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Train of Thought

The Sir Andrew K. McCosh
The Sir Andrew K. McCosh

Sometimes when you’re sitting in the Lit and Phil, you slowly become aware that other lives going on out there. In the outside world, I mean.

This shocking revelation usually happens at very quiet times, shortly after opening perhaps. Noises begin to impinge gently on your consciousness: metallic rattling, an occasional mechanical hoot, the distorted amplified sound of the human voice. It’s a rather comforting reminder that while you are ensconced in the enclosed world created by some writer, lots of people out there are rushing around the country at speed and currently passing through one of the architectural marvels of the railway age. Not just that, there’s the realisation that its guiding spirits – Robert and George Stephenson – also had a bit to do with the creation of the Library itself.  

For all sorts of reasons I am a child of that age.

One of my earliest memories is of being taken by my father from my grandparents’ little pit house in Wolseley Street in Ferryhill to the side of a railway 100 yards away. A wooden fence stood between us and perhaps a dozen separate tracks. We waited. I noticed that the bottom rail of the fence jutted out towards me, so I put my left foot on it and leaned forward with my arms and chin on the top rail. Then my dad tapped my shoulder and pointed south to a distant plume of smoke.

‘See? It’s coming,’ he said.

Before I knew what was what the train was upon us with the roaring of moving parts and the maniacal shrieking of its whistle. We were enveloped in a squall of hurricane proportions. I lost my hat and it seemed my wits. Then it was gone and Dad and I began to laugh…

A few years later, when I was 9, my Ferryhill grandmother died. Increasingly frail, she and my grandfather had come to live with my family in our Newcastle home. As the end approached, I was sent away to my other grandparents in Durham, and it was there one Sunday morning I was told Nana had passed away. I didn’t know how to respond – I certainly didn’t cry - and was soon running down a cinder track with my friend Bruce to the town’s tiny station, giddy with excitement, for that day expresses were being diverted this way while engineering works were carried out on the main-line. We reached the track, climbed a fence, dropped onto the sloping roof of a wooden hut, got out the ABC of British Locomotives and waited. To our right was a tunnel and it was from that direction we first heard a noise – a low rumble, as if from the bowels of the earth, rising in pitch and volume, until the Beast emerged from its lair with a towering column of black smoke. Bruce and I stood up, as if in the presence of royalty – for this was a queen of the line, an A4 Pacific locomotive with elegant sloping front, numbered 60003 and euphoniously named Sir Andrew K. McCosh. As it passed, the driver poked his capped head from the cab, smiled and pulled again on the whistle, and it was only now, with a hiss of steam and clatter of wheels, that the tears of loss came, unaccountably but copiously.  

There’s an almost overwhelming temptation to write nostalgically about railways, particularly those of the steam age, but there’s far more to them than sentiment. They opened up the world in an unprecedented way, turning the Industrial Revolution into a social revolution that transformed this and many other countries. And it all started here by the Tyne. Railways began with waggon ways to transport coal to the ships carrying them to market, with the horse as motive power. There were nine on Tyneside by 1660 and they were so synonymous with the northern coalfield they came to be known as ‘Newcastle roads’. The birth of steam-driven railways represented a huge leap forward and being as they are an amalgam of separate components – engine, track, rolling stock, which all required gradual development - they had many midwives. But the cleverest hands belonged to our own George Stephenson, obstreperous, self-educated genius from Wylam on Tyne. He had a brilliant knack of developing other people’s ideas, shaking them till they worked and overcoming every obstacle, from exploding boilers to lawyers who mocked his accent. The heart of his world-changing enterprise was the Forth Banks works just across the tracks from the Lit and Phil, where Locomotion was built for the Stockton and Darlington Railway and Rocket for the Liverpool and Manchester. Within two decades the railways had penetrated every corner of the British Isles. Many of the resulting breakthroughs were made by Stephenson and his acolytes, including Robert. Little wonder that a railway historian has described the North-East as the Silicon Valley of its day.

Of the many effects of this transport revolution perhaps the greatest was to the lives of the common people. Before railways came along, horse-drawn coaches were so expensive, the masses hardly moved at all, and when they had to, they walked. Thomas Bewick, wood-engraver of this parish, once decided to visit friends in the Lake District and so walked there, then felt the urge to see Scotland and promptly strolled off to Edinburgh. 

My own great-great grandfather set out with his wife and five children from his Suffolk home to seek work in the new industries of the north and didn’t stop walking until he reached the first pit – in Shildon. Trains changed all that; cheap 3rd class tickets ensured that industrial workers could enjoy, among many benefits, family excursions to the seaside and fresh fish however far inland they lived. From the beginning railways were the most democratic of transports, a shared experience for all, including me...

Nearly every house I’ve lived in has been near a railway. Indeed, that life has been more or less defined by one in particular, the East Coast mainline.  I spent five years in Edinburgh at one end of it, 25 living at the other, that long middle section bookended by two periods in Newcastle, where I now live once more. I couldn’t begin to count the number of trips I’ve made on this line over the years, but I do know that if I was somehow teleported onto a train in mid-journey, it would only take a couple of minutes before the topography told me where I was. In my London years, I came north for family parties, holidays by the sea, countless football matches and the occasional funeral. When my father died, the train crawled north, the rattle of the wheels a song of grief. But usually the journey is a transport of delight. One looks at the English landscape through a rectangular frame, and the sense of cinema is enhanced when one considers that one is as powerless to intervene in what one sees as James Stewart in ‘Rear Window’. This constantly changing panorama reminds the viewer that England remains a green and pleasant land, but as the miles click off, everything gets grander. Leaving London, we pass over Hertfordshire’s curiously named River Mimram, via two sluggish Ouses, a Trent with several channels and a blackened Don to the holy trinity of the Tees, Wear and Tyne. It’s the same with the trackside progression of cathedrals: the minsters of Doncaster and York are an improvement on Peterborough but suffer by comparison with the matchless grandeur of Durham, perched on its rock. Finally, to Newcastle. To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, said Robert Louis Stevenson, who crossed America by train in 1879. Perhaps he was thinking of his destination, Los Angeles (of which Gertrude Stein famously remarked, ‘There is no there there), a hymn or dirge-like psalm to the motor-car. But one can’t accuse the great gorge of the Tyne, with its dizzy procession of bridges, of such visual and spiritual emptiness, though Victoria herself might not have agreed. She travelled here in 1850 to open John Dobson’s great station but was apparently sent a hotel bill by the city council for the privilege. Forever afterwards, en route to Balmoral, she lowered the blinds as the royal train passed through the smoky city that had so insulted her.  Strangely enough Arnold Bennett pulled the same trick whenever he travelled through the Five Towns of the Potteries, the landscape that inspired his best work and made his reputation…

On these journeys, I sometimes reflect on the contribution of railways to our culture. Think of the books – everything from Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to Dickens’ Dombey and Son, the complete works of WH Awdry and Trollope’s Barchester Towers, which isn’t about trains but was more or less written entirely on them. In poetry we’ve Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, more Betjeman than you could wave a green flag at and that most evocative of opening lines: I remember Adlestrop… 

In music, there’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Last Train to San Fernando, as well as the heavyweight majesty of Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Steve Reich’s haunting Different Trains. Films as diverse as Strangers on a Train and Night Mail have no comparison in the culture of the motor-car, the dystopian hell for instance of Crash, the films of the same name by David Cronenberg and Paul Haggis. 

On trains, there’s nothing to match the nihilistic aggression of road-rage, apart from occasional disagreements about the use of a mobile phone. In my experience, people almost always behave like civilised beings and the vignettes on view are more colourful. I once heard a black and white shirted football fan debate Karl Marx with a Civil Service mandarin working a piece of embroidery, a train guard recite Spike Milligan poems and an hilariously inebriated stage Scotsman serenade a carriage with songs from the shows. Perhaps a railway carriage is what anthropologists call a ‘liminal zone’ – a place where the otherwise strict rules prohibiting social intercourse with strangers are relaxed. Certainly, your average train provides a fascinating snapshot of contemporary Britons, their dress, modes of speech, conversational tics, reading matter and raw emotions. Over the years I’ve witnessed volcanic rows and filthy joke competitions; once interrupted coitus when opening an unlocked toilet door and more than once been moved by the tears of solitary women as they contemplated some loss. I’ve glimpsed the rich and famous, from Tony Benn to Newcastle’s own Peter Beardsley, and once encountered Hugh Grant and Jemima Khan wearing worried frowns as they realised they were a train length from their first class comfort zone. People seem to prefer the collective to the individual ethic of the car. Some commuters might disagree. One of my favourite pieces of railway literature is Roger Green’s Notes From Overground, an aria to the servitude of the commuter which misquotes Rousseau’s dictum thus: ‘Man is born free, but is everywhere in trains.’ But if it hadn’t been for Green’s daily grind I’d never have known that some inspired British Rail functionary once named the network’s freight wagons after various forms of sea life: grampus, dogfish, haddock, ling, lamprey. I haven’t spotted them for years now but I suppose fish stocks are declining everywhere, even on the railways.

This rich culture makes it all the more irritating that railways have been so mucked up in my lifetime. The essential point is that the decision makers consistently miss the point: railways aren’t the transport system of the past but of the future. Hardly surprising: these people usually travel the country in ministerial limos. Mrs Thatcher never travelled by train, though perhaps for her the phrase ‘fellow-traveller’ had a more sinister meaning. Railways have come to be seen not as a glory but as an inconvenience and the hapless functionaries of the Department for Transport go on meddling and making worse. This is not what’s happening elsewhere. High-speed networks are being built all over the world, despite their cost and consequent subsidies from governments. Why is there such a disparity? 

I suppose there’s the fact that after the war the shattered infrastructure of Europe had to be rebuilt and countries like France and Germany got into the habit of rolling investment, whereas we in Britain became increasingly influenced by the individualist consumer culture of the US. It’s indisputably easier to sell a lifestyle via a motor-car than a train, or maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of Mad Men. But it’s surely no accident that together the UK and the US resist the reinvention of the train, while everyone else gets it: railways generate economic growth, allow people to travel quickly and comfortably and cause less environmental damage than the car and plane. They help, in the end, to make societies viable, but our controllers don’t see it. But this is merely part of a much bigger collective myopia about our industrial heritage.

I sometimes ponder this as I board a London train in Newcastle’s vaulted train shed, gaze at Robert Stephenson’s High Level Bridge, then at my fellow passengers, often heading to the capital for meetings at head office. You can see it on their faces, as they scan agendas, fingers nervously pecking at company-provided laptops - and on the way home too, as they slump in their seats and order G and T’s. They murmur into the mobile – “yes love, it went well” - and you know that permission’s been granted by the all-powerful for some project or other, or when the warrior returning stares glumly at the commuter towns of Hertfordshire, denied. I empathise, for I’m in the same boat (if you can be in a boat on a train). After a visit to London with an idea, I too have had the gladiator treatment. I suppose this is what we have now in the North-East – 150 years after the Stephensons changed the world, financed by local investors with a social conscience – we live in what might be called a supplicant economy.

The place of my childhood, a region of shipyards and heavy engineering, no longer exists. It’s an exaggeration to say we don’t make anything any more, but not to suggest manufacture is somehow regarded as past its sell-by date. As a result, the region is cleaner, has more amenities, but also a largely de-skilled economy dependent on the public and service sectors. It seems to me we were sold a false prospectus. That makes me angry, because apart from anything else this new economy desperately undervalues the latent skills of the people among whom I live. They’ve so much to offer, as I know from personal experience. Two members of my own family shared the skill that George Stephenson painstakingly nurtured: the ability to take apart and put back together just about any working mechanism. It seems such skills are no longer valued in our culture, which places a higher worth on the manipulation of credit swap defaults and other ‘financial products’. 

The village from which I made my first journey to London in the Coronation year of 1953 no longer has a station of its own. The wooden hut where I stood and watched the trains has also gone - so too the railway works down the line. For Shildon wasn’t just a stop on Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington Railway, but also the place where those fishy wagons were built for 150 years. Schools of porpoise and shoals of herring once gathered here, but they disappeared forever in the Eighties, when Shildon Shops were closed, along with much of the North’s industrial base. In my lifetime, the journey time to the capital from Newcastle has been halved from six hours to three. Despite this, it seems to me in a curious way the distance has grown. Pioneering birthplace of so much technological innovation, the North-East grows ever more remote from power and the people who wield it. 

But now we approach our destination and it’s time to alight. I am being advised to make sure I have all my belongings with me, cultural and otherwise. I hope I’ve made my connection and I’d like to thank you all for being such considerate fellow passengers. 

And I hope you have followed my train of thought.

About the author

Michael Chaplin

Michael Chaplin is a theatre, radio, television and non-fiction writer and former television producer and executive. He grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne where he now lives and works again. He is also a member of the Lit & Phil. Train of Thought is adapted from a talk originally commissioned by Radio 3 in 2010.

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