Monday, June 7, 2010

A Requiem to Lost Love

Oh dear, I'm afraid we may not be in agreement over this letter, but please bear with me.
Yes, I know you love trains. I used to love trains . . . but let me tell you what's happened. For all your admiration for sleek, new technology, I'm hoping you'll recognise that we Luddites have a point!

Whereas I once used trains frequently, the situation has changed. Over the past ten years I've used them very little, long distance trains not at all.
Then, last week, I had a need to go to Somerset. What a treat . . . I would take the train.

In my childhood, trains were a source of excitement and delight. This pleasure reached its peak when my mother took me to Venice on The Orient Express (in the days before that magnificent locomotive had sunk to the classification of a 'tourist attraction').
I was spellbound. European stations flashing by . . . enigmatic figures relaxing in sumptuous compartments . . . proper sheets on proper beds and a wake-up call for breakfast.
This was no mere train journey, it was an adventure in wonderland!

As an adult, I loved the steam trains that carried me home to Somerset. What luxury, after a demanding spell of filming in London, to relax in the comfort of a dining-car and be pampered with a slap-up dinner . . . complete with linen table-napkins!

Later, there were the magnificent trains that carried me - together with my car and my cat - to
the North of England and Scotland.
How much easier and faster to put the car on a trolley behind the train and travel in the comfort of a carriage. The carriage window offered a panoramic view that could never be obtained from a car. All the cats in my life have enjoyed the novelty of travelling on a train. I treasure the memory of when Sue, my Siamese, alighted with great poise on the platform at Carlisle and promptly used a strategically placed tub of geraniums as a handy litter-tray!

Until last week I would never have questioned the continuation of my lifelong love of trains . . . then, after an absence of ten years, I discovered the modern version.

It came as a shock to learn that I was no longer a passenger. In the intervening years I had metamorphosed into a customer.
Why? I've no idea . . . could it be that our cash now takes precedence over our comfort?

This sense of shock continued. I discovered that once squeezed into your allotted restricted space in the crowded carriage you can't move, you're trapped. There is no opportunity for happy wanderings down the corridor, no chance to stretch your legs. You can't open the window, far less the carriage door. The seats are crammed in so tightly that your knees are hard up against the back of the seat in front and, on this occasion the seat I'd been allocated was alongside an intersection in the window. I was even deprived of the opportunity to look out and enjoy the countryside. The overall effect verged on the claustrophobic.

Yes, I know, there is much to commend these modern trains. They are wonderfully computerised. A trolley laden with food is regularly pushed up and down the gangway, so, should you want it, there's plenty to eat. You can even hire headphones (if it's a sufficiently long-distance train) and watch a film on the back of the seat in front of you. A voice constantly informs you where you are, why you are delayed, and when you'll be arriving. But dare I suggest that the atmosphere is soulless, constricted, and alien to the world it is speeding through?

All right, I'm growing old. I'm suffering from nostalgia. Logically, I can understand the thinking behind the modern train. The population has grown, more people are travelling and these trains pack in double the number of passengers. They are sleek, fast and efficient. A modern, high-speed train is, in effect, an economically-viable mass-human-transporter. But it doesn't deserve to inherit the glamour, excitement and romance that have grown to be associated with the word 'train'.

Were those old trains to return they would probably be despised as being slow, dirty and
contrary to all rules of Health and Safety. But many of us loved them and, if I have to travel on long-distance trains in the future do you know what I'll do? I'll lean back in my seat, close my eyes and pretend.

I'll pretend that I've gone back in time. I'll imagine that I've chosen a window seat with its back to the engine (this was important as the smuts from the engine, coming through the open window, could get into your eyes), and that I've returned to the days when trains were ponderous, upholstered and slightly grubby . . . but, at the same time, infinitely romantic, exciting and loveable!

Could 'Brief Encounter' have taken place in the setting of a modern train?
I rest my case!