Thomas Gage, by James Fleming

Under the wheels of change

The 1952 film The Titfield Thunderbolt is a sentimental comedy which shows how an alliance of squire, vicar and ordinary folk keeps an ancient steam train operating against the crooked wiles of a nouveau riche bus operator. Nostalgia for the days of steam has increased enormously since. It is salutary to be reminded by James Fleming's novel of the greed and corruption, the vandalisation of town and country, that accompanied the coming of the railways.

Thomas Gage is a painter and minor landowner, good enough to have a picture hung in the Royal Academy. The book opens, in the early 1840s, with Thomas on his way back by coach to his Norfolk home. The road crosses the new railway, and he has to wait for a royal train to pass. Thomas loathes the new; he lives in what is for him a golden world. He has wonderful children and, although by his wife's insistence they have ceased to make love, appeals mightily to other women. His wife's father has left her a thriving paint company.

So this dreamy, mildly licentious man, his wife and cheerful children, live a happy life. The flaw in their Eden is the threat of the railway. Enter Julius Gooby, planning to drive a railway from Norwich to Cromer, and so make Cromer a seaside resort. The only place he can economically drive a bridge is across the river on Gage's land.

It would be unfair to reveal the unfolding plot. Paradise is lost and the family is broken apart. There are fine set-pieces (a meeting of the town council; a gala night at the theatre; a horrendous railway accident) and the period is as well-painted as is possible in modern fiction.

A puritanical view insists the novel must deal only with the contemporary world. Well, goodbye War and Peace and Middlemarch. The value of an imagined past is that the novelist can make an extended metaphor for our times and show that our lives, like our forebears', are every moment laying mines and traps into the future. The writer may use any material, including what George Eliot called "the varying experiments of Time". Fleming's experiment works very well indeed.

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