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.
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.
*I am re-posting this episode of Train Songs as the three clips didn’t open in some recipients’ emails. This time I have included alternative links that will work on a smart-phone. *
In previous posts we have seen songwriters use trains to represent many things: they can be a way of uniting people, or of separating them; an escape route or the agency by which you are left behind; a route to the future or a remnant of a vanishing past.
One of the earliest such tropes is of the train as a vehicle of spiritual deliverance, expressed nowhere more succinctly than in this song, first recorded in 1925 by Wood’s Blind Jubilee Singers and covered since by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Mumford and Sons, in whose hands it becomes a suburban-hillbilly singalong. To Sister Rosetta Tharpe This Train signified something rather different.
Originally from Mississippi, Tharpe was raised in Chicago where she began singing and performing in church at six years old. By the time she was 30 she had become a genuine superstar, her vocal and guitar styles influencing rock and roll performers including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. In this clip she is playing to a predominantly white, seated audience, as she increasingly did in the latter half of her career, and she hams it up a little for the camera, the sweat rolling down from beneath her blond wig.
This train is a clean train, this train….
What does a potential passenger have to sign up to, to be considered clean? Rosetta elaborates. Heaven does not admit winkers, jokers, crap-shooters, cigar-smokers, tobacco-chewers, liars, back-biters or whisky-drinkers. The train may be bound for glory, but it won’t pull such people, so there is no use their queueing for a ticket. The list of sins enumerated is straight out of the rule-book of the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) Temple Rosetta attended in Chicago as a child, with its emphasis on holiness and physical purity. These are the values she still aspired to, despite a string of broken marriages and a love affair with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight which was an open secret in the music business.
As she reaches the guitar break she backs away from the mike and looks up to the ceiling, a trademark gospel trick that made her early audiences feel she was in direct communication with a higher power. On this occasion her solo is restrained, thoughtful but note-perfect, her train’s progress towards glory unhurried but unstoppable. Rosetta was one of the first performers to tour the United States, along with her band and her backing singers, the Rosettes, in a bus with her name on the side of it. This was not mere showbiz pazzaz; playing to packed theatres, her band could not get served in restaurants or lodged in motels in many parts of segregated America, so the bus was fitted out with sleeping quarters. When she spoke of a need for deliverance, she knew of what she sang.
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In 1963, Granada Television in the UK set up a tour featuring a number of performers including Rosetta, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Terry and Brownie McGhee, their progress filmed for a TV feature. Aged 49, on a cold, wet British afternoon, Rosetta Tharpe found herself in a disused railway station outside Manchester, performing to an audience of English beatniks and students located on the other side of the tracks. Undeterred by the metaphorical import of this situation she turned in a regal performance, the British television audience treated to the unfamiliar sight of a middle-aged African-American woman sporting an elegant coat and a Gibson guitar effortlessly dominating a windswept railway platform. The clip features a number of performances from the film, including Rosetta’s, around thirteen minutes in.
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Finally, if you want to see Ms Tharpe and her guitar really rock, check out this clip — her portable amp, positioned in front of the backing choir, is cranked right up and she lets rip on the solo. A real Christmas Cracker.
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The ancient city of Bath Spa was a particularly difficult conquest for Brunel, as he attempted to unfurl his railway between Bristol and London. While the merchants and ship-owners of Bristol were desperate to be connected to the metropolis, Bath had no interest in making itself more accessible. After all, the wealthy had been seeking out its restorative waters since Roman times and now it boasted some of the finest shops outside London. In the Georgian era it became a perfect architectural jewel. Famed throughout Europe, it attracted the highest echelons of society, both those wishing to enjoy the city’s many balls and entertainments and those convalescing from illness; (a character in The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett described it as a ‘national hospital’ to which ‘none but lunatics are admitted’). The last thing it needed was a dirty, noisy railway cutting through its centre.
I leave the station by the rear exit and cross the river, picking up a footpath along the canal. It is a bright December day, below freezing, the sky cloudless and blue. The Great Western Railway took over control of running the canals in this part of the country, as they needed them to deliver coal and plant. I am standing on the canal bank, attempting to take a photograph of a small ironwork footbridge when I become aware of a man at my side. Tall, in his 60s, he is wearing walking boots and is accompanied by a retired greyhound.
‘It looks good, doesn’t it’, he says, nodding towards the bridge. ‘We just restored that’.
The brightness of the sun makes it impossible to take a reasonable photograph, and in any case I can sense this man is ready for a conversation, so I put my camera away and turn to him.
‘It was made by George Stothert’, he continues. ‘Back in the 1970s, when I lived in Bath, the firm Stothert and Pitt was still based here. The ironworks employed three thousand people then, making cranes mostly’. He looks over my shoulder as I scribble in my notebook. ‘You’ve got an architect’s writing’, he says. I am no architect, I tell him. I explain, as best I can, my activities as Writer on the Train for First Great Western and that I am researching the route from London to Bristol, so the architecture of the canal and of the railway in Bath interests me. ‘Then you should see the notice at the previous bridge’ he says. ‘It was put up by the Great Western Railway. I restored it myself.’
We walk back along the towpath, together with the greyhound, whose name, appropriately for an animal rescued from the fate of all those too old for the track, is Grace. The notice is a striking black rhomboid shape, it’s lettering picked out in vivid white paint. ‘It took ages’, he admits, ‘but once you start… ‘
The notice cites the Motor Car Acts of 1896 and 1903: it seems extraordinary such legislation existed so early. It is a response to the clash between new technologies and the existing infrastructure that characterised the period; the original bridge collapsed under the weight of a farmer’s steam traction-engine, which ended up in the canal below our feet.
So I have told you about myself, I say to the man, how about you? What is your connection to the city?
‘Forty years ago I was Chief Executive of Bath Council’, he says, ‘then I went to work for the National Trust in London and ended up running five of the Queen’s Palaces. When I retired I came back here. (A quick Google search reveals he is currently Chairman of the Bath World Heritage Site Steering Group – I couldn’t really have chanced upon anyone more knowledgeable about the route I am walking). ‘My wife works in Bath’.
Right on cue, a woman joins us; I get the impression she is quite used to getting left some distance behind when they take walks together. ‘Hello’, he greets her, ‘this man has the best gig in the world – he’s the writer on the train for First Great Western’.
Do you use the train, I ask her? I am looking for people’s stories about their journeys.
‘Well, I’ve got one for you’, she says instantly. ‘Yesterday morning I caught the 8.55 train from Bath to London. The train stopped outside the city, just before Box Tunnel’. (Box Tunnel, of course, was at the time of its completion, the longest tunnel in the world, its construction costing the lives of at least 100 men).
‘After a few minutes an announcement was made about why we had stopped: a drunk was wandering the track outside the tunnel and both the driver and the guard were going to have to get off the train and apprehend him. As it turned out this wasn’t simple. It took them half an hour to get him on board; eventually he was persuaded to ride in the guards van. When we got to Chippenham he was put down and looked after there by staff until the police arrived’.
An intoxicated man totters at the entrance to the tunnel, a place that at the time of its construction, when no one had travelled such a long distance underground, was portrayed by those campaigning against it as the very mouth of hell. A chase ensues, he is rescued, against his wishes but for his own good, by the heroic staff of the railway. It is nothing short of a Victorian melodrama. These events take place right at the beginning of the journey for hundreds of passengers from the West Country. Such things are not extraordinary for those who commute each day; by the time they join their co-workers, who are still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, they may have braved floods, snow, breakdowns, or been involved at least peripherally in a perilous story such as this one.
I thank her and turn to take leave of her husband, but he is already a quarter of a mile distant along the frosty towpath, as unstoppable as a mechanical hare, the greyhound in its red coat trotting at his heels.