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An essay by Robert Lynd

In The Train

Title:     In The Train
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is said that travelling by train is to be made still more uncomfortable. I doubt if there is a man of sufficient genius in the Government to accomplish this. Are not the trains already merely elongated buses without the racing instincts of the bus? Have they not already learned to crawl past mile after mile of backyard and back garden at such a snail's pace that we have come to know like an old friend every disreputable garment hung out on the clothes-lines of a score of suburbs? Do they not stand still at the most unreasonable places with the obstinacy of an ass? Stations, the names of which used to be an indistinguishable blur as we swept past them as on a swallow's wing, have now become a part of the known world, and have as much attention paid to them as though they were Paris or Vienna. Equality has not yet been established among men, but it has been established among stations. There never was such a democracy of frightfulness.

We seldom see a station which has about it the air of permanence. There are, I believe good historical reasons why there are no Tudor stations or Queen Anne stations to be found in the country. Still, I know of no reason why so many stations should look as though they had been built hurriedly to serve the needs of a month, like a travelling show in a piece of waste ground. Not that the railway station has any of the gaudy detail of the travelling show. It resembles it only in its dusty and haphazard setting. It is more like a builder's or a tombstone-maker's yard. The very letters in which the name of the station is printed are often of a deliberate ugliness. No newspaper would tolerate letters of such an ugliness in its headlines. They stare at one vacuously, joylessly. It is said that the village of Amberley is known to the natives as "Amberley, God help us!" How many stations look at us from their name-plates with that "God help us!" air! What I should like to see would be a name-plate that would seem to announce to us in passing: "Glasgow, thank God!" or whatever the name of the station may be. I have never yet discovered a merry station. Here and there a station-master has done his best to make the place attractive by planting geraniums in the form of letters to spell the name of the place on a neighbouring embankment. But these things remind one of the flowers on a grave. And the people who walk up and down the platform, their noses cold in the wind, are hardly more cheerful than undertakers' men. Even the porters in their green trousers, who roll the milk-cans along the platform to the luggage-van with an energy and a clatter that would satisfy the ambition of any healthy child, do not look merry. There was one cheerful porter who used to welcome you like a host, and make a jest as he clipped your railway ticket--"Just to lighten your load, sir!"--but the Government had him removed and put to mind gates at a crossing where he would not be able to speak to the passengers. As a rule, however, nobody looks as if he liked being in a railway station or would stop there if he could go anywhere else. I trust the Ministry of Reconstruction will see to it that the railway stations of the country are rebuilt and vivified. One does not really wish to stop at any station at all except one's own station. But if one has to do so, let the stations be made more amusing.

Unfortunately, it is not only the frequent stops that have made railway travelling almost ideally uncomfortable. The Government seems also to have hired a staff of workers to impregnate the seats of the carriages with dust and to scatter all the dust that can be spared in these exiguous days on the floors. They have also a gang of old and wheezy gentlemen who travel up and down the line all day shutting the windows. This work is sometimes deputed to women. They are forbidden to say "May I?" or "Do you mind?" or to make use of any civil expression that might mollify the traveller sitting by the window. It is part of their instructions to reach past him with an air of independence and to have the window shut and the book that he is reading knocked out of his hand before he has time to see what has happened. Some day someone will write a book about the alteration of English manners that took place during the Great War. I believe the alteration is largely due to these Government hirelings whose duty it is to make railway travel a burden and never to say "Please" or "Thank you."

Even now, however, there are compensations. In the morning the shadows are long, and, as one rattles north among the water-meadows, the flying plumes of the engine leave a procession of melting silhouettes on the fields to the west. Rooks oar their way towards their homes with long twigs in their beaks. Horses go through the last days of their kingship dragging ploughs and harrows over the fields with slow and monotonous tread. Here a hill has been ploughed into a sea of little brown waves. Further on a meadow is already bright with the green of winter-sown corn. The country has never been so laboured before. Chalk and sand and brown earth and red are all being turned up and broken and bathed in the sun and wind. Adam has begun to delve again. There is the urgency of life in fields long idle. It is not that the fields have become populous. One sees many laboured fields, but little labour. The occasional plough-horse, however, brings strength into the stillness. How noble a figure of energy he makes!

As for us who sit in the railway train, we do not look at him much. We are all either reading papers or talking. Two old men, bearded and greasy-coated, tramps of a bygone era, sit opposite one another and neither read nor talk. One of them is blear-eyed and coughs, and has an unclean moustache. All his friend ever says to him is: "Clean your nose," making an impatient gesture. A young man in a bowler hat and spectacles, who smokes a pipe in inward-drawn lips, discusses the Labour situation with some acquaintances. "They would be all right," he explains, "if it wasn't for the Labour leaders. You know what a Labour leader is. He's a chap that never did an honest day's work in his life. He finds it pays better to jaw than to work, and I don't blame him. After all, it's human nature. Every man's out to do the best for himself, isn't he?" "Your nose--blow your nose," mumbled the tramp across the carriage. "Take Australia," continues the young man; "they've had Labour Governments in Australia. What good did they do for the working man? Did they satisfy him? Why, there were more strikes in Australia under the Labour Government than there ever had been before." "Did you hear that, Johnny?" I heard another voice saying. "A tame rabbit was sold Sat'day in Guildford market for twelve-and-sixpence!" "How did they know it was a tame one?" "Ah, now you're asking!" A man looked up from _The Morning Post_ with interest in his face. "Why," he said, "is a tame rabbit considered to be better eating than a wild one?" It was explained to him that wild rabbits were often kept for a long time after they were killed, and were therefore regarded as more dangerous. Otherwise, the tame rabbit had no point of superiority. "What do _you_ say, Johnny?" Johnny had a fat face and no eyelashes, and wore a muffler instead of a collar. "I say, give me a wild one." The man with _The Morning Post_ went on to talk about rabbits and the price at which he had sold them. At intervals, during everything he said, Johnny kept nodding and saying, with a smile of relish: "Give me a wild one!" He said it even when the talk had drifted altogether away from rabbits. He went on repeating it to himself in lower tones, as though at last he had found a thought that suited him. "Municipalisation means jobbery," said the young man with the bowler hat; "look at the County Council tramways." "Give me a wild one," said Johnny, in a dreamy whisper; "I say, give me a wild one." "Why, it stands to reason, if you have a friend, and you see a chance of shovin' him into a job at the public expense, you'll do it, won't you?" said the young man, addressing the reader of _The Morning Post_, who merely cleared his throat nervously in answer. "It's human nature," said the young man. "Give me a wild one" whispered Johnny. "I'm afraid there's going to be trouble in Ireland," the man with _The Morning Post_ turned the subject. The young man was ready for him. "There will always be trouble in Ireland," he said, with what the novelists describe as a curl of his lip, "so long as Ireland exists." The tramp continued to mumble about the condition of his friend's nose, Johnny relapsed into silence, and the young man made the man with _The Morning Post_ tremble by a horrible picture of what the country would be like under a Labour Government. "It would be all U.P.," he said firmly; "all up...." Who would travel in such days if he could possibly avoid it?

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: In The Train