Katy Guest: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The statue of an awestruck, dishevelled John Betjeman at the new St Pancras station is a happy reminder of literature's long and fulfilling relationship with rail travel. The grand train shed that he campaigned to save has been tarted up, fitted with the longest champagne bar in Europe and is now looking towards continental Europe and a bright future. And, where formerly passengers couldn't buy so much as a newspaper for the dreary journey north, they can now browse in an enormous Foyle's bookshop; the ability to read is one advantage that rail travel has always had over driving.

But what is it about trains and writing? It can't just be their rhythm – "Faster than fairies, faster than witches..." – that inspires so much poetry and literature. There is something about the motion of a train that also seems to speed the imagination. Now, travellers looking to while away a high-speed journey to Paris (or Derby, or Sheffield...) can consult a new collection, Railway Rhymes, edited by Peter Ashley (Everyman's Library, £9.99). In this handsome, pocket-sized edition is a world of romance, optimism and peculiar timetabling that is somehow missing in modern travel; a sense of possibilities just glimpsed and lives not led that could hardly fail to move a travelling writer or poet.

There is something about the inevitable slowness with which a train pulls out of a station that represents parting as no airport runway can, as in Hardy's "On the Departure Platform": "Under the lamplight's fitful glowers... She would disappear,/ Then show again, till I ceased to see/ That flexible form, that nebulous white;/ And she who was more than my life to me/ Had vanished quite."

There's something in rubbing up alongside their fellow passengers, in such close yet finite proximity to so many strangers' unseen lives, that must make a writer's mind fill with endless possible stories. Larkin's did, in "The Whitsun Weddings", when he considered "this frail, travelling coincidence". None of the girls, he pondered, "thought of the others they would never meet/ Or how their lives would all contain this hour".

Likewise, a train's inexorable progress as it clatters through station after draughty, unknown station evidently appeals to those of a melancholy bent. Like Betjeman in "Pershore Station" as he ticks off "Eversham, Oxford and London./ The carriage is new and smart./ I am cushioned and soft and heated with a deadweight in my heart."

Perhaps literature is slow to catch up with technology, but there seems to be no modern equivalent to this world of echoing stations and torturous partings, and it's hard to see how it would work. The 4:50 From Paddington wouldn't have quite the same appeal as The Bank Holiday Traffic on the M1, in which an old lady witnesses a gruesome murder in the Ford Ka that is stuck fast in the neighbouring lane. Likewise, it's hard to imagine Anna Karenina standing wretchedly at the side of the South Circular and throwing herself into the path of an oncoming 171 to Holborn via Vauxhall Bridge. And Brief Encounter might have been an awful lot briefer had the lovers met in the Costa Coffee at East Midlands airport and shared a fat-free blueberry muffin and a tall skinny latte.

Betjeman was inspired to poetry when he saw St Pancras, with the "great arc of the train shed, gaping to devour the incoming engines". And he had a prescient point in "Dilton Marsh Halt": "When all the horrible roads are finally done for," he wrote, "And there's no more petrol left in the world to burn,/ Here to the Halt from Salisbury and Bristol/ Steam trains will return."