Sunday, 21 June 2015

Calling A Halt

I've loved travelling by train since I was a baby, and had family living either side of the River Ribble. Our family - Mum. Dad and me in Layton from 1948. Mum's younger sister, Connie, her husband, Frank, and Nan, my maternal grandmother, near North Station. The other three Panther sisters, Marion, Madge and Phyllis and their families, lived in Southport. So until Dr. Beeching wielded his axe in the early 1960s, there was frequent to-ing and fro-ing, and I learned to love trains.
Also school soon provided "train poems" for me to enjoy, not least Auden's Night Mail with its wonderful imitation of in metre of the train chugging along the tracks -
"This is the Night Mail
crossing the border,
bringing the letter
and the postal order..." 

That love affair with rail in verse continued through childhood and teens as rail travel and stations began to acquire a romantic significance via films such as Brief Encounter, and the mystery of why some trains were beset by unscheduled halts as in Adlestrop, which seemed nothing much of a poem when I first encountered it at, say, fourteen or fifteen, but has stuck with me for more than fifty years:
by Edward Thomas
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas 1878–1917
Source: Poems (1917)

Through researching Thomas and the poem I have come to have a much enhanced understanding of the Victorian and Edwardian eras of my grandparents, and WWI and the 1920s during which my parents were growing to adulthood.

The unscheduled halt has provided poetic inspiration for other poets whose work I admire too such as Dannie Abse:

Not Adlestrop
by Dannie Abse
Not Adlestrop, no - besides, the name
hardly matters. Nor did I languish in June heat.
Simply, I stood, too early, on the empty platform,
and the wrong train came in slowly, surprised, stopped.
Directly facing me, from a window,
a very, very pretty girl leaned out.

When I, all instinct,
stared at her, she, all instinct, inclined her head away
as if she'd divined the much married life in me,
or as if she might spot, up platform,
some unlikely familiar.

For my part, under the clock, I continued
my scrutiny with unmitigated pleasure.
And she knew it, she certainly knew it, and would
not glance at me in the silence of not Adlestrop.

Only when the train heaved noisily, only
when it jolted, when it slid away, only then,
daring and secure, she smiled back at my smile,
and I, daring and secure, waved back at her waving.
And so it was, all the way down the hurrying platform
as the train gathered atrocious speed
towards Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire.

Dannie Abse
from Collected Poems, 1948-1976, Hutchinson, London 1977

Even later comes this collection by a current favourite poet, Carole Bromley, a fellow-member with me and over 500 of us on Jo Bell's terrific 2014 Project 52 which recently received a Sabtage Award - the title poem is called Unscheduled Halt and recall vividly a train journey through France which unaccountably stops at Lille.

The chapbook costs very little, perhaps £5.00, from Inpress and is a Smith Doorstep publication which I'd urge you to buy.

But the Calling A Halt which has been most imprtant to my life recently has nothing to do with trains - the HALT was my deciding to quit smoking eight years ago in April 2007.  I have smoked cigarettes from the age of fourteen, and wasted a small fortune on my nicotine addiction, but the Calling A Halt, aided by patches prescribed by one of our GPs until the constant yearning has subsided, is one of the best decisions I have ever taken.  I still quite often dream that I am smoking, but that does my constitution no harm.

Hope you have enjoyed this meander.  It is fun being Guest Blogger from time to time.
Christo Heyworth


Lady Curt said...

I loved both accounts of the 'halted' train. As a child I frequently travelled on the Flying Scotsman between our London home and grandparents in Scotland. One always wore one's best garments to travel and I recall the itchy moquette under my legs ! Furthermore when we crossed the Forth Bridge we threw out a penny for luck. Recently I travelled North and all the windows are sealed on the trains nowadays...I wonder how many coins made it to the sea below and how many were collected by railway workers ! ?

Adele said...

Faster than faeries,
Faster than witches,
bridges and houses,
hedges and ditches.....

Childhood train poetry that never leaves.

As an eleven year old, I went on the Dover night sleeper to catch the boat to Calais. It was so exciting. Happy days.

Thanks for this lovely post Christo.