29 Apr 2010

I uncover my inner train geek

I didn’t think I would love it so much, the hoot of the engine cutting through the quiet morning haze, followed by the low chug-chug as the great weight shifts forward and is enveloped in the white cloud of steam. Or the sight of the coal piled high next to the engine, the whiff of it as the train passes by.
I had always thought train museums were for men. They like that sort of thing - monuments to testosterone and hard graft, feats of engineering. As a woman my instincts usually lead me to more refined aspects of history: sweeping, dramatic graveyards or the lolling green slopes leading away from a grand country mansion.
But with time to spare before the more genteel Kinneil House would be open, I pay my pound and enter the Scottish Railway Museum, which is located just outside the town centre in Bo’ness and run by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society.

The cold from the cement underfoot filters through the scent of steel and old oil and reminds me of years spent living with an auto mechanic, the almost sweet smell of his blackened hands after a day at work.

Somewhere in between it all are the lingering hints of coal dust and the microscopic silent plumes that stir around aging wooden planks.
The mute face of a 1961 diesel locomotive stares off toward the horizon it will never again try to chase. The once luxurious first class carriage from 1923 looks so inviting yet somehow untouchable, like there are already people in those seats, waiting to go. It's just that I can’t see them, and they can’t see me.
I can't get enough of the old posters that advertise the best in rail travel holidays.

A dog sits next to a stack of luggage, while a child gazes up at the fantastic machine, daring to dream he will one day travel on the Flying Scotsman.

Another boasts the speed of the London to Aberdeen night train: 525 miles in just 10 hours.

One of the show rooms features the simple flourish of a stack of worn suitcases and crates, all ready to be loaded into the luggage compartment.

All around me the quiet giants lie still, but in the corner there is a brilliant clutter of sound which seems to seep between the metal corpses and tickle them with life.

Playing on a loop on an old television is the 1936 film Night Mail, a PR documentary made for the Royal Mail to highlight the efficiency of the down postal, which ran overnight from London to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

To add beauty and drama to the film they included a reading of W.H. Auden’s poem, Nightmail, which is performed in a way that matches the clickity-clack rhythm of the journey, underlying the eagerness with which people held on to the promise of a letter. (“For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”)

There is something sad about the place, because of the perception it gives us of the way things used to be. How simple, how straight-forward.

Yet also how grand, because it shows how a complex puzzle can be overcome when repeatedly approached with the same uncompromising strategy. The people involved play the parts like cogs in a wheel, creating a seamless magic show for those watching.

I love the Railway Museum. It is a place teeming with stories, an endless parade of characters just waiting for some intuitive hand to draw them back into the world so they can carry on with their day. The woman in first class, going to visit her lover. The engineman with soot around his eyes. The porter hauling bags for passengers. They’re there - I swear they are.

************BLOG NEWS**********************
Thanks for visiting my blog today. A bit of a news announcement for the members of the accidentally formed Scotland for the Senses book group. There is a small clan of us who have bravely signed up to read the 700-page Scotland: Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnusson.

I spoke with Susan, the winner of the recent book giveaway, and in order to work around busy life schedules we are going to aim for 4-5 chapters a week. A new discussion tab will be available on my Facebook page for us to get started with our feedback.

If you’re not on Facebook feel free to email me comments you want to share, or post updates on your own blog and let me know so we can read each other’s views that way.

So open those books and let’s get reading about Scotland’s incredible (and long!) history.

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