Saturday, 22 August 2009

On the slow train

This song by Flanders and Swann about the Beeching cuts never fails to make my eyes moist:

It has the same effect on my favourite radio DJ, Stuart Maconie, who in his recent book Adventures on the High Teas says it ‘will have anyone with a heart dabbing at their eyes within a verse’. How strange that it should make us both cry when:

1. Neither of us has any memory of the pre-Beeching era, so we might as well be getting nostalgic about a dream.

2. Many of the railway stations that Michael Flanders incants, with their beautifully evocative names, actually escaped the Beeching axe. I heard the song being played on Alan Titchmarsh’s show on radio 2 last Sunday and he blamed these discrepancies on Flanders getting the list of doomed stations from the Guardian. Dunno if that’s true …

3. As Matthew Engel points out in his new book, Eleven Minutes Late, the branch lines have only been loved posthumously. ‘The elite expresses sped past thousands of slow, dirty trains carrying disgruntled commuters dreaming of a new motor car,’ he writes of the pre-Beeching era. ‘To use an old Lancastrianism, what Britain had was a fur-coat-and-no-knickers railway, the opulence of the show disguising the threadbare reality underneath.’

What is sentimentality? In his book Dog Years, the American poet Mark Doty describes it thus:

‘That’s how sentimentality works, replacing particularity with a warm fog of acceptable feeling, the difficult exact stuff of individual character with the vagueness of convention. Sentimental assertions are always a form of detachment; they confront the acute, terrible awareness of individual pain, the sharp particularity of loss or the fierce individuality of passion with the dulling, “universal” certainty of platitude.

'The oversweetened surface of the sentimental exists in order to protect its maker, as well as the audience, from anger. At the beautiful image refusing to hold, at the tenderness we bring to the objects of the world – our eagerness to love, make a home, build connection, trust the other – how all of that’s so readily swept away. Sentimental images of children and of animals, soppy representations of love - they are fuelled, in truth, by their opposites, by a terrible human rage that nothing stays. The greeting card verse, the airbrushed rainbow, the sweet puppy face on the fleecy pink sweatshirt – these images do not honor the world as it is, in its complexity and individuality, but distort things in apparent service of a warm embrace … in this way, the sentimental represents a rage against individuality, the singular, the irreplaceable.’

As an English, male academic I suppose I am meant to be suspicious of sentimentality and this passage by Doty is the most eloquent example I have seen of the case against. But I just don’t have the heart to be unsentimental. I think in this case it has a lot to do with the softly sonorous quality of Michael Flanders’s voice, like being gently lowered into a warm bath of deep Englishness. What a powerful and omnivorous human urge nostalgia is.

PS Not my usual bolthole but I had a couple of pieces in The Times this week that you can read at:

1 comment:

  1. I love train travel. I'm going to Exeter by train on Friday, and really looking forward to it! My favourite song about trains is: 'A Poem on the Underground Wall' by Art Garfunkel. I think I shall have to buy Matthew Engel's book.