Workshop, 11th June 2019

As anyone who knows me at all well will tell you, I love a steam train.  We are currently approaching High Season for preserved railway-lines in this sceptred isle of ours, a time when every last tank engine, diesel multiple unit and dusty freight locomotive is pressed into service shuttling grandchildren and grandparents alike up and down the spidery bits on the national map of British Railways.  You know the ones, those baroque, curly fronds growing out of the end of Main Lines, the ones Dr Beeching found so distasteful and had erased, just before colour was reintroduced to the British national dress.

Some people allege that there too many preserved railway lines nowadays and that the valuable resources of the intense and single-minded army of boiler-suited volunteers could be better-employed on fewer, more historically significant restorations, but I disagree.  I am always on the lookout for an obscure stretch of single-tracked railway connecting two locations last heard of in the duller parts of Jude The Obscure.  However, much as I like the journey, my enjoyment is not solely to do with the hot breathless thing chained to the front and doing all the hard work.  I find I have become addicted to the multiple syncopated rhythms associated with train travel, and that with the aid of a seat, some space on the table in front of me not already occupied by melted choc-ice, a notebook and a sharpened pencil, I can get a few vital, searing verses down before the locomotive has to stop at a station mocked up to look like the First World War, to run around to the other end of the train and take me back to where we came from; typically, a station mocked up to look like the Second World War.

No one was there to make a mockery of this week’s world famous poetry workshop, and railway stations with blast tape on their windows were notable by their absence.  Alan Chambers broke cover with a poem about an end to order, sparked by the natural world.  Doig Simonds sketched us an image of marriage in a lock and a key.  Anne Furneaux returned to the world of work with a couple more artisans remembered from her childhood.  Sara B, still a newish member of the PP read a finely-honed piece on the charm of triboluminescence, the longest word in use this week at least.  John Hurley gave us a satirical poem and a wry smile, concerning the story of a stressful marriage and a death on the golf course.  Daphne Gloag rather mischievously tried out a new form on us this week, the Haibun, a sort of cross between a Haiku and a prose poem – this one discussing the tides.  Peter Francis is emerging from out of the mine, fossils in hand.  Roger Beckett brought a brilliantly pithy poem on the power of some pithy poems.  I believe Pat Francis is getting slight charity fatigue, discussing gifting pots for Africa.  Owen Gallagher directed us to the romance of the picket line and everything to breathe for.  Nick Barth has been ruminating on the many words for winds, and whether she cares.  Finally, Martin Choules urged us to observe the light from the nearer stars, just because we can. 

Clearly the preserved railway industry has latched on to the enormous power of nostalgia to attract a riding public, for it is well-known that there is nothing that a young boy of say, five or six years old likes more than to be reminded of a wartime past they cannot possibly remember.  In my humble opinion, even the oldest of codgers one sees piloting said kids around the place are a bit fresh to remember the last one.  Why, it’s almost as if we are becoming nostalgic for an unremembered past, and who would fall for such a blatant subterfuge?  Surely there is more to the romance of the steam train than the tragedy of war? What about the romance of poetry? Which insight gave me the most brilliant notion, one I will propose to the next railway volunteer I come upon, be they busy serving customers at a ticket window or sweating up on the footplate shovelling coal; The Poetry Train.  Who would not want to ride a train redolent with the atmos of a favourite poem?  All one would have to do is conjure a few of the more well-known classics for the riding public.  For example, the train could stop for no apparent reason in a deserted station called Adlestrop (for those of you who are interested, the real Adlestrop is on a main line, and has ceased to exist, I have looked).  Passengers could be herded aboard a dingy mail car and have to sort Cheques from Postal Orders and letters for the rich from letters for the poor to in order for the train leave the station.  At the very least there should be an army of Whitsun newlyweds irritating a stony-faced librarian, or a railway volunteer dressed as a fat lady wandering about in a corn field in gloves.  Perhaps a Betjamannish tennis match in a permanent state of high drama as the train passes?  The possibilities are endless, and accompanied by a bottle of brown ale, a ploughman’s lunch and a short observational quiz for the competitive, the journey would take on an entirely new dimension.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

1 Comment

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One response to “Workshop, 11th June 2019

  1. Jane Barth

    Your PP Blog re fascination with trains rang very true this week. I speak as an Aged P (please refer to your copy of Great Expectations) and also an Aged G.P who – with two grandchildren – has recently clambered on board a slightly rusting, dusty train carriage from the 1960s (we reckoned), pushed by an engine from quite a bit earlier than that. The granddaughters (too old to allow themselves to be too impressed) gazed out of the window at the passing meadow parsley and pink campion. And, when we stopped at the other end, just as your piece points out, there was a sweaty, coal-begrimed volunteer shovelling coal into a greedy furnace. Another volunteer (in a grey suit with the correct badges) explained that it took four hours to fire the engine up to the correct heat for the steam. Even the granddaughters allowed their eyes to widen just a bit. But, conscious of the next platform-load of keen passengers seeking a connection with the past, he pulled out a large watch on a chain and hooshed the passengers back on board for the return journey. Our trip into the past (was it the 1960s? or the 1940s? We were never sure) was soon over.

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