posted on 05/12/22
This series examines aspects of British railway romance, as represented by writers such as Charles Dickens, who preferred stagecoaches to trains, but wrote beautifully about railways, and John Betjeman, who despite his apparently whimsical persona, was the most articulate opponent of the ‘railway axeman’, Dr Beeching.
We will also meet characters from the industry, such as Frank Pick, inter-war head of design at London Underground, and John Elliott, who worked for the Southern Railway as Britain’s first ‘PR man’. However, these five talks will show that the British railway romance stems not from the success of our railways but from their long, slow decline, so that we have reached a situation where, as one author recently put it, there are now two railways in Britain: ‘the real railway, and the railway of our dreams.’
They take place every Tuesday from 11 April to 9 May at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (4 July 2023).
The first thing to say about British railway fiction and poetry is that there has been a lot of it. In early railway fiction, trains were objects of fear and despoilation. In Dombey & Son by Dickens and The Prime Minister by Trollope, trains kill people. But by 1906 the eponymous heroes of The Railway Children are playing on a country branch line and befriending the avuncular station master. When – and why – did railways become cosy, and how does this sit with their important role in crime fiction?
In a way, John Betjeman’s attitude to railways was purely common sensical. In the 1930s, he predicted the blighting of cities and towns by cars. He foresaw the social harm that the railway retrenchment would cause and accurately predicted that Beeching’s cuts would come to be reversed. But his evocation of railway atmosphere in his poetry, his campaigns to save the Euston Arch and St Pancras Station and his involvement with preserved railways go beyond purely practical considerations. How to account for Betjeman’s romanticisation of railways?
From the 1870s to the 1970s the blue and gold sleeper cars of the Wagons-Lits company traversed Europe. Their principal customers in the early years were the British, and in the inter-war period many British writers – from Agatha Christie to Henry Green – romanticised the European sleepers as counterweights to the nationalism that had led to the First World War. To what extent does the romanticisation of European sleeper trains explain their apparent revival in recent years, after a long period of decline?
The seats on London Tubes and buses are – and almost always have been – covered with a carpet-like woollen material called moquette. Moquette is an expensive, luxury item. It can be beautiful, and some very distinguished designers (often women, like Marion Dorn and Enid Marx) have been involved in its creation. Its ever-evolving designs reflect the times. In the 1920s, when Londoners were dirtier, dark shades were favoured. Why does London have moquette when other transport systems offer seats of stainless steel, plastic, or cheap man-made fibre?
Most European countries have a couple of ‘museum lines’, whereas Britain has about 150 ‘preserved railways’, usually in the form of country branch lines revived after closure, and now operated by volunteers. How to explain this large-scale exercise in turning back the clock? A love of the countryside, of steam engines, and an enduring resentment of the railway closures of the 1960s are all involved. But the preserved railway volunteers of today tend to be elderly. Will the movement survive the passing of ‘generation steam’?
Prolific author of fiction and non-fiction books, many of them with a railway theme. Among his novels is an award-winning series of ten thrillers set on the railways of early 20th-century Britain. The first of these was The Necropolis Railway (2002), the latest is Powder Smoke (2021). His non-fiction railway books include Underground Overground (2012), Night Trains (2017), Seats of London (2019), Steam Trains Today (2021). He also wrote and presented two BBC TV documentaries on railway subjects: ‘Between the Lines’ (about railway literature) and ‘The Trains That Time Forgot’ (about ‘named trains’, such as the Brighton Belle).
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