This water is not still, the aftermath of an event, but active. Bubbling out of a hole beside the track, green, in places brown, moving fast enough to have produced a thick white foam where branches trail across its surface, directing itself this way and that in brooks and streams as it takes over new territory. It all gives the impression of going somewhere – of being not so much an overflow as a relocated river. Beyond the raised embankment fields are sunk deep enough for only the tops of hedges to be visible. Just outside the station the train slows to a crawl and we sit, numbed, watching the swirling current beside the track. A young woman is pulling a refreshment trolley along inside the carriage at approximately the same speed as that at which we are moving. ‘Would anyone like a complimentary tea, coffee, water’? she calls. The train operator is giving away drinks and snacks today in recognition of the inconvenience passengers are suffering, although the most jaundiced customer could hardly blame them for the weather. Judging by the view out of the window, more free water is probably not what we need, but I take a bottle anyhow, prompted by the deep urge most of us have to accept anything offered without charge. The purchase of water in plastic, carbon-producing bottles in a country where drinkable water comes out of the tap is of course absurd, somehow suggestive of a state of shortage – a situation that once again the evidence of my eyes contradicts. Given the choice, I select ‘sparkling’; the least like what I can see running in the ditch beside the tracks. ‘Be careful when you open it, sir’, the woman advises, not wanting a miniature flood within the carriage.
It is very British of course to counter disaster with the dispensing of warm liquids, traditionally tea and coffee. This morning these drinks, accompanied by packets of sugary biscuits, feel more like offerings laid in propitiation at the feet of the angry water gods than refreshments. The incursion of these dramatic events into our lives seems to have propelled us into the irrational. Even the weatherman on TV appears to be attempting his own kind of magic, stirring whirlpools of storms with his arm.
Railways seek out valleys and floodplains, avoiding contours that involve too much strain or friction or the cost of extensive tunneling. For precisely this reason they are always at risk from encroaching water. Where the landscape forces them to run along the coast they also face attacks by the increasingly frequent and violent storms that have characterized our weather over the past few years. The line built by Brunel and opened in 1847, that runs south from Exeter along the Devon coast to Dawlish, is one of the most spectacular in the country. In calm weather, the uninterrupted view from the carriage of the sea has people crowding the corridor, cameras pointed out to sea. I took a shot myself on my phone as I travelled up the line from Plymouth on a May afternoon last year. I enjoyed the contrast of the relaxed-looking lineman’s orange jacket with the deep blue of the horizon beyond him.
Even on less tranquil days, the spray generated by larger waves on carriage windows is exhilarating, in moderation, a traditional feature of the line that adds excitement to the journey. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most seaside resorts sold postcards of rough seas breaking on their foreshores. Visitors, well insulated against the weather and standing at a safe distance from the beach, could have an encounter with the raw power of nature and then catch a train back to their secure inland home, taking a postcard with them as a reminder of their bravery. The artist Susan Hiller, who trained as an anthropologist, has collected hundreds of these postcards, combining them in a work called Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, an allusion to those who photographed the scenes and those, usually women, employed to tint the photographs by hand, commodifying the angry sea for the tourist market. Later she created her own digital prints based on the postcards, shifting the colours of the ocean even further.
Susan Hiller, Night Waves, 2009, digital archive print
As we know, the sea is all very well when it stays where it is meant to be. In February 2014 its true destructive potential was revealed when it leapt out of one of those postcards and smashed through the sea wall that supports the line at Dawlish, leaving the rails themselves swinging over a void, as ochre-coloured waves continued to explode upward into the new space they had created. A railway always floats above the earth, a bridge from here to there, suspended on its bed of ballast – a connection that in moments can be swept away. Nearby houses shook as supporting walls collapsed and residents had to be hurriedly evacuated. It was, as one of them told TV reporters, as though a bomb had hit the town.
It is not the first time the sea has breached the wall on this stretch of line – a bridge was destroyed at Holcombe a mere seven years after it opened and repairs have to be made on an ongoing basis ever since — but the regularity of the bad weather we are now facing exposes our national reliance on this as the single route connecting Cornwall to the rest of the country by rail as foolhardy at best. For now, the single, orange jacketed repairman is replaced by shifts of many dozens swarming over the site between each high tide.
They will be there for weeks yet, joining a cast of workers who have kept the iconic line open for a century and a half against all the sea can throw at it; this post should be dedicated to them, as well as the train drivers who have negotiated storms and waves along this exposed route for all that time. Meanwhile the possibility of an inland alternative line being constructed along routes that have lain disused since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s grows more and more likely.
Boarding the train, I sit down at a table opposite a man already checking email on his phone. He does not look up. Next to him on the seat is a blue flight bag, with a plastic tab attached to it saying ‘Film Crew’. It is this tag that catches the eye of the man who enters with a clatter as we leave the station, pulling a refreshment trolley over the metal sill that divides the carriages. His name badge announces him as Frederick. ‘Teas, coffee, hot drink’, he calls out in a high, yet soft voice. I ask for a tea and he pours it and hands it to me distractedly, apparently mesmerised by the tag.
‘Ah, film people’, he says. ‘I am always interested in film people. I have so many stories to tell’.
Really, I say? What about?
‘I am African, from Kenya, but I have been all over the continent. I write about things I have seen, I just write them down. Sometimes it is so funny what is happening. There is so much corruption, I write about all of it, making fun of it. I went to one place, the Kalahari desert, and because I am African, a black man, they could not understand why I couldn’t speak their language. “Why can’t he speak to us”? they asked.
‘I could make a book this big –’ he gestures with his hands, indicating a book the size of the Bible he probably grew up seeing in his neighbourhood church –‘but I think I have good stories for a filmmaker’. He looks meaningfully at my silent companion, who lifts his head in acknowledgement.‘Ah, but I am not that kind of filmmaker’, he says. ‘We film events – concerts and conferences, that kind of thing. We don’t make things up’.
Frederick sighs momentarily with disappointment, but his round face is soon lit up once again with his customary smile. ‘They make things up in the African films they make in Nigeria’, he says. ‘They started out just making films about traditional culture – but they used it all up! That traditional culture, it doesn’t change. What are you going to do when you have used up all your culture? Now they have to make up stories’.
I have to give you some money, Frederick, I say, holding out some change. I have had it ready in my hand for some time.
‘I know, I know,’ he giggles, taking it.
I am a writer myself, I tell him. It sounds as though you have some good material. Keep writing it down.
‘Oh no, I am not a writer’, he says.
But you are, I say. You are collecting stories and writing them down. What else does a writer do?
But while Frederick seems comfortable with the thought of supplying the script for a movie, a book still seems an object too forbidding, a step too far. He moves off down the carriage, still laughing and shaking his head, between broadcasts of the wares he has on offer.
The refreshment he has delivered has not been only of the physical kind. By the intense engagement he has with his customers, he has broken the stranglehold of silence that custom had imposed on the carriage before his arrival. Inevitably the filmmaker and I continue talking after his departure: his intervention into our lives has been too forceful to ignore. For the rest of the journey to London we discuss politics, books, the rise of new fascist parties in his own country of origin, playing the guitar and the new kind of camera his company has patented that he hopes will be taken up by broadcasters internationally. Frederick has reminded us, through his constant vigilance in looking for the opportunities that life might cast in his path, honed on the long journey he has made to get here, that we too need to keep alert while travelling. If this train is a collection of stories awaiting discovery he is its enthusiastic librarian, browsing constantly, open to the multiple different futures that can turn on a glance, a conversation or a film-crew tag.
Monday morning. You climb on board still trailing elements of the weekend behind you: an ectoplasm of emotions, connections, shared moments that need to be packed away, hidden beneath the armour of your working self. Like a hermit crab shuffling along the sea floor you exchange one external fortress for another. Parent, lover, drinking buddy, tennis partner, museum visitor, reader, raver, filmgoer, hiker, dog walker, whoever or whatever you are you must transform yourselves once more for the working week.
Question: At what point on your journey to work do you fully transition from the you that exists at home, with your family and friends, to the you that steps off the train and walks into the building where you earn your living?
Note that ragged hedge, that rusted water tower, that office block with mirrored windows, or whatever physical feature it is that lies nearest the invisible border between states; mark it on a map of yourself, or rather of your selves. Then, on your return, note it once again and make a decision to leave your work behind at that point also, so that you don’t waste time trapped in a mind-set that puts you out of kilter with those that surround you. Your lover has not yearned for your return all day in order to hear the stupidity of an office manager’s remark; your five-year old does not reach out her arms toward you in the hope of embracing the tension in your neck and shoulders. If you live alone you have an equal duty to arrive unencumbered; you owe the you that exists outside work an evening of recuperation and enjoyment. Without such oases, the week becomes an endless desert.
Monday evening. After a day at work you could well be in shock, although you don’t realise it. Depending on the nature of your employment, you may be physically exhausted, buffeted and bruised by physical toil. On the other hand, the injuries you have suffered may be to your psyche. Perhaps you are beaten down by bureaucracy, stifled by officially sanctioned idiocy, caught in a Kafkaesque universe from which there seems to be no escape? Or perhaps the shoe is on the other foot and you are worn down by the reluctance of those you are supposed to lead. With practice, the conscious traveller can move the markers of psychological territories up and down the line at will, choosing rather than merely observing them. By donning your work persona as near as possible to your arrival at work and shedding it as soon as you are able after you board your homebound train, you enable another self to emerge: the one that exists between two worlds. This self may not earn you money or cook you dinner. Instead it absorbs and processes the events that occur at each end of the track. It is there, waiting for you to slip into, ‘something more comfortable’, like the gowns Hollywood actresses assume in old movies when they return to their apartments, in the company of their would-be beaus.
Just to be clear, I do not speak from a position of enlightenment: despite years of practice I never managed to become a perfected Buddha of the rails. I remain instead subject to the same exhaustion, frustration, depression as you do, feel the same urge to switch off, numb myself with newspapers, kill time online or administer anaesthetic from the bar. I am no shiny self-help guru. Any optimism I express is hard won. In truth, some time ago I grew bored of my own complaints; I therefore have no wish to rehearse them here. Instead I pan the muddy waters of the endless river for glimmers of gold. By collecting them and laying them end-to-end I hope to fashion myself a boat that will carry me home.
In Japan a homeless person is called Johatsu – a wandering spirit, one who has lost his identity. This is a useful reminder of the extent to which position in society is dependent on our actual position, a location on the map to call our own.
It is not surprising that the homeless have long been attracted to railway stations: places in which they can take shelter and where they can achieve some kind of invisibility, where impermanence is the norm. Electronic barriers and police patrols have made it harder to find a place to rest, part of the creeping privatisation of public space that is such a feature of our new century; still, the great Victorian train-sheds at major termini offer a temporary respite from the streets.
I am buying a cup of tea at a kiosk in Paddington station when I become aware of someone at my elbow, an anxious looking, bearded figure in a slightly grubby anorak, zipped up to the neck. The man serving us obviously recognises him and shows no surprise when he asks for a cup of hot water, passing one over without comment. Together we go to the little table where we help ourselves to milk and sugar. Look, I say, on an impulse, do you want my teabag to put in your cup? It’s got plenty of strength left in it. At this moment it does seem ridiculously extravagant to throw it away as it hangs spinning on the end of its string, bleeding a dark-brown spiral in the tea’s milky surface. That’s a good idea, the man says, but no. I have tea here. He pats his pocket. And coffee.
Apart from us two it seems that everyone in the concourse is as firmly attached to strings as my teabag, although the ones from which human-beings dangle are less visible. Even the people seated in the area set aside for cafes and shops keep glancing at their watches or phones, turning to look over their shoulders at the departure boards, shifting restlessly as they wait. Like the man I have just met, I haunt railway stations for different reasons than those that motivate these travellers. For the Writer on the Train, the act of travelling itself is separated from its usual purpose; wandering the network, boarding trains at random, a ghost in the machine.
All open circulation systems admit elements that are not part of their essential purpose. If these reach a critical level the service will be compromised, just as arteries in the human body can grow too furred up to allow the passage of blood. This explains the groups of policemen who patrol the concourse, some of them carrying guns, on the look out not just for panhandlers but also more aggressive toxic agents. However vigilant these guardians are against human interlopers, they can do little about the pigeons who treat the station as a conveniently sheltered breeding colony, or the rats that inhabit the subterranean kingdom of the Underground.
To protect itself from such unwelcome visitors the railway deploys others in defence. I meet one of them upstairs beneath the roof of the station concourse where I am sitting at a café. His arrival is announced by a sudden commotion among the pigeons that have been contentedly hopping between the feet of customers sitting at the tables. His name is Ernie and he is about one and a half feet tall with staring yellow eyes the size of 10 pence coins and powerful talons almost entirely covered with feathers. He is a three-year-old Great Horned Owl – ‘Bubo Virginianus’ — and he is perched on the glove of his owner, Mark Dunn.
The pigeons are right to be frightened. Another name for these North American owls is Winged Tiger and they can swallow a small rabbit whole, although they prefer to pluck and dismember the birds they take before devouring them. In the wild, turkeys, swans, porcupines, snakes and small alligators are all on the Bubo menu: an urban pigeon would be a mere amuse-bouche to such a creature.
With so many passengers in the station Mark is not about to fly the owl; instead, he merely lifts him up like a Gorgon’s head, a primal symbol from the night-time of a pigeon’s imagination, a single flap of the wings so terrifying they scatter in all directions. Ernie is just part of a war fought with both physical and psychic weapons. It is easy to spot the vicious-looking spikes that project from most perching-surfaces. I also notice yellow disks that have been attached to the metal struts supporting the roof and ask Mark what they are. ‘Oh yes, those’, he says with a smile, one warrior admiring the equipment of another. ‘Pigeons see in UV (ultra-violet). Those things contain holograms – they look like they are on fire, to a pigeon’.
A few minutes after Mark descends the escalator to patrol elsewhere in the station a couple of the miscreant birds land on the floor at our feet. I can’t help admiring their resilience. At threat of impalement when they come in to roost, haunted by ever-flickering fires that never go out and terrorised by the sudden appearance of giant predators, they nevertheless make light of whatever disruption life throws at them, returning to their routine apparently unperturbed. In this, of course, they resemble the commuters with whom they share the station.
For those who pass them every day, certain points on the line gain an importance that outweighs their function as signposts of distance or time. I had not been travelling long before I fell under the spell of the power station at Didcot. First, there was the simple geometry of its shapes – a scattering of modernist building-blocks placed incongruously in a rural setting: six cooling towers, a vast rectangular turbine hall, a 270 foot chimney studded with red lights to warn off low-flying aircraft.
Second, and more importantly, there was the array of atmospheric effects the station produced. On clear days Didcot announced its presence shortly after the train left Oxford, some 10 miles away, with a plume of white water vapour rising into the sky.
At other times the graceful silhouettes of the towers were barely visible through the mist of the river valley as we drew parallel to them on the approach to Didcot station. Every day was different. At sunset the clouds that arose from the mouth of the towers could be tinted pink or purple; if you were lucky enough to pass at exactly the right moment the entire side of the glass-clad Turbine Hall would ignite with the reflection of the setting sun. On cold, frosty mornings when it was generating at full capacity, the power station almost disappeared behind its self-generated veil of smoke. The adjacent opencast landfill site, with its clouds of wheeling birds and fluttering flags of plastic caught in bushes and fences, merely added to the post-apocalyptic splendour of the scene.
Once noticed, such elements in the landscape can never again be ignored. Like the ‘punctum’ in a photograph that Roland Barthes speaks of, at first they appear to be an insignificant detail; it is only later we realise they give meaning to the whole composition. I came to be able to sense the presence of the cooling towers. However absorbed I was in what I was reading or writing, I would find myself compelled to look up as they came into view. Soon I was photographing them, standing in the corridor with my head out of the window, or shooting through the glass from my seat. I had no interest in obtaining a sharp image; the blur and judder produced by the train became part of the composition, a futurist rendering of an icon on the point of disappearance.
A 1960s coal-fired power station, Didcot A was unable to meet European Directives on emissions. On Friday 22nd March 2013 it ceased operation for the last time and the clean up of the site began, a prelude to all the buildings on the site being demolished. For now, the towers remain: breathless, silent, somehow robbed of their aura along with their function. Of course, I feel no nostalgia for the burning of fossil fuels per se; the problems associated with coal-fired power generation are well documented. However, the knowledge that something is potentially destructive does not lessen our appreciation of its beauty. The thrill of the sublime, that mixture of awe and terror that poets and painters of previous generations experienced in rocky mountain gorges or in the face of an immense ocean, we now feel in concrete chasms of our own making, faced with monsters that have slipped beyond our control and turned to bite the hand that gave them life.
A week before the station closes I join what is to be the last public tour of the site. I cycle from the station at Didcot and report to the gatehouse that sits in the shadow of the three north towers. How will you feel when they come down, I ask the middle-aged woman who signs me in, pointing through the window.
‘I class them as my three kings’, she says. ‘I feel safe, knowing they are there. You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I even try to get Christmas cards with them on. When you go away from Didcot – say you go on a foreign holiday – when you see the smoke in the sky you know you are nearly home. What other landmark has Didcot got’?
We are a small group. The artists Barbaresi and Round are coming to the end of a residency at Didcot. (You can read about their work on their blog, here). It is Rachel Barbaressi who has invited me to join the visit, arranged so that she can bring a cameraman onto the site to capture some final images. Our guide for the tour is a woman married to a worker at the station who has been taking parties around Didcot A for twenty years. We don hard hats and protective goggles and set off in a minibus around the site.
For the first time I am close enough to the base of the towers to see that they stand on stilts. A continual waterfall of water is cascading down inside them into a deep pool. Air is sucked up through the towers by the something called the Ventura Effect, caused by their shape. Didcot A had a licence to take up to 45 million gallons a day of river water from the Thames to cool the plant – the water flowed along concrete rivers where it circulated to cool the high pressure turbine and was then fed back to the towers.
The pools are deep enough to attract heron that come searching for the fish that live in the strange space beneath the cascade. Once the river water cooled sufficiently it was fed back into a ninth century channel that runs through the site known as Moor Ditch and then into the river — discounting of course the Thames water that was transmuted, emerging from the tops of the towers as cloud, to drift on a course of its own.
In 1945 one war ended but another very different one was about to begin. A generation of young men had been consigned to graves far from home; those that survived, along with their partners who had endured air raids and deprivation, were prematurely aged, as if weighed down by the responsibilities they had shouldered. From ground fertilised by their blood a new generation arose, no less determined to conquer the world. Rather than battling a fascist ogre, the enemy these war babies had in their sights was simply the drudgery and drabness of everyday post-war life; their recipe for change involved guitars, cars, dance moves and firm-hold hair treatments. In terms of lasting impact, the campaign they waged runs the Second World War a close second.
Even when waged without conventional weapons, no war is without its casualties. One of the most significant met his end at Chippenham in Wiltshire on 17 April 1960, at the age of 21.
photo credit: Showtime Archives
Eddie Cochran fulfilled every requirement of the rock-and-roll icon; impossibly good-looking, a vernacular poet who wrote and performed songs which expressed exactly what was on every young person’s mind — She’s sure fine-lookin’, man, she’s something else –- while playing a fat orange Gretsch guitar and dipping his shoulders suggestively. (He never did quite master the Elvis hip-wiggle, although he attempted it on the first night of his British tour, in Ipswich, where he announced ’It’s great to be here in Hipswitch’ and thrust his pelvis a couple of times, which made the girls scream).
How did this young man, born in Minnesota but raised in California, meet his end in the middle of the night on the outskirts of a rural English town? To help me imagine the circumstances I take the train to Chippenham and walk from the station, under the viaduct and back up Rowden Hill, to the spot where his car left the road. Cochran had just completed the punishing first leg of an extensive British tour of provincial towns and cities, co-headlining with Gene Vincent and supported by a number of British acts including Georgie Fame, Billy Fury and Johnny Gentle. The last fixture of the tour had been a week of shows at the Bristol Hippodrome. Cochran was riding high, earning £1,000 a week and on course to become the most popular American rock and roll star yet to hit the UK. However he was also exhausted, cripplingly homesick and perpetually cold. After their last show in Bristol, Vincent and Cochran were handed a bunch of train tickets to London for the following morning. Vincent was heading for Paris and more shows, but for Cochran there was also a plane ticket to the States, leaving Heathrow at 1.00pm. He was looking forward to spending time with his family and soaking up some sunshine, as well as fulfilling a recording contract, before resuming his British tour. Who persuaded whom that instead of taking the train to London in the morning they should hire a taxi to drive them back to London that night? Johnny Gentle remembers Cochran asking if there was room in Johnny’s car for him and his fiancée, Sharon Sheeley. He had to turn them down as all the seats were taken.
The taxi that showed up had been used for a wedding that afternoon; Sheeley remembers it still had confetti on the floor. Its young driver, George Martin, was probably excited at having such glamorous passengers on board and would have been eager to complete the unusually long run. Perhaps he also wanted to impress them with his driving and the pace of his Ford Consul. The car entered Chippenham via the A4 Bath Road shortly before midnight, a route now lined with the drive-in stores from which people construct their lives: The Tile Gallery, The Kitchen Bedroom Bathroom Centre, Bathwick Tires. By all accounts, it was travelling much too fast; Sharon remembers Cochran repeatedly asking Martin to slow down. Unusually for one so young, he was keenly aware of his own mortality. Two of his friends, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, had been aboard a plane that crashed near the town of Clear Lake, Iowa the year before, killing them along with their co-passenger J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. Eddie had recorded a song in their memory just two days after their deaths.
Martin intended to take a shortcut through Chippenham but lost his way, deciding instead to retrace his steps and pick up the A4 on the edge of town. On a sharp bend on Rowden Hill, then an accident black-spot, the car burst a tyre and skidded across the road, reversing direction and slamming into a lamppost with a noise that convinced some locals they had heard a plane crash.
Those hurrying out of their houses to offer help saw the bodies of Vincent, Cochran and Sheeley lying where they had been thrown onto the grass verge, alongside a large orange guitar, while photographs and sheet music fluttered in the breeze. At the precise moment the ambulance took Sharon and Eddie away, onlookers recall, the streetlights went out, leaving the street in darkness.
I walk the short distance from the roundabout, flanked today by a garage and the Rowden Arms public house, to the spot where a plaque commemorates Cochran’s life. Pebbledash bungalows gradually give way to 1970s maisonettes and then to 1930s villas and, higher on the hill, one or two fine eighteenth century houses. A blossom tree in the garden of number 36B is just coming into flower, its branches reaching across the low wall towards the verge where the plaque is situated.
The faithfully rendered Gretsch guitar is emitting white musical notes, which, I can’t help noticing, have almost completely faded. It seems a strangely inconsequential spot for such a momentous event and yet lines of connection reach out from it through time and space.
It is hard today to imagine the cultural impact the visit by the two American stars had on a generation of musicians. A young Marc Bolan carried Vincent’s guitar from the stage door of a theatre to his car and later had his own guitar re-sprayed the same distinctive colour, in homage. (Seventeen years later, he too was to die in a car crash). George Harrison followed the tour from venue to venue, soaking up Cochran’s technique. Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix were both similarly in awe of, and deeply influenced by, his playing. John Lennon may have got his early love for black leathers from Gene Vincent, but he let Paul McCartney join his group because he knew Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock. A month after Cochran’s death, ‘The Silver Beatles’ were themselves on tour in Scotland as Johnny Gentle’s backing band, performing a cover version of Summertime Blues.
It is impossible to know how many nascent careers were propelled forward by an injection of Cochran’s rockabilly spirit. The first policeman on the scene of the crash was Constable Dave Harman, who impounded Cochran’s guitar. He later changed his name to Dave Dee and formed a beat combo of his own, called Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch, who went on to have a string of hits. According to some, he taught himself to play on Cochran’s guitar, down at the station. Perhaps the strangest twist in the story was that later that night, driving back to London, Gentle took the same route through Chippenham as the taxi carrying Cochran and Vincent had an hour or so earlier. Low on petrol and seeing a wrecked car by the side of the road about to be hauled away, he asked the tow-truck driver whether he could siphon some fuel from its tank. It was only a day or so later he realised he and his companions had got back to London on Cochran’s gas.
Before leaving I call in at the Rowden Arms, which is advertising its Big Deal Menu and large-screen sports entertainment outside, to raise a glass to Eddie in the spirit of research. I ask the barman, a man in his early sixties with a white, bouffant hair-do, whether many pilgrims come to the site; I already know that for the past few years a commemorative musical event has been held in Chippenham on the weekend closest to the date of his death. ‘We used to have a tribute in the pub on the Friday night’, he tells me as he pours my pint. ‘That’s not happening anymore because the band who used to play it broke up. Then they used to have a big event up in town at the weekend but I’m not sure that’ll be happening this year. I don’t think they made any money – or rather, I think they lost money – last time they staged it. The level of interest isn’t there any more.’ He shakes his head as he puts the glass on the bar, then smiles wistfully – or is it wearily, I can’t tell. ‘You can pull the screen out in the bar if you like. We’ve got a couple of Eddie Cochran disks up there’.
Sure enough, in the back bar a large projection screen covers much of one wall, although a black and white framed photograph of Jerry Lee Lewis in the act of combing his hair remains visible, presumably a relic of times when rock and roll enthusiasts were more regular visitors.
I pull the screen aside and there is the sleeve and disk of the Sunset label album Cherished Memories. Letting it fall back into place, I go to sit at a neighbouring table. Two men in suits come and sit down next to the screen, unaware of Cochran’s proximity, consulting the menu that incites them to ‘Fill Up on Good Times’. They decide on another American cultural import, The Classic Burger, and settle down to discussing their tax returns. As I leave, I notice that a number of musical acts will be visiting the pub in the coming months, including women passing themselves off as Dolly Parton and Adele and a singer called Gathan Cheema who will be returning with his tribute to Micheal (sic) Jackson. I can’t help thinking of the fading white notes on Cochran’s memorial plaque. However, even if Cochran has severed his connection with this physical location, he hasn’t left but merely moved elsewhere, not least to the flickering Valhalla that is YouTube, where he performs forever, on demand.
To hear Eddie stretching out a little, explaining why he inspired Hendrix for instance, try this rendition of Chicken Shot Blues….
And in a completely different, mellow and jazzy mood:
Some of the best train stories are to be found when speaking with commuters who have travelled the line for the longest time. How could it be otherwise? As guitarist Johnny Marr reminded us in a recent interview on 6 Music, ‘such a thing as inspiration exists, but it has to find you busy’ — a useful insight he gleaned from Picasso. In the same way, rail travel will deliver riches, but in order to receive them we have to be on board. Day after day, again and again.
After not seeing him for months I encounter the Master, wine glass in hand, at a private view one evening. ‘My dear boy’, he says, ‘how are you’? I tell him something of my project and ask if he has any stories he wishes to share with me. With no change of expression he rewinds the film imprinted behind his eyelids by 40 years of commuting.
‘In the 1970s – or it might have been the early 1980s’, he says, ‘there used to be an agent for the Burmese government who got on the train at the same station as I did. At least I was told he was an agent – from what I understood he used to buy and sell things for them. Guns, probably. There used to be a proper restaurant car on the train in those days – you could have a full English breakfast for 25p. A man called Alec used to work in the buffet car and serve the breakfasts. We got quite friendly. Alec never liked to serve a broken fried egg and as I quite liked broken fried eggs he would give them to me at no extra charge. Anyway, the agent always used to come to the buffet car, regular as clockwork in the morning, and order either five or seven miniature bottles of whisky. Then he would take a teapot and a teacup, pour the whisky into the teapot and sit and drink it on his way to work. He would do much the same on the way home, although I don’t remember if he bothered with the teapot.
‘One evening I found myself sharing a table with him and it proved a good opportunity to gain some insight into his politics and social outlook and perhaps the views of the people he worked for. The drink made him quite free with his opinions, once you were in close proximity. “You know what’s wrong with this bloody country’”, he asked? “I’ll tell you. The bloody trade unions. If I had my way I would put them all up against a wall and rat-tat-tat-tat…” The noise he made was quite loud and he accompanied it with an expansive, theatrical gesture of mowing a crowd of people down with a machine gun. At least I hope it was theatrical. Then, after he had taken another drink, he went on: ‘You know what’s wrong with this bloody country? The bloody politicians. You know what I’d do with them? Put them up against a wall and rat-tat-tat-tat…’ The fate he outlined was the same for bureaucrats, the working classes and numerous other sections of society, and it took him the whole journey to expound it fully. He had a beautiful daughter who used to come to the station I remember, to scoop him up off the platform when he arrived back in the evening…’
We agree this pugnacious character deserves a place in the roll call of ghosts of travellers past. Presumably he has long since retired to a place where he can finish the job on himself he began with his slow motion firing-squad of miniatures. There is a chance, perhaps, his views are going out of fashion with those in power in his own country. The society he was so scornful of has changed also. I am not sure how long he could speak the way he did on a train today before a nervous fellow traveller quietly informed the authorities, as we are constantly exhorted by recorded voices to do…
Incidentally, Alec, the man who served both solid and liquid breakfasts on the train in those days, crops up repeatedly in veteran commuters’ memories of the times. Perhaps because another regular breakfaster was Sir Peter Parker, then Chairman of British Rail, at the end of Alec’s career he was rewarded with either (accounts differ) an O.B.E. or a British Empire Medal. The latter seems more likely, but I like the idea of the former, as his colleagues are said to have muttered quietly (and perhaps unfairly) that the acronym for his decoration stood for Other Buggers’ Efforts…
Just six days before Reading station was due to open in March 1840 a freak tornado hit the town. Henry West, a 24 year old unmarried carpenter from Wilton in Wiltshire, was working on the station roof at the time, attending to the station lantern; the wind lifted him up and transported him some 200 feet from the station, where his insensible body was discovered in a trench. He had been killed instantly.
The suddenness of this transition from life to death made a strong impression on Henry’s fellow workers, who erected a monument fashioned from a railway sleeper, inscribed with a verse admonishing all to be ready to face such a call themselves:
Sudden the change
I in a moment fell and had not time
to bid my friends farewell.
Yet hushed be all complaint,
’tis sweet, ’tis blest
to change Earth’s stormy scenes
for Endless Rest,
Dear friends prepare,
take warning by my fall,
so you shall hear with joy
your Saviour’s call.
Modern rail travel often serves to provide us with a reminder of mortality. One of the most regular causes of delay to our journey is the announcement of a person hit by a train. These collisions are not usually accidental. The concept of committing suicide by jumping in front of a locomotive seems to have emerged almost at the same time as the railways themselves: it had already been explored as a plot device by the end of the 19th century in the fiction of Dickens, Tolstoy and Zola. Death stalked the development of the railways; navvies and tunnelers died by the hundreds in their construction and derailments were common, inducing a state of fear in many travellers.
On my own homeward journey, the train often halts by a graveyard just outside the station while it awaits a platform. Travellers raising their eyes to glance through the window are reminded that one day the carriage won’t judder reassuringly and carry them forward once more; that this will be their final destination, as it is everyone’s. There was a time when people cultivated such thoughts, keeping a skull, or a painting featuring a skull, near at hand as a momento mori. Today we tend to brush reminders of our mortality aside, as though in the speed of our passage we could out-run our inevitable end.
With Reading Station currently undergoing a transformation, its new buildings swarming with orange-jacketed construction workers, perhaps it is a good time to remember Henry. The verse and his dates are to be found on a brass plaque on the wall on Platform 7, as well as on a memorial in St Lawrence’s Churchyard.
There is, at Slough Station, one of the most moving memorials to a railway worker to be found anywhere. Uniquely his stuffed body is preserved in a glass case, right there on platform 5, for all to see. The worker in question is of course Station Jim, the dog who lived at Slough in the last years of the nineteenth century and who worked as the Canine Collector for the Great Western Railway Widow’s and Orphan’s Fund. Dog Jim (as he was also known) suffered poor health and died wearing his collection box after serving in his post for only a couple of years. However, in his brief career he made a great impression, winning the public’s affection by barking whenever he received a coin and performing a number of other tricks.
It is telling that it was donations from the public and contributions from his fellow staff members at Slough that have ensured his continued, lugubrious presence among us, over a century after his death. Unable to move his head, the faithful hound stares glassily across the platform, his expression one of infinite, longsuffering patience. Meeting his gaze, I wonder if this might not be a model for memorialising the departed. Why consign them to graveyards where they moulder forgotten? How much more appropriate that the most remarkable among them be preserved where they made most impression during their lives, at their places of work. Friendly station staff, missed by the travelling public when they disappear from service, would surely be a popular choice for preservation, as would the long-term commuter who shocks his fellow travellers by dying in harness. Among the crowds on our rush hour platforms then there would be figures that did not move, frozen in attitudes and gestures once familiar, their continued presence a reassuring reminder of values that endure.
You can trust a 17th century author to speak his mind. John Aubrey appeared to have a low opinion of the residents of Chippenham when he described them in his Natural History of Wiltshire in 1685. ‘Here about is but little tillage or hard labour’, he wrote. ‘They only milk cows and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meats, which cost their brains too much and hurt their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious…’
If Aubrey was correct in his diagnosis of a certain lack of cheer among the town’s inhabitants at the time it may have had more to do with their circumstances than their diet. The effects of two outbreaks of the plague followed by the Civil War, together with the town’s failure to gain pre-eminence in the wool trade, had led to a period of decline. However, the history of towns is played out at a slower pace than men’s lives; if Aubrey had returned in 150 years time, he would have noticed a remarkable change. The arrival of the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal that connected Chippenham to Bristol and London made coal available for the new steam-powered cloth factories; then in 1841, the Great Western Railway opened Chippenham Station on the London to Bristol line.
The plains through which the railway runs to Chippenham on the day I visit are white with frost, the branches of the trees motionless as coral. The town lies in a bend in the River Avon, in a dip from the elevation of the railway. Leaving the station in a southerly direction means walking down the slope of Station Hill. Contrary to Aubrey’s impression, the owners of the small shops I pass seem both industrious and inventive. A barber is advertising a side-line in ties…
… While a cobbler is displaying a framed and somewhat faded poster explaining ‘The Anatomy of the Shoe’. I pause for a moment to learn the difference between the sole and skin-sole, the toe cap and toe puff, the shank and the seat piece in an illustration marked Main Constructions.
However, the main construction in Chippenham was not created on a cobbler’s last. It lies just around the corner, spanning New Road.
Brunel’s great stone viaduct bestrides the town’s gyratory system, as magnificent as some ancient classical monument, yet still very much in use. Between Chippenham and Bath, as E.T. MacDermot‘s great three-volume history of the Great Western Railway explains, ‘on scarcely one of the thirteen miles (are) the rails within ten feet of the natural surface of the ground’. Either they are flying, as they do as they leave the station here, or they are buried in cuttings; suspended above water, or driven through the contours of the land itself as they are at Box.
Brunel’s legacy is very much alive in Chippenham, and not solely in the cafe that bears his name at the foot of the viaduct, even though it advertises ‘The Big Eat: For those with a Huge Appetite”, including a breakfast at only £1.99p, fit for any hero of the industrial revolution.
In 1842 an ambitious engineer named Rowland Brotherhood, who had already undertaken contract work for the GWR, opened railway works in the town, which rapidly expanded to the north of the line. Brotherhood was soon joined by the firm of Saxby and Farmer, making brakes and signals for the railways. In the 20thcentury, Westinghouse Brakes and Signals, known by local wits as ‘Restinghouse’, became Chippenham’s chief employer, their products and technological innovation known throughout the world. In the mid-twentieth century the bicycles of workers travelling to Westinghouse clogged the streets, just as carts loaded with milk-churns had formed their own traffic jams half a century earlier, on their way to the Anglo Swiss Condensed Milk factory. Later taken over by Nestlé, the factory exported its sweet, tinned confection along the line to the world. Aubrey’s conviction that an over-consumption of diary products would tax the brains and ’hurt the inventions’ of the people of Chippenham seems to have been misplaced.