Madeleine Thien has, bravely I think, chosen to write about a particular evil reality. Through Janie she unveils a dreadful truth.
Mind the Gap, part II, by Kenneth Radu
I don’t think one can really be private anymore in English train stations or trains, not the way one could in Trevor Howard’s and Celia Johnson’s day. On a chilly, rain-blustering kind of day, sitting in the waiting room in Keighley, Yorkshire, waiting for my train to arrive, I was reminded by a pleasant voice over the loudspeaker. Please report suspicious activity (no more specific than that); please do not leave personal items or luggage unattended, or they might be, as the recorded message politely proclaimed in the red and yellow Victorian station, destroyed or damaged by security personnel.
Keighley Station, Yorkshire
Like many such stations Keighley (pronounced Keith) station was built in the nineteenth century when parcels could well have been left unattended, like the handbag in The Importance of Being Earnest, without fear of reprisals or secret service agents springing out of hidden corners. Many visitors to England are familiar with the overarching and imposing stations like King’s Cross-St. Pancras, Marylebone, and Waterloo, all suggesting Gothic cathedrals, inspired perhaps by Paxton’s Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. And they do impress: marvels of technological ingenuity, and the seductions of material progress. Clapham Junction, for example, where I had to make a connection to travel to Cornwall, is a terminal for hundreds of trains, possibly a thousand or more. Such stations are testaments to the imperial past of England, the countless miles of tracks, and contemporary necessities. How would the English manage without their trains?
King's Cross-St. Pancras, London
To be sure, the idea of trains cutting through the green and pleasant fields of England aroused opposition as most technological transformations of the landscape do. Mrs. Gaskell writes about it in Cranford and John Ruskin, more famous for love of stones than sex, dismissed any notion that train stations, however functional, could also be beautiful. Ornamentation which serves no purpose except to please the eye is one of the outstanding features of Keighley. Trains, however, have more to do with commerce than aesthetics, Ruskin oddly argued, and the two should not combine. He writes in The Seven Lamps that you “must not mix ornamentation with business any more than you mix play… Will a single traveller be willing to pay an increased fare on the South Western, because the columns of the terminus are covered with patterns from Nineveh?” Neither architects of the old stations – intimate or palatial, original or renovated as many were over the decades – nor travellers paid attention, although to this day no train disturbs Ruskin’s Brantwood neighbourhood in the Lake District.
Given the times, Ruskin did not write about security and privacy, nor the gap. For some reason, on both underground and above ground trains, a rather dangerous gap often exists between platform and train. One’s immediate concern is not to slip into the space and do bodily harm, apprehensions of terrorist attack quite aside. A new definition of privacy in public space: cameras on corners, in corridors, in chambers, tube and train stations under CCTV (closed-circuit television); messages in print and announced over loudspeakers in waiting rooms and rail cars. A network of benign Orwellianism, if that is not a contradiction in terms, in the name of public safety and national security has spread over the English kingdom, and makes illicit passion rather difficult to perform in stations and on trains. Airports are not exempt as far as security is concerned. Airports, however, lack the intimacy and still human-scale of the old train stations, and none were built in the nineteenth century. We love the nineteenth century, especially our notions of it derived from Masterpiece Theatre and Christmas.
Public space is now crowded with permanent suspicion. I mentioned the surveillance to a fellow traveller (not the passion part) on the train who was reading The Times. If you’re not doing anything wrong, no need to worry, is there? A common observation that spectacularly misses the point. But then I may well be spectacularly naive, trundling on the surface of the rails, observing people and landscapes, and ignoring political context and perspective. Although such warnings were common enough in the past, I am told, given various wars, insurrections, and the IRA assassination of Lord Mountbatten, they now have a quiet urgency about them and remind us of three actual, horrific attacks of the London Underground trains on July 7, 2005, one of which detonated on the southbound Piccadilly Line less than a minute after it departed from King’s Cross-St. Pancras on its way to Russell Square. During my stay in London I took that train every day, walking from my temporary residence on Russell Square to the tube station. What occurred below ground with devastating consequences can be repeated above. Please report suspicious activity.
Witnessing none, I was happy to indulge in fantasy and the utter pleasure of train riding and the aesthetic delights of such old train stations like the red and yellow Keighley.The horrors of our day notwithstanding, in England and elsewhere, it is much more pleasant travelling on rails above ground with good spirits than suppressing incipient panic in tunnels below. Train stations engage one’s heart and fancies more than subway platforms. Not long ago I saw the extraordinary Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, a Josef von Sternberg movie with wonderful black and white cinematography, much of which occurs on a train. In the film Dietrich utters the magnificent line, “it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Presumably not all on the train, but one is allowed to imagine so.
© Kenneth Radu, 2012
Photos courtesy Kenneth Radu
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC in the not too distant future. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.