Author Archives: James Attlee

About James Attlee

James Attlee is the author of 'Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight', 'Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey', and (with Lisa LeFeuvre) 'Gordon Matta-Clark: The Space Between'. You can find out more about books, events, journalism and broadcasts at jamesattlee.com

Dedicated to the Unknown Linemen

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…

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Johatsu

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…

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Power 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…

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Cherished Memories: Somethin’ Else in Chippenham

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…

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A Liquid Breakfast, Up Against the Wall

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…

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Henry West and the Reading Tornado

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…

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Great Western Histories: A Call for the Embalming of the Virtuous Dead

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…

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Great Western Histories: Chippenham’s Main Construction

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…

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Train Songs No. 7: ‘This Train’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

*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…

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Great Western Histories: Between a Towpath and a Tunnel

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…

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