The Spice of Life and Other Essays/The Lost Railway Station

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I am writing this as best I may in a Scottish railway station; and my thoughts go back, with all the pathos of the patriot, to an English railway station. Trucks and rails may seem to lack the fine shades of variety to be felt in the trees and hills of home; but my fancy really flies to an English railway station where I once dreamed a dream.

There is in the north of London an important station, which is by comparison as quiet and comfortable as the courtyard of an old inn. I do not know why this repose rests upon it, for a considerable train service is connected with it. It has the usual bookstall, at which I have bought all the bloodiest detective stories I could find; various refreshment bars at which I have bought various other things; and all the usual fittings of such a place. But in the centre there stands a fountain, and not far from it a large model of an ocean liner. Something about the look of the fountain and the surrounding hostelries, jutting out on opposite sides, reminds me absurdly of the market-place of a village; though perhaps something of a pantomime village. I can imagine the village maiden leaning gracefully on the fountain with a jar or jug or bucket; though I hasten to admit that I have never seen her do so. I can even conceive that the little boy who ran away to sea (that picturesque figure, whose presence, or rather absence, is so essential to the health of the happy village) drank in all his desire of seafaring adventure at the ends of the earth by looking at the toy liner. His white-haired mother would still be waiting for him - presumably in the waiting room. In short, I have always felt that I could fill this place with all the recognized romantic figures of rural life, in fiction if not in fact.

I wonder what would really happen if in some special convulsion that station were really cut off and left to live its own simple life, like a farm surrounded by floods, or a hamlet snowed up in the mountains. It pleases me to fancy that a railway strike might go on so long that people forgot the very purpose of a railway station. Railway porters would not even know that they were railway porters; and even the stationmaster would be ignorant of the mysterious secret of his mastery. Most of us have had a fancy that all society is like that strange railway station; that its social actions have some hieratic significance lost before the beginning of history; that it was made it knows not why; and is waiting for it knows not what. For the end of such a play or parable would be something truly terrific, like the Day of Judgment. When the signals changed colours at last, it would truly be like the moon turning to blood in the Apocalypse. Something utterly unthinkable, like the thunder and the seals and trumpets of the Last Day, would transform my quiet railway-station. A train would come in at last.

But my fancy chiefly rests on the remote generations of the future in this simple community, descended from the original primitive marriages between a few railway porters and a few barmaids. By that time the little commonwealth ought to have a whole tangle of traditions ultimately to be traced back to the lost idea of a train. Perhaps people would still go religiously to the ticket-office at intervals, as to a kind of confessional box; and there recite the names of far-off and by this time fabulous places; the word `Harrow' sounding like the word `Heaven' or the word `Ealing' like the word `Eden'. For this society would of course, like every other, produce sceptics; that is men who had lost their social memory. All sorts of quaint ceremonials would survive, and would be scoffed at as irrational, because their rational origin had been obscured. At a date centuries hence, the clock in the refreshment room would still be kept a little fast, as compared with the clock in the station. There would be most complicated controversies about this custom; turning on things behind the times and things in advance of the age. The bookstall would have come to be something like the Bodleian or the great lost library of Alexandria; a storehouse of ancestral documents of primitive antiquity and profound obscurity; and learned men would be found spelling their way through a paragraph in one of our daily papers, deluded with the ever-vanishing hope of finding a sort of human meaning in it. The fountain seems to be the only possible religious centre of the village; though I think the mysterious image of the great ship should be the type of some faint adventurous memory and adventurous hope; a vague hint of things beyond; perhaps a great legend like that of the Argo. But a fountain is clearly the more human and historic site for a shrine. It would be dedicated, I hope, to a saint; as are so many springs and wells all over Christendom. And now I come to think of it, the very name of this railway station, like so much also that sounds cockney and commonplace, has an origin presumably religious. There could hardly be a more beautiful combination of words and ideas than that which I imagine to lie behind the prosaic name of Marylebone.

I had intended to draw a moral, or many morals from this vision. I had intended to point out how much our own society suffers from a similar paradox; not that its institutions are meaningless; but on the contrary, that they have a meaning, which would be found again if the society woke up and went to work again. It is only because they are asleep that they seem to be senseless. If the trains were running, if the traditions were working, the traditions would be instantly recognized as reasonable. Thus the modern world does not really suffer from scurry, but rather from slumber. I had in mind especially what I may call the Allegory of the Lost Luggage, or of the Cloak Room, which is concerned with the philosophy of property. Property is still being defended by a dim sense of duty; though it is really held up in transit and accumulated in the wrong place. But I cannot pursue my guess; for something has happened in the Scotch railway station which dissipates all my dreams of the happier English railway station. My train has come in.