There was an interesting film on BBC TV 4, presented by the detective fiction novelist Andrew Martin, about the relationship between railways and literature. Luckily, many of the books and stories he mentioned have been turned into TV films – so there were plenty of clips too.
You can watch the film on iplayer, here
or, you can check box-of-broadcasts with your UAL login.
Martin used quotes from Dickens, Trollope, Conan-Doyle, Agatha Christie and John Betjeman, amongst others, to describe the general literary reaction to the railway machine-ensemble. This moved from horror and despair, to the gothic, the romantic, and the nostalgic.
This was all seemed quite straightforward, except it was the wrong-way-around.
Andrew’s point seemed to suggest that it was people and society that moulded the railway system into something more friendly and useful. It was as if society tamed the machine-ensemble.
But, you could also say that it was the machine-ensemble that disciplined society. This is an idea, expressed by Marshall McLuhan who said – first we make our tools, and then our tools form us.
From that perspective, the “railway man” is worth looking at carefully. He’s not the young boy on the platform, or the old guy snoozing in the afternoon compartment – he’s the commuter who arrives at the station with seconds to spare, and waits on the exact same spot for the same train every morning. Who knows, he may even sit in the same seat every day.
That’s a story worth telling…