Once the land was bound with iron veins
along which ran wagons of the stuffs of life;
like the human body mapped and spread,
supplied with coal and oil to feed its parts,
fish, vegetables and grain ran on the rails:
that coy depiction of unseemly flesh
and its organic insensitivities
my schoolbook’s imagination left to mine.
In the real and living earth, wheals and scars
of the robber barons’ steam powered lash
cleft cuts, raised embankments between the towns,
trades and industries, withered now and dead,
wreathed in willow herb and brambles, scraped
and crusted with retail parks, brown site development,
steel vines obliterated under great warehouse sheds.
Bridges in new wilderness, viaducts to nowhere,
tunnels dug so many men to the mile,
now blocked, fallen in. Bikers and walkers
crush wild strawberries upon the chippings;
cuttings slide back to valleys, linear copses
clotted in ash, hawthorn, elder, sloe, birch…
An old coat of a landscape, old tickets and stubs
wadded and gritted in the pocket seams,
crudding up the fingernails in soot and rime
that scratches deep the iron in the veins,
the red smell of wet rust and steam and smoke
dense as the pipe-fogged fluted hardboard office
where my Grandad worked amid the steam cranes’ clangour
echoing up the estuary below the crumbled fort,
writing dockets and weighbills for freight
beside the booming orange funnelled ferries.
Between the point levers and rails, hand in his,
we walked to lean on a fence, look into the turntable’s pit.
Then, over the grey-green Ouse, and up Church Hill
past Grandad's bowls club to the council flat
and tea in the window where the Seven Sisters’ gleam
beckoned to the continent no rail then reached.
The old fort, harbour, little town cluttering
the chalk cleft was too dangerous in war;
my Dad’s evacuated boyhood turned inland
to the asphalt warmth of Wimbourne’s sunlit platforms,
engraining in him the oily grime and rusty course
of railway dreams whose shadows played on
in transport books for kids, a novel of navvies,
and walks on the walks on paths
deserted in the national loss of iron faith.
So too my mother, the Great Western town
she grew in shaped and moulded to the gauge,
its shutting down for Trip Week, her tale of Alfred
biking home from the works to learn his Greek.
A town of engineering works and wheels
filling roads between the shifts as men rode
six abreast in tidal flows. Brunel’s pebble
rippled on a century and a half; but now is still.
The boy I was pocketed red ochre nuts
along the old uprooted branch to Highworth
incline signs peeling midst the uncut grass,
lizards darting back into the clefted brick
before my summer tread. On frosty days
I puffed out my breath across the fields,
labouring like a pannier hauling its little freight
above the willows and down between the haws.
Perhaps it’s in the blood somehow, a religion
of young boys – and old and knowledgeable men,
with esoteric jokes about modelling anomalies,
unlikely rakes behind odd engines on displays,
erroneous workings passed around the railway shops
to intimidate Sodor’s children at the feast
of liveries, running on blind enthusiasm,
the eclectic and mythic diversity accepting
all stocks, all regions on the isle’s endless circuit
where, from bridges, short trousered boys wave caps
and talk in piping tones to drivers. That’s gone,
the incense of oil, soot and steam beside the platform,
my father’s hand round mine before the black and massive
mystery of grease and whirling rods beneath the canopy
of Borough Green, the sunlit shunting yard,
the hum of electric sets grinding out sparks.
Squinting to find the eye-line of OO men,
these scenes re-enacted in the living room,
circuiting an oval on a table top, where
hardboard and scrapwood station stood.
Sometimes with the lights turned off
the switcher’s beams would search around the walls
desperately circling before the inevitable fall,
the romance of the dying engineer, the C&O,
the Wabash Cannonball, a-steaming and a-rolling,
even blackleg Casey must get the old train through
along the sooty, rusty valleys turning in the mind,
the urgent tracks where the valiant run on time.
That old electric smell of dust and cardboard
seized me in a junk shop; I bought a piece
of someone else’s childhood. On the table
I showed the kids the fractured chassis
and patched it with their yoghurts’ plastic scrap.
A new landscape stirs from the chipboard:
wadded newsprint, styrene banks, card and bark
through which the rails flow under, over,
and engines repainted in their names hammer round.
German pacific, Shinties, ALCOs, Flying Scot,
the scenery never quite fixed down, elusive
Deltic prototype half built, a railroad smorgasbord,
recreation more than re-creation, whims and myths
snatched from grainy photographs. Old liveries,
long scrapped giants form the vocabulary
my son spells out from Colin Garratt and OS Nock,
a litany of types and stations that now might not
have ever been. My Grandad, Dad, Mother
and railway worker uncle smiling at a Brownie,
sun slanting through the cast iron canopy frame,
suitcases by the carriage door, the pilot backs away.
The trip to
up north to my student years, the announcer’s
measured call of all the stations home,
the finality of the slam door and the whistle,
all trains offer some escape. Here in this extended O,
this trail with no end or beginning, no timetable,
no definite character yet formed of its paper hills;
everywhere and nowhere, even the cardboard station
replicates a building in the local woods
derailed some sixty years ago, time melds ages,
the whim of a Saturday afternoon, a day with Thomas,
rocking, rolling, riding, Darmouth on to Hythe,
The human map re-invents itself. Old lines
are ploughed back under fields, make beds for roads,
the Flying Scotsman’s Chinese replica nameplates
amongst the diesel electric manuals at car boots,
the coy coal-fired depiction of the flesh now all gas
and motorways, the Evening Star shines up in
We look up from the retail park at some blind worm’s roar,
red and silver, burrowing through the landscape
to the future, and it’s gone.