According to the literary theorist René Girard, we come to yearn for and eventually love those who are loved by others. I cannot confirm this from personal experience—I have a history of frustrated longings for objects and women who were palpably unavailable to me but of no particular interest to anyone else. But there is one sphere of my life in which, implausibly, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire could be perfectly adapted to my experience: if by “mimetic” we mean mutuality and symmetry, rather than mimicry and contestation, I can vouch for the credibility of his proposition. I love trains, and they have always loved me back.
What does it mean to be loved by a train? Love, it seems to me, is that condition in which one is most contentedly oneself. If this sounds paradoxical, remember Rilke’s admonition: love consists in leaving the loved one space to be themselves while providing the security within which that self may flourish. As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained around people, my family in particular. Solitude was bliss, but not easily obtained. Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled: something amiss. Becoming, on the other hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.
I never bothered to explain this to parents or friends, and was thus constrained to feign objectives: places I wanted to visit, people I wanted to see, things I needed to do. Lies, all of it. In those days a child could safely travel on public transport alone from seven years old or so, and I took solitary tube trips around London from a very young age. If I had a goal it was to cover the whole network, from terminus to terminus, an aspiration I came very close to achieving. What did I do when I reached the end of a line, Edgware as it might be, or Ongar? I stepped out, studied the station rather closely, glanced around me, bought a dessicated London Transport sandwich and a Tizer…and took the next tube back.
The technology, architecture, and working practices of a railway system fascinated me from the outset—I can describe even today the peculiarities of the separate London Underground lines and their station layouts, the heritage of different private companies in their early years. But I was never a “trainspotter.” Even when I graduated to solitary travel on the extensive network of British Railways’ Southern Region I never joined the enthusiastic bands of anorak-clad preteenage boys at the end of platforms, assiduously noting down the numbers of the passing trains. This seemed to me the most asinine of static pursuits—the point of a train was to get …