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The Literature Of Railways

Why we love reading about trains

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I am sometimes introduced as a railway author, which is annoying, but entirely my own fault. Whilst I have written a dozen books that are not about railways, I have written a dozen that are, including a history of the London Underground, a memoir of travels on European sleeper trains, and nine historical thrillers set on the Edwardian railways and beyond.

It would be inconceivable to write a series of novels set on current-day railways. Technical changes have deprived most modern trains of the machine once central to railway romance: the locomotive. Today, the standard passenger train is a worm-like ‘multiple unit’ with no discernible front, therefore no discernible back. These units have bathetically upbeat names more suited to mobility scooters – Sprinters, Pacers – and all the language of modern railways is insipid and appeasing. ‘Passengers’ are ‘customers’; platforms are ‘platform surfaces’ (as in ‘may be slippery’); ‘luggage’ is ‘personal belongings’. Early railways, by contrast, drew the attention of writers by virtue of seeming brash, dangerous and disruptive.

Dickens disliked railways from the off. Just as modern rail enthusiasts consider the automobile barbaric compared to the train, so Dickens regarded trains as degenerate compared to stagecoaches. The Pickwick Papers (1836) – chapter eight of which carries an inscription reading, in part, ‘the Course of True Love is not a Railway’ – is a nostalgic evocation of the stagecoach era. In Dombey & Son (1848), by contrast, Dickens lamented the destruction of semi-rural North London by the arrival of the London & Birmingham Railway at Euston.

When trains appeared in mid-nineteenth century novels, they tended to kill people. They do so in Dombey, The Prime Minister by Trollope and (to become international for a moment) Anna Karenina. One of the worst decades for railway accidents – or ‘smashes’ as the Victorians called them – was the 1860s, and in 1865 the railway bit back at Dickens, who was almost killed in a crash at Staplehurst, Kent. In Railways and Culture in Britain, Ian Carter writes that, thereafter, ‘Dickens found himself unable to travel by express train. Slow trains reduced anxiety, but increased boredom.’

In 1866, Dickens was turfed off a train at Rugby, the train having caught fire. He bought a coffee at the refreshment room and presumed to drink it before he’d paid for it. For this, he was reprimanded by the manageress of the refreshment room, and the urchin who assisted the manageress sniggered. Hence the short story, The Boy at Mugby, which begins, ‘I am the boy at what is called The Refreshment Room at Mugby Junction, and what’s proudest boast is that it never yet refreshed a mortal being.’

The story is one of three by Dickens that appeared in the Christmas 1866 number of All the Year Round magazine, and the other two, less peevish and more darkly poetic tales, are amongst the best railway writing I have come across. One is the ghost story, ‘The Signal-Man’, which concerns the premonition of a railway accident, in which Dickens suggests that a train can outstrip time itself. The other story, ‘Barbox Brothers’, begins with brilliant evocations of a nocturnal railway scene in an industrial place. ‘Mysterious goods trains’ are ‘like vast weird funerals.’ A passing express is ‘an earthquake, accompanied with thunder and lightning.’

The wildness of railways, their dangerous velocity and their sexiness (in forcing men and women into proximity) made them a natural subject for early crime writers. Trains often featured in the racy, melodramatic novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. In The Trail of the Serpent (1861), a document that would prove a man’s innocence of murder is accidentally burnt in a railway compartment, one of the type – so useful to novelists – with no side corridor, therefore no means of escape.

Braddon was helped twice over by the railways, in that her books prospered in the station bookstalls, which purveyed cheap, plot-led stories, designed to keep the reader hooked. This was much to the disgust of George Eliot, who had Braddon in mind when she wrote to her publisher, ‘I sicken with despondency under the sense that the most carefully written books [her own] lie […] deep undermost in a heap of trash.’ But, as Gwendolen Fairfax says in The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘You should always have something sensational to read in the train.’

Gradually, railways came in from the cold. It became apparent that they had a bathos of their own; they could close as well as open. (It is said that the first railway closure was that of the Newmarket & Chesterford Railway, which ran between Newmarket and Six Mile Bottom from 1848 to 1851.)

In Railways and Culture in Britain, Ian Carter identifies ‘Cuckoo Valley Railway’, a short story of 1893 by the Cornish folklorist, Arthur Quiller-Couch, as the first to place a fading railway line within a rural idyll: ‘We climbed on board, gave a loud whistle, and jolted off. Far down, on our right, the river shone between the trees, and these trees, encroaching on the track, almost joined their branches above us. Ahead, the moss that grew upon the sleepers gave the line the appearance of a green glade…’

Many bucolic railway evocations followed, including Edith Nesbit’s novel of 1906, The Railway Children (in which the children actually play on the tracks), Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop, and much of the poetry of John Betjeman.

Railways persisted in crime fiction but lost some of their dangerous agency. They begin to play a neutral role. Railways take Holmes and Watson to crime scenes; they are not usually crime scenes in themselves. The pair depart from every London terminus except Marylebone, and we know the game is afoot when Holmes asks Watson to look up a train time. (But when, in ‘The Adventure of the Retired Colourman’, Holmes asks Watson for the train times to Little Purlington in Essex, Conan Doyle – a somewhat impatient writer – makes Watson answer off the top of his head: ‘There is one at five-twenty from Liverpool Street.’)

It is telling that in Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie, the train is stationary for most of the story. It is merely a place where glamorous people have assembled in order to be suspected of committing a crime. So it is akin to the country house in a country house murder mystery.

European sleeper trains like the Orient Express and The Blue Train
(employed as the title of another Christie novel) were fashionable subjects among novelists, symbolising rejection of the xenophobia that had fomented the First World War. In Accident (1929), by Arnold Bennett, we have what appears to be a return to sensationalism, in that the train – the Rome Express – is derailed. (‘Then there was a frightful bump of the whole carriage, a bump which seemed to prelude the end of the world […]. Then a second bump — worse.’) But the novel is really a domestic drama, the accident uniting a bickering couple.

Graham Greene had been reliant on selling review copies of novels to Foyle’s bookshop before the success, in 1932, of Stamboul Train. In Henry Green’s dreamy, modernist novel of 1939, Party Going, a group of rich young sybarites are checked at Victoria station in their attempt to connect with a sleeper train to the French Riviera. There is a dense fog; no trains are running, and so Party Going seems to mark the culmination of what we might call the Wagons-Lits novels, after the company that ran the most stylish European sleepers.

After the Second World War, railways, eclipsed by the automobile, began their drift towards the margins of British culture, and railway literature ceased to be a live genre. If forced to name an important postwar railway writer, I’d cite the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, creator of the Thomas the Tank Engine series, if only because of sales worth hundreds of millions.

I’d like to think that anyone required to look beyond Awdry for a significant modern writer on railways might eventually light on me, even if my novels are not set in the modern day. They began, as it were, in 1903, with The Necropolis Railway, and have so far progressed chronologically up to 1923 and Night Train to Jamalpur. As these titles imply, the books are quite moody, crepuscular, and my evocation of Edwardian train journeys owe a lot to mine of the nineteen-seventies, when you could still depart from King’s Cross for York at 2am, on a train featuring cosy compartments, blinds to be pulled down at the first opportunity, and reading lights with dimmer switches for the maximization of atmosphere. I spent a lot of time on trains. My dad worked on BR and I had a ‘privilege ticket’ entitling me to free first-class journeys.

I sometimes pretended to sleep while observing the red-faced, pinstriped businessman who might be sitting opposite. He would probably be frowning at me, wondering what this young layabout in a denim jacket was doing in first class. Then another pinstriped businessman would come in, or, even better, a single woman. Conversations would start and so, in retrospect, did my literary career.

The tenth novel in Andrew Martin’s railway series, Powder Smoke, will be published in January. His latest non-railway novel, The Winker, is out now in paperback, published by Corsair.

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