One of my worst and most embarrassing failures as a journalist was my attempt to interview Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister. It happened on a train near Cambridge. He was 83. I was 26. He physically fought me off, declaring in a quavering voice, “I don’t want to be interviewed; I’m much too old for that sort of thing,” as he jabbed fiercely (and quite painfully) at me with his gnarled walking stick.
Too old? Just a few years later that same wily showman drove a memorable stiletto into Margaret Thatcher’s ribs, using the same falsely quavering voice to attack her policy of selling off national assets. But I remember the humiliating occasion of my failed interview for another reason. Macmillan was able to drive me away partly because he was occupying an entire first-class compartment, reserved for him personally, on the London express. Compartments—oh, how I miss them—had sliding doors, which cut them off from the rest of the train. You could even pull the blinds down between you and the corridor. They could be marvelous private spaces for all kinds of purposes on long journeys. But you had to be lucky to get one to yourself. Once the ex-premier had driven me out, he was safe.
But Macmillan (who in those days had not given into vanity and accepted a peerage) did not have to be lucky. He had once been a director of the Great Western Railway, which had been taken into state ownership in the 1940s. So to the end of his life (in compensation for his lost power) he possessed a magical shiny token called a Gold Pass. This entitled him to free first-class travel, without limit, on any train in Great Britain. It was even rumored that it gave him the power to have trains stopped for him at stations where they did not normally halt. I often thought I would rather have such a pass than be prime minister.
Why is it that I love, or used to love, trains so much? I thought about this often when I was effectively banned, by the virus, from my normal daily journey between Oxford and London, 63 miles each way. Even now, in bare modern trains systematically stripped of character and romance, there can be a glorious seclusion in a long-distance train that does not stop too much. The soft and distant landscape rolls by, and at any time I can look up and see a familiar hill, church, or stretch of woodland. I can name much of what I see, and have walked over a great deal of it, purposely seeking to know the land better. If I am traveling from the North of England to London, I always try to change at York, to the hourly nonstop train to the capital. The feeling of peace and irresponsibility that spreads through me as the train heaves itself out of the station is a special joy. For two hours nobody can bother me. For two hours I will not be disturbed. For two hours I will be enclosed in a warm and comfortable space, again passing through familiar towns and fields along the route so wonderfully described by Philip Larkin in “The Whitsun Weddings,” until the brakes tighten and I am in prosaic London. And it seems to me that everyone else on that train will be similarly calmed and soothed.
Of course, the accursed cell phone and the even more accursed smartphone have penetrated the seclusion. And alas, there are no more dining cars, a delight now almost completely abolished by spiteful managements, and available mainly on ridiculous super-luxury trains such as the pastiche Orient Express. Yet no restaurant meal I have ever had, including the pressed duck at the old Tour D’Argent in Paris (before it became a museum where you could eat the exhibits), has surpassed the breakfasts, lunches, teas, and dinners I have eaten in trains.
I think of the wonderful bacon and eggs, accompanied by soda bread, on the cross-border Belfast-to-Dublin flyer in Ireland; the vast plates of pork and dumplings accompanied by Pilsener beer on the somnolent Zapadny Express from Nuremberg to Prague; the fresh pancakes and maple syrup at breakfast on the California Limited, with antelopes fleeing from the train somewhere between Dodge City and Albuquerque; the first sip of tea from the samovar, served in a glass in an ornate silver holder, on the Red Star night sleeper from Moscow to Leningrad; the first glass of wine on a sunny September evening as the Rome Express, an hour out of Paris, clattered southward past the faintly minatory cathedral tower at Sens. Then there were the toasted teacakes near Grantham on the southbound Flying Scotsman, and the superb galley-cooked steak on the upper deck of the Chicago-bound Capitol Limited, as it climbed westward through the evening into the forests beyond Harper’s Ferry and up the Potomac valley.
Evelyn Waugh conveyed a tiny part of this abolished, intense pleasure in one of my favorite passages of Brideshead Revisited:
The knives and forks jingled on the table as we sped through the darkness; the little circle of gin and vermouth contracted to oval, lengthened again with the sway of the carriage, lapped back again, touched the lip, never spilt. I was leaving the day behind me. Julia pulled off her hat and tossed it into the rack above her, and shook her night-dark hair with a little sigh of ease—a sigh fit for the pillow, the sinking firelight and a window open to the stars and the whisper of bare trees.
He was leaving the day behind him. And that is the trick of it. The whistle blows, the green flag waves, the door slams, the slow beat of the pistons accelerates, the grubby city slides away, and a flood of joyous irresponsibility sweeps across your being. You are in the midst of civilization, but secluded from it, allowed for a few hours to voyage across the sleek, comfortable, green parts of the map that city life denies you, probably with an alluring destination at the other end.
And then, I am wakened from my dream, as a flat, despotic voice drones over the public address system that, thanks to COVID-19, there will be no refreshments, that I must observe strict social distancing, and that I am obliged by law to wear a face covering or I will be fined. And the day I thought I had left behind me, with all its cares, weariness, and fretting, climbs back aboard the train and settles with a grunt into the seat alongside me, shoving its elbow into my midriff.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.
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