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In Love with Trains

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 on it.

The Southern Region in those days offered rich pickings for the lone traveler. I would park my bike in the luggage wagon at Norbiton Station on the Waterloo line, ride the suburban electric train out into rural Hampshire, descend at some little country halt on the slopes of the Downs, cycle leisurely eastward until I reached the westerly edge of the old London to Brighton Railway, then hop the local into Victoria as far as Clapham Junction. There I had the luxuriant choice of some nineteen platforms—this was, after all, the largest rail junction in the world—and would entertain myself with the choices from which to select my train back home. The whole exercise would last a long summer day; when I got home, tired and contented, my parents would inquire politely as to where I had been and I would dutifully invent some worthy purpose to obviate further discussion. My train trips were private and I wanted to keep them that way.

In the Fifties, train travel was cheap—especially for twelve-year-old boys. I paid for my pleasures from weekly pocket money and still had pennies left over for snacks. The most expensive trip I ever took got me nearly to Dover—Folkestone Central, actually—from where I could look longingly across at the well-remembered rapides of the French national network. More typically, I would save spare cash for the Movietone News Theatre at Waterloo Station: London’s largest terminus and a cornucopia of engines, timetables, newsstands, announcements, and smells. In later years, I would occasionally miss the last regular train home and sit for hours into the night in Waterloo’s drafty waiting halls, listening to the shunting of diesels and the loading of mail, sustained by a single cup of British Rail cocoa and the romance of solitude. God knows what my parents thought I was doing, adrift in London at 2 AM. If they had known, they might have been even more worried.

I was a little too young to capture the thrills of the steam age. The British rail network switched all too soon into diesels (but not electric, a strategic mistake for which it is still paying) and although the great long-distance expresses still swept through Clapham Junction in my early school years, pulled by magnificent late-generation steam engines, most of the trains I took were thoroughly “modern.” Nevertheless, thanks to the chronic underinvestment of Britain’s nationalized railways, much of the rolling stock dated from interwar years and some of it was pre-1914 vintage. There were separate closed compartments (including one in each four-car unit set aside for “Ladies”), no toilets, and windows held up by leather straps with holes into which a hook in the door was inserted. The seats, even in second- and third-class, were upholstered in a vaguely tartan fabric that irritated the naked thighs of shorts-clad schoolboys but that was comfortingly warm in the damp, chilly winters of those years.

That I should have experienced trains as solitude is of course a paradox. They are, in the French phrase, transports en commun: designed from the early-nineteenth-century outset to provide collective travel for persons unable to afford private transportation or, over the years, for the better-heeled who could be attracted to luxurious shared accommodations at a higher price. The railways effectively invented social classes in their modern form, by naming and classifying different levels of comfort, facility, and service: as any early illustration can reveal, trains were for many decades crowded and uncomfortable except for those fortunate enough to travel first-class. But by my time second-class was more than acceptable to the respectable middling sort; and in England such persons keep themselves to themselves. In those blissful days before mobile phones, when it was still unacceptable to play a transistor radio in a public place (and the authority of the train conductor sufficed to repress rebellious spirits), the train was a fine and silent place.

In later years, as Britain’s rail system fell into decline, train travel at home lost some of its appeal. The privatization of the companies, the commercial exploitation of the stations, and the diminished commitment of the staff all contributed to my disenchantment—and the experience of travel by train in the US was hardly calculated to restore one’s memories or enthusiasms. Meanwhile the publicly owned state railways of continental Europe entered a halcyon era of investment and technical innovation, while largely preserving the distinctive qualities inherited from earlier networks and systems.

Thus to travel in Switzerland is to understand the ways in which efficiency and tradition can seamlessly blend to social advantage. Paris’s Gare de l’Est or Milano Centrale, no less than Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof and Budapest’s Keleti Pályaudvar, stand as monuments to nineteenth-century town planning and functional architecture: compare the long-term prospects of New York’s inglorious Pennsylvania Station—or virtually any modern airport. At their best—from St. Pancras to Berlin’s remarkable new central station—railway stations are the very incarnation of modern life, which is why they last so long and still perform so very well the tasks for which they were first designed. As I think back on it—toutes proportions gardées— Waterloo did for me what country churches and Baroque cathedrals did for so many poets and artists: it inspired me. And why not? Were not the great glass-and-metal Victorian stations the cathedrals of the age?

I had long planned to write about trains. I suppose in a way I have already done so, at least in part. If there is something distinctive about my version of contemporary European history in Postwar, it is—I believe—the subliminal emphasis on space: a sense of regions, distances, differences, and contrasts within the limited frame of one small subcontinent. I think I came to that sense of space by staring aimlessly out of train windows and inspecting rather more closely the contrasting sights and sounds of the stations where I alighted. My Europe is measured in train time. The easiest way for me to “think” Austria or Belgium is by meandering around the Westbahnhof or the Gare du Midi and reflecting on the experience, not to mention the distances between. This is certainly not the only way to come to grips with a society and a culture, but it works for me.

Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of my present disease—more depressing even than its practical, daily manifestations—is the awareness that I shall never again ride the rails. This knowledge weighs on me like a leaden blanket, pressing me ever deeper into that gloom-laden sense of an ending that marks the truly terminal disease: the understanding that some things will never be. This absence is more than just the loss of a pleasure, the deprivation of freedom, much less the exclusion of new experiences. Remembering Rilke, it constitutes the very loss of myself—or at least, that better part of myself that most readily found contentment and peace. No more Waterloo, no more rural country halts, no more solitude: no more becoming, just interminable being.

—This piece is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

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