I spent my childhood in a small post-industrial town called Bouillon, in southern Belgium, that became more and more post-industrial as I grew up. That hyphen between the ‘post’ and the ‘industrial’ looks abrupt and short; it wasn’t. It was a slow thinning of the thread, a long unmooring during which the habits and reflexes of work remained as the work disappeared and the habits suddenly became noticeable because the life that had determined them was no longer there. The town had had a train station but it shut some time in the late 1950s. ‘Terminus’, they announce with a splash of pride at the end of rail and tram journeys in Belgium, and there’s nothing more terminal than a disused railway station. The end of the line? Better: it’s all end and no line, because the rails are long gone, along with the sleepers. Even the crunchy, fist-sized ballast-stones that bedded down the track, which as children we used to throw at cars from various hideouts around town, have now disappeared – buried or overgrown, or stolen in wheelbarrows and used for DIY. The station is now a parking lot for local buses, which graze there among the tufts of grass and weeds, while the snazzy hotel that once housed Bouillon’s first and last sauna/solarium has been demolished. There are no shops or cafés left, though the area is still called the ‘quartier de la gare’.
When I was a child the nearest proper station was Libramont, a squat, low-skied, slate-coloured, attritionally depopulating provincial-industrial town, so featureless and undetailed that it seemed designed to be seen only in passing, in the black gummy frame of a carriage window. But the ‘libr’ in there was enticing, though a huge exaggeration, and the ‘amont’ was poetic – en amont in French means ‘upstream’ – so the place had a promising swagger to it, in name at least. Rimbaud himself had come through Libramont many times when he was ‘en libre amont’ – in full, free spate, ripping his way upstream of the police, his debtors, his mother, Verlaine, Verlaine’s wife. We think of Rimbaud as the great poet of departure, and there’s a whole subgenre in French of poésie des départs, for which he acts as a mascot. But really Rimbaud was always arriving, crisscrossing the French and Belgian Ardennes, and often to be found where he was least expected to be: at home in Charleville, or ‘Charlestown’ as he called it, with his mum. In the old Rimbaud museum in Charleville, before its glitzy refurbishment with interactive exhibits and light shows, there was a solitary trunk, some shoes and a map of Abyssinia, none of which belonged to him, in a glass case.
Gallimard has published an anthology of ‘Poètes en partance’, which is a different thing from the poésie des départs. A départ is a brisk, clipped thing. Like many words with a ‘dé’ at the front of it, it’s over before you’ve read past the prefix: you’ve got to whatever it was too late, which is the whole point. A partance, however, is sticky and unemphatic and designates a state, perhaps a mood, rather than an action. You hear it in French station announcements, in which the distinction between départ and partance is respected with an old-world precision: when the tannoy tells you that a train is ‘en partance’, it means the train is readying itself imminently to leave, and that you should be too; that in your mind you should already be taking your seat, opening your newspaper, wondering where the restaurant car is.
There are a lot of trains in the Gallimard anthology, but it is more about wanderlust, specifically the wanderlust of what the French call la poésie ferroviaire – railway poetry – of which there exist at least two anthologies and several collections by individual authors. Inevitably, being French, it’s also about the great Baudelairean cliché of the untaken journey, which is most memorably expressed (and satirised) in Huysmans’s Against Nature, when the hero, Jean des Esseintes, decides to go to London. On his way to the station for the train that will take him to the port, he stops in a bar in Paris with his luggage and orders an English meal. Here, drinking sherry and thinking of Dickens, with bad sludgy weather outside and bad sludgy food inside, he decides he’s already in England. Why bother putting himself through the hassle of actually taking the trip?
This was a cliché produced by a metropolitan, jaded, high culture – one that didn’t need to see anything to know it had seen it all before; that believed there was no such thing as a first time and that used its art and literature to abolish first times for the rest of us. But the provincial, who is the true explorer, needs to experience for himself the things that will disappoint. Second-hand disappointment won’t do. In art, literature and music, what we call individuality – and maybe even ‘style’ – is often a search for a disappointment its creator can call his own. When Apollinaire said ‘fear the day when the sound of a train no longer moves you,’ he wasn’t just celebrating the distance-conquering age of the locomotive, but warning us to treasure our provincialism, because it keeps the world fresh.
When I was in my late teens and had been Englished by school and university, de-provincialised by living in London, then re-provincialised by thinking London was all there was, I bought an Interrail ticket and plotted my route. I would pass through Libramont on my way from Cambridge to all the great exotic places I planned on visiting. I ran the place names along my tongue. It’s something I still do. There’s nothing more poetic than a station name seen in passing – it doesn’t matter whether it’s Vladivostok or Shoeburyness. If a station name comes in two languages, even better. In this respect, Belgium is ideal, as the towns come at you twice-named, with French and Flemish looking a little like distorted mirrors of each other: Namur/Namen, Liège/Luik, Antwerpen/Anvers. My father’s joke, which like most of his jokes got better from being relentlessly repeated, was that these towns were ‘so good they named them twice’. And some were.
I still know the names of all the stations between Brussels and Luxembourg, and can recite the rosary of disused stations that used to be stops, and that now rewind in a blur of white lettering on blue enamel when we slice obliviously through them. Seeing Libramont take its place on a rail map that took in Sarajevo, Venice, Veliko Tarnovo, Cologne and Dubrovnik made me feel giddy, excited and not entirely comfortable. The world was a big place? Yes, I’d heard the rumours. But it connected up too? That was a new one on us Bouillonnais. For generations my family had used Libramont station to go twenty minutes to Arlon, or maybe Namur, and on one occasion to visit the new McDonalds (‘le nouveau restaurant écossais’) in Luxembourg. Their journeys never took more than an hour, the span of a commute or a shopping trip. All I had to do was stay on the same train a little longer than them and I’d be at the other end of Europe: Ceauşescu’s Romania, Todor Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, Honecker’s East Germany, Kádár’s Hungary.
In Britain we have made our own disappointment, and the fear Apollinaire warned us of feels both distant and European. It’s a tidy irony that Michael Portillo, a former privatisation-randy Tory ideologue, is now making a living from nostalgic TV shows about the days when British trains weren’t crap, crowded, costly and late. If there isn’t a ‘market’ for something, there’s usually a market for regretting its demise. Nostalgia is a good metaphor for privatisation, or vice versa: it takes what was ours anyway, asset-strips it, then sells it back to us in bits at twice the price, paid for at both ends by us because we’re both subsidising it and paying at the point of sale.
The evasive pseudo-customer language of privatisation is a long way, in time and in spirit, from Auden’s ‘Night Mail’, which sings the poetry of efficiency, or, earlier in the century, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, in which a sensible, moderate man tells a flashy (French-influenced) poet: ‘No, take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a timetable, with tears of pride. Take your Byron … give me Bradshaw.’ Chesterton’s joke is a sly pun: Baudelaire used the term ‘correspondance’ to evoke the world’s occult, holistic system of connections that our senses synaesthetically perceive, but it’s also the French word for a train connection, and for the network of train connections – the whole system of points changes, sidings and termini that ramifies into a world. Baudelaire did plenty of travelling on trains, and was punning, too, on the idea of poetry cohering like a railway timetable – certainly a safer bet for the commuter than a timetable cohering like a poem. Portillo uses Bradshaw’s 19th-century railway guides for his programme, but a show reflecting the true state of Britain’s railways would require a copy of the Beeching Report, which in 1963 recommended cutting five thousand miles of track and more than two thousand stations; most of the recommendations were followed. This would make for a different kind of show – a mix of elegy and ghost tour – and Portillo would have to do it by car.
It’s possible to find good station buffets, bars and restaurants in most countries, often serving Central European dishes like schnitzel and goulash. Like the restaurant cars on the trains, the station buffets in Eastern Europe were often short on food under communism, but they still had the liveried waiters, the ceremonialism of monogrammed plates and cutlery, embossed menus, and those lift-off silver lids that look like First World War German helmets. The buffet fittings are still there in most European stations: the zinc bars and brass rails, those odd footrails beneath the bar where you drink standing up using the gap where your heel meets your sole to keep yourself wedged in as you watch the departures and arrivals. In Europe, people go to the station bar even if they’re not travelling, merely to experience the stationhood of the place and get a small hit of departure before going back home – some of the aura of distance that people have on them as they alight with their cases, their journeys still on them like bits of glitter from a finished party. In Bucharest in the 1980s, I’d go down to the Gara de Nord (modelled, approximately, on the Gare du Nord) and watch people disembarking with amazing luggage: boxes with ropes tied around them and wheels fixed to their bases with coathangers, suitcases held shut by belts, overfilled string bags muscly with jars, tins and groceries. In the right station, everyone can be des Esseintes.
In the UK, our stations have been plasticked-up and are full of franchises selling identikit food. If they manage to retain some original fittings it’s because there isn’t enough money coming into them for the chains to bother. Bangor station, for instance, has a magnificent Victorian back bar, ornate and dour and with a mirror covered in liverspots; the whole style is a Presbyterian baroque, and Snickers bars and bags of Walkers wink from its shelves. But it’s a rarity. Most UK stations are extensions of the Swindonisation of the High Street that began in the 1980s, with Thatcherisation, when we stopped being ‘passengers’ and became ‘customers’. SockShop and Tie Rack appeared, the gist being that the only people who had any business travelling were people travelling for business. These people worked so hard saving our country from the unions that they needed a change of socks between meetings.
My father’s last job was providing rail information in the days when it was done by rail employees at stations. He was an RMT member and wore his enamelled badge even when he wasn’t in uniform. He began his rail life as a station porter at Newcastle before going to university, and ended it at Waterloo after thirty years with the British Council. He often complained that what he called ‘train-speak’ in Britain had become a gristly post-literate filler-language. In Europe what you hear on trains is minimal and informative: you get told your destination and the stops as they approach. In Britain it’s a relentless patter of pseudo-information aimed at pseudo-customers by people running a pseudo-business. You don’t ‘read’ the safety instructions, you ‘take some time to familiarise yourself with’ them. Your belongings must always be ‘personal’, and in case you were wondering, as you neared your ‘station stop’, what to do with them, you are ‘advised to remember to take them with you’. The train is also the only place outside a Classics course where you’ll hear the word ‘vestibule’. That’s OK, it’s nice to hear it again, but they spoil it by saying ‘vestibule area’.
In Apollinaire’s terms, then, there’s a lot to fear, as our stations become homogenised. But the dullness and aching repetitiveness of train travel is part of the experience too. Apollinaire was concerned by speed and distance – but slowness, stalling, breaking down, stopping inexplicably, those tiny grinding increments of movement as the train trembles between two nowheres all have their place. If it’s the exotic bit that draws you to trains and railways, it’s the endotic bit that keeps you there, half-hypnotised, phasing in and out of awareness, watching the pelt of rust on the rails outside and the buddleia rearing up fatly, crowded with bees. To be sure, trains and stations represent escape, travel and bohemia; to others, drudgery, offices, the rut of life and a particular sort of existential stasis that we only notice, paradoxically, because we’re moving – though only a little. That movement helps us sense our stasis better, in the same way that we’ll admit a bit of sadness into a happy moment because it helps us to tune the happiness we feel and feel it even more. Part of the pleasure of train-attention, or train-daydreaming, is down to the way time moves: from pooling-at-your-feet slack-rope-time to sudden, taut, noose-around-your-neck time. It is no longer the Heraclitan river moving forward, but an estuary with its drain and glut, mud and silt and overlapping in-betweenness.
Whether the train is a symbol of progress, of the machine age celebrated by the futurists, or the sort of train that is cancelled because of ‘leaves on the line’, it’s still the same machine. The train can be the crowded 6.41 from Bromley or it can be the Orient Express, but it’s still doing the same job, on the same rails, reminding you that tedium and exhilaration, speed and slowness, are different not in kind but merely in degree: more or less of each other, that’s all. Does time pass on trains the way it passes in books, or in poems, or when we listen to music: dilating or vacuum-packing around us? A small journey can be expansive, but a long journey can send you across acres of time like a puck in a game of table hockey, sliding on a cushion of air.
Trains show us that freedom and constraint are a matter of dosage too. ‘I am the only free man on this train,’ Klaus Kinski as Kostoyed Amoursky announces in the 1966 adaptation of Dr Zhivago, shaking his chains, an anarchist headed for the camps; ‘the rest of you are cattle.’ When I watched that film as a child, I marvelled that there were countries so big that the seasons changed between when you got on and when you got off. But on my first sleeper, I was disappointed to learn that the train went deliberately slowly, often stopping altogether for minutes at a time, so as not to arrive at its destination too early. It was the opposite of the Dr Zhivago sensation: it was that the world didn’t quite fit; that it wasn’t, or wasn’t any longer, big enough to absorb the speeds we could go at. Our machines had to give it a chance, so they stood there, humming, waiting, giving the shrinking world a head-start.