Will Self: PsychoGeography #96

It's stranger on a train
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The Independent Online

My grandfather travelled every day, by train, from his home in Brighton to his ministry in London. According to family lore, while his fellow commuters were frivolously completing crosswords, Dids - as he was affectionately known - acquired his seven extramural degrees from London University. One thing is for certain, my grandfather's passion for self-education knew no bounds. The son of a Fulham tram conductor, he clawed his way up the greasy pole through a combination of dogged hard work and an eidetic memory which meant he could scan a page text and instantly commit it to memory. In his dotage he wrote a book entitled The Divine Indwelling, which was an attempt to synthesise all religions, with both science and existentialism. After I'd read a few pages of the typescript my father asked me what I thought: "Dids suffered for his education," I replied, "and now it's our turn."

I digress, of more interest than his philosophy was Dids's commute. He claimed that in the interwar period, the Brighton Belle often had so many coaches that as the engine coasted into Victoria the guard's van was only just leaving the south coast. I didn't stop believing this until I was about 35, and managed, through my own synthesis of science and existentialism, to grasp the elementary laws of physics which had hitherto evaded me. Nevertheless, Dids's imaginary train does point up certain distinguishing characteristics of the rail journey as opposed to any other. With its near-abolition of gradient, its smooth acceleration and braking, and - most importantly - its capacious interior, the modern train links disparate locations with an elongated territory entirely its own.

This is why, when people say, "Ooh, I love travelling by train," what they really mean is: "I like being on trains" - not that there is some distinguishing characteristic of the train's means of covering distance which particularly appeals to them. The truth is that hardly anyone loves travelling by train - they infinitely prefer sitting in their cars; which explains why soi-disant civilisation is rapidly accelerating towards complete collapse and the reintroduction of the handcart. The people who love being on trains are enchanted by this tubular realm. They like the way they can get up, go to the toilet, visit the buffet - in short, treat the fact that they are hurtling through space with complete insouciance.

Sadly, modern trains lack the scenic cars, club cars, restaurant cars - indeed any of the myriad cars which made the trains of yore so exciting. From Queen Victoria's state train through to Churchill's "secret" train HQ of the Second World War - the great age of the train elevated form over function. This was, after all, an era when airship gondolas were tricked out like the palm courts of Riviera hotels, and flying boats featured tiled bathrooms. That the German surrender was signed in a train carriage in 1918 (and that the very same carriage was brought back from retirement as a restaurant, so that the French could be humiliatingly forced to capitulate in it in 1939), is further confirmation of how the train was once regarded as a place in its own right.

I say "was once" with some sadness, for even though train lovers continue to have a touching faith in train world, it's difficult to imagine any contemporary armistice - no matter how transitory - being concluded on a Virgin Pendolino. What is it with Richard Branson anyway - what does he want? A Briton can now live out their entire life consuming only Virgin products, drinking Virgin Vodka and Cola, copulating wearing Virgin Condoms, supping on Virgin Quorn (I made that one up), listening to Virgin Records, surfing on Virgin Net and travelling on Virgin Airways. Is there no particle of our social fabric not besmirched by this beardie weirdo? No Virgin Land?

Now comes the Pendolino - Branson's cheapskate version of the Train à Grande Vitesse or the Bullet Train. Dumb idea Ricky, what with rail-track construction and maintenance in this country being such a debatable land. Worse still is the appearance of the thing; in anticipation of travelling at over 150 mph, the designers have tricked out its coaches like aircraft cabins - this is the train as hideously extruded fuselage. In India trains are vibrant mobile cities, full of hawkers, riven by caste and class, pullulating with life. In Russia trains are wide and gloomy - with a samovar in every coach. Hell, even in the USA the Amtrak tin boxes offer authentically crap hotdogs and flaccid Budweisers. If trains are places in their own right then the Pendolino is a jet permanently grounded at Stansted. Confronted with this monstrosity, my poor grandfather wouldn't have been able to reconcile anything at all - let alone get a degree in it.