I don’t have to remind readers of this column, well versed in Tacitus’s Annals, of Boadicea’s inspiring speech as she climbed into her chariot alongside her ravished daughters. But it never does any harm to hear it again. “It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.”
Boadicea’s heroic example (I don’t hold with robbing her of music and calling her Boudica) came back to me last weekend as I was waiting for a train at Kings Cross Station, beneath which – beneath platform 9 to be exact – she is reputed to be buried. The crowds of foreign tourists gathered there filled me with patriotic fervour but also, I thought, put us, as a nation, to shame. If Japanese teenagers and their parents could gather at Platform 9 to honour this warrior Englishwoman – all right, we weren’t yet called England in Boadicea’s time, but let’s not split hairs – why hadn’t we put a shrine up to her at the entrance to Platform 9 ourselves?
It was only when my wife explained that the crowd was waiting to be photographed outside a fictional Platform 9¾, where a certain schoolboy caught the train to a certain school, that I realised its object of veneration was imaginary. Here you could pose wearing that certain schoolboy’s flying scarf, grin half-hysterically at your friends, quickly tweet about it, and then pop along to the shop selling merchandise – wands, broomsticks, etc – in his name.
“I see,” I said. I won’t rehearse here what else I said. My argument was not unfamiliar to my wife who reiterated her counter-argument that this was at least an enthusiasm that had grown out of a book. “And that makes it a good thing why? What if it had been Mein Kampf? Would you have been happy to see fans giving Nazi salutes because they read about them in ‘a book’?” “Don’t be foolish.” “Then just tell me what’s so special about ‘a book’?” “One book, whatever you think about it, leads to another.” “Potter leads ineluctably to Ulysses?” “Who said anything about ineluctable?’” “Just leads, then.” “It might.” “Then why aren’t people milling outside the platform on which Leopold Bloom arrived from Dublin having finally left Molly Bloom to the lascivious attentions of Blazes Boylan?” “Because in the course of the 24 hours in which Ulysses takes place Leopold Bloom didn’t come to London.”
Marry a woman with an English Literature degree and this is what you get. But since we had time to kill while waiting to discover which platform our train was leaving from I suggested putting our minds to grander associations of railway stations and art.
To my knowledge, Milford Station where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard have their brief encounter does not exist, but it would be easy to mock it up in a corner of Euston or Waterloo, next to Paperchase or West Country Pasties, so that fans could say goodbye to each other just as we hear the announcement that the “train for Ketchworth is now arriving on Platform 3.” “Forgive me?” the man could ask. “Forgive you?” the woman could reply, “For what?” “For everything. For meeting you in the first place.” Whereupon the train whistle blows and that’s happiness gone for ever.
Wouldn’t you rather be snapped delivering those lines, with the tears running down your cheeks, wondering what might have been, than looking owlish with your Hogwarts’ scarf flying? Don’t tell me it’s a matter of taste. There’s heartbreak and there’s whimsy, and whoever chooses the latter forefeits his immortal soul.
But all right, if David Lean’s film is still not grand enough, then let readers who like their favourite books to spill over into real rail locations enact the final moments of Anna Karenina. Ideally they would go to St Petersburg for that, but given the powerfully metaphorical nature of Anna’s suicide under a train – it was the St Petersburg to Moscow sleeper that led her to adultery in the first place – any busy railway station will do.
“Exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels drew level with her she threw aside the red bag and drawing her head down between her shoulders dropped on her hands under the truck, and with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank on to her knees. . .”
There’s the exquisite sadness of it - “as though she would rise again.” Did Anna really mean to go through with the suicide? Was it a dare in the face of desperation, designed to put the wind up Vronsky, that went horribly wrong? Is there an alternative ending to Anna Karenina?
Much could be made, entrepreneurially, of this. Railway staff with nothing better to do could offer would-be Annas the opportunity to throw aside her red bag (on sale in Accessorize) and fall under the wheels of the approaching train as per the text, or, since the train is bound to be late anyway, rise again and tweet the news of her resurrection.
“Failing that,” I said, noting my wife’s scepticism, “there’s the final scene in Zola’s La Bête Humaine in which the driverless locomotive...”
At which moment they revealed the platform of our train, due to depart now. Why do they do that? Why do they leave it until the last second and then make us run? For the same reason that adults, no less than children, mass slavishly at Platform 9¾. No respect for the dignity of human life.