The northbound platform out of Euston towards the Home Counties got used by me for the first time in about 14 years yesterday. Not since the days of early adulthood had I stumbled (without ticket mostly) through the barriers to get on the 1534 Northampton Line train, but an motoring episode that can only be classed as both distinctly disagreeable and disappointing in equal measure led to me being carless. Non de voiture. Io non ho macchina. I am back, into my natural way of life – as a walker, busser and trainer. A flaneur, passing through, utilizing the forces of metal and power and energy that push and pull our city about whilst we loiter in a shabby nylon seat watching the countryside ripple by the window.
Ok, well not exactly the countryside but the way there – Harrow & Wealdstone, Watford Junction, Kings Langley… and I am so old that when I first started taking this train on my own I used to use the smoking carriage. First Class Smoking Carriage, of course. It only had two seats. Then there was a thick glass partition between us and the non-smoking First Class. There some blustery, Crombie-coated, middle age company director would be, with thinning pale brown hair and making smacking noises on a cigar, and on the other seat, yours truly, sparking up a Silk Cut Menthol, straightening my Rob Newman as “Jarvis” T shirt and flicking through TV Hits to look for pictures of Val Kilmer. There used to be red and grey painted scenes at the back of each carriage of Hertfordshire windmills, watery artist’s impressions of the Grand Union Canal and brave, grey blocks of high street buildings. There used to be lino on the floor and large metal bins between the backs of seats that looked like giant’s ashtrays.
Now the trains are warmer, carpeted and much narrower. It seems perverse that as British people have got wider the train aisles have got narrower. Is aisle jamming going to be an Olympic sport this year? An athletic event which you may enter, unimpeded by your ginormous girth? The colour tone of the interior of the trains is vastly improved from municipal swimming pool blue of the 90s to a rich green. “Welcome aboard this London Midland train for Milton Keynes Central!” announces an unsavoury, excited female voice through the tannoy. Why the thrill? It’s a commuter train full of hospital frontline workers and balding Hertfordshirians sipping cups of tea. For whatever reason then, our lady narrator is bloody excited to be narrating this gem of a journey. And she doesn’t stop. “Please take your belongings with you and thank you for travelling London Midland!”, like we had a choice, and then there’s the grim “Welcome aboard this London Midland train! Please take a moment to observe our safety facilities and emergency exits!” She nearly chortled at the end of that one, as if delighted if only one of us passengers thought we might – just might – die before Berkhamsted.
I haven’t taken this journey in a while. It’s the journey I took throughout my childhood and youth whenever we were going “up to town” and I’d forgotten that I can remember every part of it. You get out of Euston and once past the Legolike blocks of Somerstown the view is exceedingly Victorian : Mornington Crescent still looms up in gentrified, down at heel glamour and the rice pudding colour of St Johns Wood homes are just visible over the tops of the railings. Then suddenly – eeurgh – that old, horrid, vast Morrison’s at Camden Town thrusts itself forward looking like an unloved prefab. Belsize Road still has its schizoid personality that is visible from the carriage (Social housing on one side of the road and private housing on the other and a whole load of irrascible tension in between) and it alarms me as much now as it did 20 years ago that South Hampstead station appears to be made entirely of wood. But the journey is much quicker and quieter than it ever was. Nothing reminds me more of the space between childhood and adulthood as much as the view from the window between London Euston and Harrow & Wealdstone. On the M1, you don’t see the houses, the flats, the tops of pubs, the Royal Mail sidings, the cargo trains that sit in Neasden sidings and which always reminded me as a child of Westerns, the supermarket car parks, the waving child from the top of a bus over a Willesden bridge. In other words, if you’re not in a train you don’t see the journey. Pubs I hadn’t realised I remembered veer up at the sides of the tracks, untouched and unchanged. I know the rhythm of the line, I recognise a patch of trees and know we’re approaching Watford Junction a minute before the tannoy tells us so. How on earth did I remember that?
Do not worry, fair reader, I am not a proponent of G.A.S. (Golden Age Syndrome). I don’t hark back in the quaint and deluded belief in better times in the past. I may have Golden Arse Syndrome but not Golden Age Syndrome. Even my rampant Victorianism doesn’t stretch far enough to love all things Victorian (syphillis, anyone?) but I do wonder what the same journey would have been like 120 years ago. Darker, smellier, slower. Colder, and infused with the smell of coal and sulphur. Louder with constant belches of hot steam and the clanging clatters of mechanical parts and definitely much less eco-friendly. Perhaps a moustachio-ed ticket inspector popping his head around the mahogany door of the ladies carriage on this line was the inspiration for the big music hall hit “She’d Never Had Her Ticket Stamped Before” (I do not jest)? After 40 minutes of fairly uncomfortable seating and negotiating a bustle around the rest of you to try to get comfortable you would have alighted here, 20 miles from London and it would be the middle of the countryside. In the deep evening gloam a bellowing cow, a horse and trap, a few clip clops of horseshoes on the untarmacadamed road and little else. A cluster of flickering gas lights half a mile in the distance, with a pub in the middle of it and beyond that silence and darkness and rows of fields.
It’s not difficult to see that the railway changed everything.
We take the routes and walk the station platforms that have been walked for a century and a half, coated with the echoes of fellow Londoners before us. Every time you drop your ipod on a concrete floor, you pick it up and touch were Edwardian shoes have trod, where evacuees have waited. People roll off the train with handy suitcases on wheels, dragging the suitcases behind them as Victorians dragged parasols, attache cases and hat boxes. Travellers pocketing paperbacks in coats tread where travellers in the 1880s clutched their W H Smith Railway Bookstall purchases in tightly gloved hands. Thousands of eyes have watched the same darkening countryside whistle past the window as we watch – eyes under army hats, eyes behind pince-nez, eyes of governesses, of servants, of Dukes, eyes of natives and the eyes of strangers, not to mention the dreary eyes forced to look at blackout curtains instead of the countryside during the war. We’ve settled into train seats for nearly 200 years. We remain steadfastly loyal to a great fear of change, of losing a sense of oneself, of the idea that time marches on, rudely inconsiderate of us, fragmenting the fabric we hold dear and leaving us distressed at the side of the track. But the truth is that if you take a train anywhere in Britain it becomes astonishing how little has, in any true sense of the world, changed. The Victorian Age was characterized by an overbearing sense of anxiety surrounding the vast developments in transport, productivity and social upheaval, by a fear that the pace of these developments would outstrip our ability to keep up with them and that we would be annihilated by our own pursuits for commercial and financial success. You see? Nothing really ever changes at all.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.