Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Trains in literature

Like many other writers, I find trains useful. They feature in 5 of the 8 stories in my collection, and in Paradox, a poem from my pamphlet. There's the departure (leaving the old life behind) and the arrival (a new start) but the mode of transport has useful features too - a combination of constraint (tracks and timetables) and freedom; of aloneness and being in a crowd. And they have a rhythm.

Journeys are traditionally quests, but train journeys can be outside space and time. One of AL Kennedy's characters says "You can relax here - this isn't anywhere. What ever happens outside, there's nothing we can do about it right now". Kaye Mitchell says that for Kennedy's character trains are "free of the expectations and judgements of others, a space in which to meditate freely on the past and her possible future". One needn't devote a whole poem to them as Auden did with "Night Mail", mention of them's enough to be evocative - Carol Ann Duffy's "Prayer" includes "a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth/ in the distant Latin chanting of a train."

Trains have an underworld - the Tube - a nightlife of couchettes, and they breed nostalgia in the form of steam locomotives. In this picture I was trying to do something clever - having the train move while the people's reflections in the train were static. Didn't quite work.

Of course, there are many books and essays on the use of trains in literature and film. Some places to start are


  1. For years I travelled by train. I’m a big fan—at least based on my outdated experiences I am (I do hear things have gone downhill a bit of late)—but I’m not sure trains feature heavily in my writing. There’s a train journey in my first novel but I honestly think that’s it. Nor, if I’m being honest, can I think of anything decent—or even half-decent—that I’ve written whilst commuting although I have very clear memories of trying to write; buses I’ve fared better on. In both instances I’ve heard of writers talking about wonderful things they’ve overheard that they’ve incorporated into their stories and books and all I can imagine is that I’ve been travelling on the wrong routes all my life. Mostly my fellow travellers annoy me these days talking so loud to each other—or more often into a mobile phone—that I can’t read.

  2. Mobile phones have messed up trains for me too. I interrailed in the good old days, so it didn't matter if people were talking - I didn't understand them anyway. Many of those journeys were long and scenic. Commuting's a different game.