idyll and a joy.
Nisbet writes, "The rocks and hills and valleys,
"trees, the canal, and, above all, the railway, were so new and so pleasing that the remembrance
"of the old life in the villa grew to seem almost like a dream."
-Doesn't it look spiffing?
-It's like a sort of green dragon.
A fiery green dragon.
It saw me! I waved and it whistled back!
Oh, look, an old man's waved back!
-Race you to the station.
-Do you think we should go on to the line?
Why not? The train's gone. There won't be another one for ages.
-Well, I will, but I think it's dangerous.
The Railway Children really showed that the railways
had become a totally accepted part of life.
They had been around, by then, for 60 or 70 years.
And people saw them as the way into the big town
and the way back from the big town.
There was something totally comforting about it.
People relied on a railway. It was the thing on which they depended for nearly every aspect of their lives.
-Gosh! Can I come up?
-What's it called?
-SHE is called Sir Berkeley.
The railways play a very charming role in this.
They are, for a start, kind of morally neutral,
unlike the people who have locked up the dad.
And they have nice Mr Perks, the porter,
who is part of the landscape as well.
And they're lovely things to go and watch and they're free to go and watch.
They are just part of the scenery. You don't have to pay to watch them.
And it's a lovely thing to do, as it was in my childhood as well.
Standing on a railway cutting edge and watch trains was a thing that we did.
-Look, they all waved. Why?
-Because we got the watches.
-And we are heroes.
-Off you go. Lessons.
The great success of the film The Railway Children, released in 1970,
proved the enduring power of the country railway fantasy.
Of course, the presence of a fascinatingly feverish-looking Jenny Agutter did help.
There's a lovely touch towards the end.
When the railway brings her missing father home,
he emerges from a cloud of steam.
The charming special effect that all locomotives
conveniently carried about with them.
Almost any novel from the first half of the 20th century
is a railway novel to some extent,
as long as any character moves any distance.
The notion of the railway and landscape existing in harmony
seems a perfectly natural one, but it was deliberately fostered.
The railway companies of the early-to-mid 20th century
were extremely image-conscious.
They might be said to have been pioneers in public relations
and the poster was their primary medium.
Even the most hardened motorist and collector of Jeremy Clarkson DVDs
is probably vaguely familiar with these images,
so evocative of a mellower, sunnier age.
Giving names to trains, such as the Flying Scotsman, only added to the mystique of rail travel.
The age of railway romance would last a couple of generations until well into the 1950s.
Among young boys, the weirdos and misfits were the ones not interested in trains.
Between 1911 and 1950,
The Wonder Book Of Railways For Boys And Girls went through 21 editions.
It is full of very detailed accounts of railway working.
A chat with the engine driver. Mr Brown, the signal man.
At the same time, railway stories were being written for children in their thousands.
Life Or Death, An Indian Railway Yarn, The Missing Mail Bag.
The railways started attracting followings amongst young people,
probably from the turn of the 20th century,
although train spotting as such did not emerge until rather later.
But, I think, people would go to the seaside
on the railway and the whole family would go and take the huge trunk in the goods van,
the luggage van, and they would sit in a compartment all together eagerly going off to the seaside.
A lot people have written about that as the most exciting thing they did in their childhood.
The perfect evocation of the railways as part of England
is generally taken to be in the form of a poem.
Adlestrop by Edward Thomas.
On the face of it, the poem recalls a non-event.
Thomas' train made what is technically called an unscheduled stop
at Adlestrop in Gloucestershire which has a station no longer.
But the tranquillity of the moment, the sense of time suspended across
the sunlit English countryside, stayed with Thomas and has stayed with us all ever since.
"Yes, I remember Adlestrop,
"the name, because one afternoon of heat,
"the express train drew up there unwantedly. It was late June.
"The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
"No-one left and no-one came on the bare platform.
"What I saw was Adlestrop, only the name.
"And willows, willow herb and grass.
"And meadowsweet and haycocks dry.
"No whit less still and lonely fair than the high cloudlets in the sky.
"And, for that minute, a blackbird sang close by and around him mistier
"farther and farther all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."
That kind of poignancy could only have been generated retrospectively.
Thomas' diary records the date of the stop. June 23rd, 1914.
But the poem was written whilst he was serving with the British Army in WW1, in which he would be killed.
In the poem, the railway is seen as it would increasingly come to be seen,
through a haze of nostalgia.
In the Great War, trains took on another significance.
The railways carried soldiers to the front and brought them, in rather fewer numbers, back.
As the public became familiar with terms like ambulance carriage and hospital train,
the word "departure" gained a more ominous ring.
All those partings.
All that emotional turmoil
that gets focused down to a train platform,
particularly at the big London terminuses.
But then the reality of these guys - thousands - in khaki,
jostling to get onto the trains.
The wives, the girlfriends, the husbands, the boyfriends,
the brothers and sisters all fighting to get one last glimpse.
"Will I ever see them again?"
Of course, the great sadness of so many not coming back.
I always feel a certain apprehension when I go to a railway station,
however mundane the journey before me.
Marcel Proust said they were inherently tragic because they carried people into the unknown.
But imagine how the stakes were raised for wartime departures.
Thomas Hardy's poem, In A Waiting Room, from a collection published in 1917,
captures a leave-taking on a wet morning described as being,
"sick as the day of doom".
"A soldier and wife with haggard look subdued to stone by strong endeavour.
"And then I heard, by a casual word, they were parting as they believed forever."
In the poem, the separating couple are part of a collection of characters
found in a waiting room like this one.
The narrator's attention is quickly diverted by a pair of laughing children.
The private agony of the departing couple is swiftly put aside.
In WWII, the waiting room's collision of personal misery
and mundane chatter was brought to the cinema.
Hello, hello, hello.
It was beautifully realised by David Lean in Brief Encounter.
-There's your train.
-Yes, I know.
-Oh, aren't you coming with us?
-No, my practice is in Churley.
-Oh, I see.
-I'm a general practitioner at the moment.
-Dr Harvey is going out to Africa next week.
Oh, how thrilling!
You would think a love story would justify one,
possibly even two heart-rending farewells at a railway station.
But Brief Encounter is absolutely stuffed with them.
It's a bit like a railway timetable.
A series of arrivals and departures.
Quickly, quickly! The whistle's gone!
I'm so glad I had a chance to explain. I didn't think I'd see you again.
How absurd of you. Quickly! Quickly!
-Yes, next Thursday.
There's the shriek of the train.
The train that won't wait.
Things have got to be done. Things have got to be said.
They have to be said and therefore that whole feeling between them is heightened
by probably what they can't say, what can't happen,
but it's heightened by that waiting room.
It doesn't matter, not saying anything I mean.
I'll miss my train and and wait...
-No, please don't. I'll come with you to your platform. I'd rather.
In the film, the railway station is described as "the most ordinary place in the world".
In the earlier period of steam, a tormented heroine would have
flung herself on the tracks like Anna Karenina.
But, by the 1940s, the worst the locomotive can do
is to fling a bit of grit into Celia Johnson's eye.
Brief Encounter was shot in the closing months of the war at Carnforth station in Lancashire.
A place remote enough, it was hoped, for the bright film lights to go unnoticed by the Luftwaffe.
David Lean had a proper regard for steam engines.
He understood that they were natural stars and instructed the drivers
to race through the station with as much din and steam as possible.
Steam's a great thing.
What better thing can you have in a film
if you want to suggest evanescence or impermanence
or drama than a great big shot of almost stage-like steam?
After the War, Britain looked to the future.
We became a self-consciously modern society.
While the newly nationalised railways trundled on, the affection we'd built up
for rail over the 20th century was transferred, for a while at least, to the motor car.
The motor car, until after WWII, is not very well developed.
After the Second World War, it really takes off as the way to travel.
Everybody wants to own a motor car and a television set and get hooked up on the telephone.
That's their aim in life. It's not to take a train anywhere.
So that's when the romance starts wearing off.
It was now the automobile that could take you off into picturesque backwaters of England.
And, what's more, you no longer had to share the journey with strangers who either picked their teeth
in an annoying way or were just plain murderous looking.
Like a man in a mid-life crisis, the country became paranoid about seeming old-fashioned.
And this was the moment that trains came to be perceived as a second-class form of transport.
A form of social services on wheels.
You travelled by train if you couldn't afford a car or were too decrepit to drive.
The moment of transition was captured in the film The Titfield Thunderbolt in 1953.
Here, a cherished branch line is threatened by a local bus company.
And the competition between rail and road is played out for the cameras.
Faster, Alec, faster!
WHISTLE BLOWS AND HORN BLARES
It's safer by road(!)
That was filmed on the Cam Valley, just south of Bath.
And the film, as we know, is about the closure, fighting the closure of a railway line.
And, in fact, when it was made,
the line had already closed, and this was in the very early 1950s.
A BBC news team, chronicled the making of the film,
including the famous runaway locomotive scene.
The scriptwriter was, in fact, a neighbour of Dr Beeching,
the future chairman of the British Railways Board and slayer of branch lines.
The Titfield Thunderbolt includes a remarkable prescient call to arms.
A warning to the villagers and to us all of the great migraine that was coming.
Open it up to buses and lorries and what is it going to be like?
Our lanes will be concrete roads.
Our houses will have numbers instead of names.
There will be traffic lights and zebra crossings
and that will be twice as dangerous. If you don't believe me, go by bus.
We don't want a monopoly.
All we're asking for is a chance to keep our train running.
Mr Blakeworth, you said people were scared of our idea.
That's quite true. Perhaps you're one of them
but give us a chance and we'll prove we can do it.
With its cast of English eccentrics trying to turn back or at least stop the clock,
The Titfield Thunderbolt also prefigured the growth of steam railway conservation societies.
But even in the 1950s, the passion for locomotive preservation was nothing new.
I think it's significant that Stephenson's engine locomotion
was put on a pedestal and displayed the public as early as 1857.
We've been trying to commemorate and preserve these things
long before any serious threat to their existence occurred.
Given the aesthetic appeal of railways, it seems only right that a poet
should emerge as their champion when they were under attack.
In the writings and films of John Betjeman, railways found their most eloquent advocate.
Evercreech junction, Somerset.
It was to be the Clapham Junction of the west.
The place where one line branched away to Bath
and collared the Midland trade.
And the mainline ran to Highbridge and collared the coal from Cardiff.
That Pickwickian figure in the frightful hat is, I'm sorry to say,
me, talking to the station master. But a station master's life.
That's something worth living.
I'd like to have met Betjeman.
A line from one of his poems, Parliament Hill Fields,
is one of the reasons I started writing railway fiction.
"Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram, alternate go."
Something to do with the way a very dynamic image is created from such unpretentious language.
A friend of mine did meet John Betjeman.
He was helping the platform guard by slamming the doors on a train at Didcot Railway Station.
"Do you work here, Mr Betjeman?" my friend perhaps rather archly asked him.
"Oh, what a lovely idea," beamed the poet.
For Betjeman, much of the railway's appeal was its permanence.
It was a very useful bequest from our forefathers.
As he writes in Pershore Station, "the Victorian world and the present,
"in a moment's neighbourhood."
In his poetry, the railway station often stands for a world
that is disappearing or has vanished completely.
This is a monody on the death of Aldersgate Street Station.
Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate Station.
Soot hangs in the tunnel in clouds of steam.
City of London, before the next desecration,
let your steepled forest of churches be my theme.
Betjeman's poetry and prose seem to elide churches and railway stations
with both offering a refuge from the modern world.
I find it very apt that he was behind the campaign to save St Pancras from demolition.
St Pancras, after all, is both a Christian saint and a railway station.
Betjeman is really at the root of the Railway Preservation Societies.
He tried to save the Euston Arch and got involved in that.
They lost that campaign but then, in the 1960s,
there was a plan to demolish St Pancras.
It's extraordinary now, but he was very active in ensuring that did not happen.
And that St Pancras, this great, Gothic cathedral,
our greatest railway building, was not demolished.
His efforts are now demonstrated by the fact that there is a statue of Betjeman in St Pancras station.
Betjeman is thought of as fogeyish, but he was ahead of his time.
He was writing about the foul racket caused by aeroplanes over London as early as the 1970s.
And he sounds like a modern-day environmentalist when talking about railways.
You know, I'm not just being nostalgic and sentimental
and unpractical about railways.
Railways are bound to be used again. They are not a thing of the past.
And it's heartbreaking to see them left to rot.
To see the fine men who served them all their lives
made uncertain about their own futures and about their jobs.
What's more, it's wrong in every way when we all of us know that road traffic
is becoming increasingly hellish on this overcrowded island and that, in ten years from now,
there will be three times as much traffic on English roads as there is today.
Whilst St Pancras was saved, so much wasn't.
And another one of the last 300 steam locomotives in service
with British Railways comes to the end of the line.
To its final resting place here at Carnforth in a siding
which is becoming known as the graveyard of steam.
Beeching's cuts were swiftly followed by the end of steam.
In 1968, Carnforth, where David Lean had encouraged engine drivers
to let rip, became the last stop for many locomotives.
# I'm the last of the blood and sweat brigade
# And I don't know where I'm going
# Or how I came
# I'm the last of the good old-fashioned
# Steam-powered trains. #
There's no doubt, a diesel train is less inspiring than a steam engine.
I think people start losing their fondness for it as steam is phased out.
It doesn't inspire any poetry.
If there hadn't been steam engines, and had been diesel engines straight away,
we wouldn't half the literature about the railways that we have.
And what do we have now?
At York, where my own fascination with railways began, it's clear that things have gone awry.
Even the locomotives are disappearing.
Instead, we have multiple units that are about as graceful and aerodynamic as wardrobes.
With names like 365 class. Yes, they are functional.
Like worms, they can still move after being chopped in half.
But they are hardly going to inspire writers.
In fact, I suspect that the entire secret purpose of modern railways in this country
could be to deflect the interest of artists.
York station is sadly depleted now.
It still has a grandeur about it, but I can't imagine anybody setting a novel here today.
It's not just that the steam locomotives, those literal generators of atmosphere
have gone, the place has generally been de-railwayfied
in quite a distressing way.
The old station signal box is now a Costa Coffee.
The office of the night stationmaster - an intriguingly shadowy
if not satanic job description -
is a tourist information centre.
The old booking hall is now a Burger King.
Railway stations have ceased to be about the business of railways
and have become about the business of retail.
The mysterious soot-blackened hinterlands have been tidied away.
We are passengers no longer.
We are officially customers.
Consumers as well, of course.
The railway satirist who writes under the name Tyresius
has updated Adlestrop for the modern day.
"Haycocks and meadows sweet, I wouldn't know.
"I never looked outside the train.
"Just drank canned beer from a plastic cup
"until the damn thing started again."
We are not going to have the Edward Thomas experience of blackbirds singing in hedges. That's gone.
And it's a great sadness. We don't have that any more.
We are packed into these tubes. We are delivered. We are a statistic.
And therefore, the romance,
unless one thinks about it in a very different way, which I've not got my head round,
it's changed, I think, irrevocably.
The few of us who do write about railways these days are usually
summoning up a railway system that has either disappeared or has never existed at all.
Note that the Hogwarts Express of Harry Potter fame is not a diesel multiple unit.
It's supposed departure platform, the elusive nine and three quarters,
is a portal to a fantasy railway network a world away from modern King's Cross.
Walk into the ground floor of Betjeman's beloved St Pancras
and you could be forgiven for failing to realise you're even in a railway station,
so replete is it with designer outlets, cappuccino opportunities, juice bars.
But the real action is going on upstairs.
It's no accident that at the start of the latest Bourne film,
so strenuously and self-consciously cool, Matt Damon arrives in London,
not on a plane, but on the Eurostar.
This is highly promising.
For writers to turn in numbers again to the railways, we need a revival of railway romance.
Eurostar offers some hope.
It's the only train in Britain that really gets my pulse racing.
A top speed of 200mph.
Champagne on tap in the buffet. Smartly turned-out staff.
And the undersea tunnel. Anything could happen in that.
For the future of trains to be assured,
they must once again become the vehicles of our dreams.
# Feel like an old railroad man
# He's really tried the best that he can
# To make his life add up to something good
# But this engine no longer burns on wood
# And I guess I may never understand... #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Novelist Andrew Martin presents a documentary examining how the train and the railways came to shape the work of writers and film-makers.
Lovers parting at the station, runaway carriages and secret assignations in confined compartments - railways have long been a staple of romance, mystery and period drama. But at the beginning of the railway age, locomotives were seen as frightening and unnatural. Wordsworth decried the destruction of the countryside, while Dickens wrote about locomotives as murderous brutes, bent on the destruction of mere humans. Hardly surprising, as he had been involved in a horrific railway accident himself.
Martin traces how trains gradually began to be accepted - Holmes and Watson were frequent passengers - until by the time of The Railway Children they were something to be loved, a symbol of innocence and Englishness. He shows how trains made for unforgettable cinema in The 39 Steps and Brief Encounter, and how when the railways fell out of favour after the 1950s, their plight was highlighted in the films of John Betjeman.
Finally, Martin asks whether, in the 21st century, Britain's railways can still stir and inspire artists.