My train pulled into Northallerton, and showed no signs of pulling out again. Laptop plugged in at the wall, whole table and half a carriage to myself, flask of tea primed, I sighed happily. I was in no hurry, and wasn’t it as easy working here as it would be at home? Far easier in fact; no distractions, no familiar four walls rolling their eyes at bad habits and even worse adjectives.
One paragraph, a quarter of an hour and two passing express trains later, we began to move. We didn’t get far. Just enough momentum to bounce off the mainline and lurch past the scrapyard before we came to a stop again. The reason for the delay was soon explained. ‘Cow on the line,’ the conductor announced, grinning his way down the three-carriage train.
Laughter broke out; my fellow passengers bunched at the window for a view. Far from the commuter carnage of Southern Rail, few of us seemed in a hurry on this North Yorkshire branch line — plenty of retired folk, students, mams and nans with prams, and loafing oafs like me. Phone cameras came out, lots of chatter started. I remained in my seat working. I’m not boasting, it’s just that I’ve experienced a good few cows on the line in my car-less life on the railway network of Northern England. How impressed my disapproving familiar four walls would have been at home, where it only takes a sparrow chirp before I get up to investigate. The fact is, these days I do some of my best work on trains.
The carriage door opened; the guard jumped down to shoo the cow away. The sound of lowing came into the coach, and the song of a thrush. Singing unseen from deep within the blossom of the wilding hawthorns ringing the scrapyard, the thrush’s famous song echoed amongst the train’s abandoned takeaway, coffee cups and unread copies of The Metro. For a moment, everybody stopped to listen. Impossible not to think of the poem ‘Adlestrop’, by Edward Thomas, in which his express train makes an unscheduled stop at a tiny country station. No one disembarks nor alights at Adlestrop, in fact nothing seems to happen at all until, sitting in his carriage, the poet hears ‘all the birds / of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ Thomas’ handful of stanzas is deeply poignant, not least because the train journey that gave rise to the poem happened just after the Great War broke out, in which the poet was killed. It’s also a sad reminder of what we’ve lost. After so many reckless years of chemical farming, and an untreated car epidemic, these days the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire wouldn’t make a fraction of the swell Thomas heard. Nature’s great symphony has become more a matter of scattered soloists.
Still, the thrush sang. I closed my eyes. The great thinning of wildlife only made him sound even more touchingly beautiful. Train journeys are full of unexpected encounters like this.
At last the guard climbed back on board, the doors gasped closed and the thrush’s song was choked off. With a shudder, we started once again. As we picked up speed, I wondered about the link between creativity and relaxed train travel. It’s not just that I find it so easy to write on the train, but poets in particular seem to find it conducive to inspiration. Perhaps it’s the space that it gives. The pause. That sense of not being in a hurry and not being able to be in a hurry even if you wanted to be. The destination is out of our hands — all we have is the journey itself.
‘Adlestrop’ isn’t the only masterpiece in the train journey genre, or more specifically, the delayed train journey genre, and when we pulled into our next stop at Yarm, I was forcibly reminded of perhaps the most celebrated example. As it was a Friday, the opposite platform held its obligatory hen party. Big Sal, Dirty Curly and Ginger Minge were amongst the nickname sashes, whilst the usual L signs were on show, and of course an inflatable penis. If Philip Larkin had his Whitsun Weddings, we have our Whitsun Hen Parties. On the face of it, Larkin’s 1959 poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is about sitting on a late running train; in reality it’s a box brownie snapshot of the nation. Beginning with ‘all sense of being in a hurry gone’, the train takes the poet cross-country: rivers, farms with short-shadowed cattle, frothing canals, cricketers, cooling towers, building plots and Odeons. At each town, the train takes on its wedding party, and bit by bit Larkin, the detached singleton, finds himself pulled into the heart of all these lives and loves. Forget Jack Kerouac, this is Britain’s soul journey, a pre-Beeching stopping train.
It was still before ten o’clock, but already the hen party on the platform was raucous enough to almost drown out another song thrush singing from the station apple tree. Already giddy, Ginger Minge and the gang were nowhere near the bare-bum-knickers-down-piss-in-the-gutter stage to be reached later that night in York, Cork, or Prague. These women were the granddaughters of those Larkin saw ducking through confetti and the shouted smut of uncles, to start their married life on his train. He would have been fascinated by the cultural shift. Prosecco instead of port and lemon, henna hand tattoos for nylon gloves, the ubiquitous smartphone for mirrored compact.
Unconcernedly late, we rolled towards Teesside. Because of the delay, there was time for one more poem. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ might not be Thomas Hardy’s most famous lyric, but as usual it packs all the narrative and emotional punch of one of his novels. Standing waiting for a train, the poem watches a little boy as he in turn watches a prisoner in handcuffs. The boy wishes he could help the prisoner, but he has no money. He only has a fiddle, but since it’s a good one, he’ll give the captive a tune. The convict recognises it and begins to sing. It’s a song about unabashed, unrepentant freedom, the equivalent of gangsta rap. The constable with the prisoner smiles, and thankfully, the train seems in no hurry to arrive, so the boy and the prisoner get a good long time to enjoy their musical freedom.
These kind of fleeting experiences are the gifts public transport gives to writers, in Hardy’s day as well as our own. You’re only a few yards of platform or carriage away from somebody else’s tragedy, wedding, or hen party. Packing my stuff away at Thornaby, I walked down the carriage, as I always do, to take a quick survey of my own train’s prisoners. Three or four always get on at Yarm, where they’re coming to the end of their sentences at HMP Kirklevington Grange, and participating in the day release scheme. They’re easy to spot. Muscular from the gym, and still-centred after so many years inside, despite their crimes, they have a look of almost innocent bewilderment — the world has changed in the seven or eight years they’ve been inside. ‘I went into Greggs, last week,’ I overheard one say. ‘And they don’t do Cornish pasties anymore.’
Although there were no constables accompanying these prisoners, there were plenty of examples of other more highly-paid cogs in the penal system, travelling in the same carriage with them — barristers and solicitors. This train comes from Leeds and Manchester, from whose legal chambers the busy courts of Teesside are serviced. There were at least three lawyers on board today (they’re also easy to spot), and as it happened, two of them, unbeknownst to themselves, were sharing a table with a couple of cons.
I’ve done this journey enough times to get a feeling for the life of both the modern day prisoner and their legal briefs. Conversations overheard, case notes and laptop screens glimpsed, and of course mobile phone incontinence, has leaked many a story. ‘Doesn’t look good for poor old Stevey boy,’ I heard a barrister say last week. ‘They’ve just found his trainer at the warehouse. Full of his DNA of course. Well, most of his little toe actually. The guard dog ripped it clean off his foot.’
A good place to work, a good place to find a story and characters. As we pulled into Middlesbrough, I wondered whether train travel feeds into creativity because it thrusts you into a temporary entanglement with the world. Railway journeys permit introspective writers like Larkin (and others too) to drop into the world, and then get the hell out of it. You remain just as long as it takes to fill a flask with poetry or watch the lives of others unfold. All this as well as getting from A to B. No wonder that for writers, as well as explorers, the journey is the reward.