Some views from some trains
I’ve spent a lot of time on trains over the past year. I’ve covered quite a lot of England on those journeys.
I imagine there have already been many pieces written about travelling England by train, and what those journeys might tell us about The England We Live In Today. I’m sure there have been even more pieces pitched, yet never written. There is a certain person who loves a train journey and will find any excuse to take one. Especially if it is on expenses.
However, I’m not sure there is a The England We Live In Today piece to be written through the prism of train journeys. I don’t think I learned anything about England. Perhaps that is just me. I’m not that observant or insightful. I took photos on my journeys as a means of recording my trips, so they did not blend into one. And yet, now I look back at the photos and they could be anywhere. Each journey blends into the other. I didn’t discover England, whatever England might be, from the view from a train carriage.
Some of this is down to geography, or town planning, or, well, where the train tracks lie. Trains rarely pass through the centres of cities, towns or villages. The stations are often on the outskirts. When the train enters the real city, like in Newcastle, it is a notable, memorable experience.
So, the train passenger doesn’t often experience the Urban Experience, whatever that might be, through their train window.
The train passenger sees those edgelands, the places between the town and country, places that are both town and country, and neither. Here are the places that are often non-places. The places hidden, deliberately or by circumstance. The places we need, but would rather not see. The places you don’t happen upon, that you have to consciously make your way toward.
The industrial estates. The out-of-town shopping complexes. The warehouses. Factories. Dog tracks. Go-kart tracks. Call centres. Workshops.
The train shows the hidden England. The bits the towns and cities are ashamed of, yet the places that keep them going. Yet from town to town, station to station, the view is similar. I don’t think it is as simple as the Subtopian view of every town and city taking on the same look, although that homogenisation was obviously there to see. The train is just too fast for the passenger to pick up the nuances. I could say it is all the same, but each industrial estate, each call centre, each workshop has its own tale to tell.
The train is just too fast. Too fast for my shitty camera phone, with its lazy exposure time and lack of megapixels. I take a snap and the image distorts. Straight telegraph poles list wildly in the photo. Stations we’re not stopping at buckle alarmingly. Steel fencing suddenly appears malleable. I look back at the photos and I cannot always tell if the strange angles and weird slants were really there, or if it is just bad photography. But I like those photos best.
Then there is the countryside. The train makes it feel closer. It doesn’t take long from anywhere to reach the fields and trees. Sometimes the scene is stunning, sometimes generic. Over several journeys it feels hard to tell the difference. What is good countryside, if just a thing exists, and what is just the relief of seeing something natural, green, wild?
The country is punctuated by the working countryside, the farms, barns, outbuildings, the stuff needed to work the land and make the land work. Then the recreational country, the village pub, the fishing lake, the horse riding. It is easy to make judgements from the train carriage. To decide that is the life. Or that it really isn’t. But I think the countryside is unknowable from the train. There is so much, and it passes too quickly.
And then the darkness falls and there is nothing to see and nothing to learn. . The carriage, strip-lit, hermetic, moving through the dark, as if there is nothing else left. The train keeps going and you could be anywhere, and it feels like you are Nowhere.
There is a real comfort in the dim sodium glow from a distant estate, or the whiter pins of light from an old farmhouse, or even the emptying station. There is someone out there, life is still going on.
There is life in the carriage, of course. And there is that other temptation, to write the train carriage as a microcosm of England. But it isn’t that. Not everyone has the time, money or inclination for inter-city rail travel. There are archetypal characters, but I don’t think they represent anything more than themselves.
There is always the student, with the collegiate hoodie, the oversized bag, oversized headphones. I like to guess from their demeanour if they are heading home or heading away. But I suspect it is not that simple. There is always the businessman, laptop open, coffee at the ready, comfortable in the movable. mobile office. The travelling salesman, talking to Dean back at the depot, Clare in the office, tying up the aerosol shipment before “close of play” on a Friday night. You can tell from his calls that he really cares about the aerosol industry. You can tell from the gaps in the conversation that Dean and Clare really don’t. The old couple, forever finding a home for their suitcases, tumbling into the carriage at full-volume, excited, confused by their tickets, the happy bickering as they find their seats as the holiday begins. The guy gazing out the window, occasionally pointing his shitty camera phone at something or other. Sometimes taking notes. Sometimes not.
There are plenty of platitudes about it being about the journey, not the destination. My train journeys have dried up lately, and it turns out on a practical level the destinations really didn’t matter. I could have never stepped on a train and it would have made very little difference. That’s another story, and one not worth relaying here. Nothing mysterious, just dull. I just have the journeys. And those photos.
And I’m no wiser off about what England might be, or what train travel might be. I could pass judgement on the Vote Leave signs I saw dotting the fields, or the out-of-town shopping centres filling up for the afternoon, or the decaying industry I saw, rusting and waiting. I could tease out a narrative, an explanation. However, this post is months in the making and I’m no nearer a conclusion. But I don’t think I could ever know enough. And there are enough white, middle-class males making up their England as it is.
But at least I know that I don’t know. I think that might be something. You can dream up an England from your seat on the train, but you have to alight to actually experience the real thing. And even then, there are far too many stories, rumours, myths to sift through. And many truths. The train passes them all by.