Trains and cars and planes, as Bacharach and David might have put it, though that would perhaps sounded a little less romantic than the actual line. So after Heathrow airport and the M62, the train. The train journey and the railway station have long been part of the language of songs. The record that sparked off the skiffle era in Britain, which in turn provided the catalyst for the Beatles and the other early sixties groups-Rock Island Line – was about a train and recent comments on this blog have pointed out just how many train songs there have been. Many have titles and lyrics that shimmer with the promise of adventure and exotic travel: Marrakesh Express, Trans-Europe Express, This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. I did, however, experience a tinge of disappointment in reading that the last train of the day from L.A to Georgia leaves at 2.30pm and that leaving on the midnight train would never really be feasible.
As with driving songs, however, songs about trains show a difference in the American and British perspective. The American genre tends to be in the spirit of car songs, heading off west to unexplored territory with the spirit of independence "Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance”, sang Paul Simon, calling to mind the travel writer Paul Theroux’s comment: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”
There are far fewer songs in the English version of this genre and the perspectives tend to be different. As with motorways, there isn’t the physical space to imagine an expanding frontier so trains and stations have come to symbolise something else in songs. In part, they mean departure, the train pulling out and loss. UB 40’s She Caught the Train (‘They said she'd take the train ,I ran to catch the train, Oh my, the train is gone’) or The Sundays’ Cry (‘I’m standing on a platform, Now I’m staring from a train’). However, in England they can also signify a journey that is less about entering physical space and more about another dimension-the past, real or mythical. The age of the steam train and all it signified in terms of a different picture of England hangs heavy still, decades after it passed away, which is why The Railway Children became such an iconic film for some people.
The song here, I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock, picks up on this idea of trains as metaphor, mixed up with some semi-Freudian analysis of a relationship. It is from his 1984 album of the same name, which also included another set of musings on transport from days past, Trams of Old London (‘Trams of Old London, taking my baby into the past...on a clear night you can see where the rails used to be’). Robyn Hitchcock was/is something of an acquired taste. Some of his work is very reminiscent of the post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, though perhaps more self-conscious, with an eccentric, surreal, at times whimsical, Englishness also found in artists like Viv Stanshall of the Bonzos.
I Often Dream of Trains is a characteristically odd mix of the banal and poetic imagination. There is the image of a train beside a frozen lake and summer turning to winter overnight, painting a rather dream-like and stark landscape suddenly brought down with a bump to the destinations of Reading and Basingstoke, presumably picked for the ordinariness. I once lived in Reading –judged at one time as the most average town in Britain - for four years and had several train journeys to it, none of which I have ever dreamed about. I also once saw a TV interview with Pete Staples of The Troggs, who hailed from Basingstoke’s neighbouring town of Andover. He remarked something like ‘There was a lot going on in Andover. It wasn’t like, well, Basingstoke.’
The surreal bit about this is that the train journey in the real world here doesn’t exist either. Hitchcock has described it as “a kind of imaginary route in my head that goes from Southampton to Oxford. I don't think it ever really existed, but I often find myself on it, in a very old railway carriage,” It’s the sort of train journey that might well go through Adlestrop-the station of Edward Thomas’s famous poem of the same name-as well as Basingstoke. Trains, particularly in England, can sometimes retain the romance of travel longer when they stay in the imagination.
Link to song