The Sound of the Railway

The Sound of the RailwayThe sound of the railway reaches us from afar: the distant rumble of goods carriages transporting freight between depots, the electric hum of a high-speed passenger train shuttling journey makers along the stretches of track that link up cities and towns, the occasional sound of a horn-blast, muffled as it enters into the stagnant air of a tunnel, the twitch of warping tracks, the growl of a diesel engine labouring under its load. And almost always, these sounds pass us by unnoticed, blending almost imperceptibly into the urban milieu. Seldom do we pause to reflect upon their existence, and rarer still do our minds stray over the barbed-wire fences into the domain from which they emanate.

Occasionally however, these sounds can lead us elsewhere, taking us on a flight of the imagination, conjuring up a sort of urban mythology that shrouds the no-man’s-land that is the railway. The scene is familiar: it is dark, late at night. Shadowy figures lurk beneath a stone bridge. The smell of diesel oil lingers in the air. The streets are deserted, the light murky. Something is afoot, yet what it is we do not know. A briefcase changes hands. The barrel of a gun glistens in the night. Cold steel. A sudden movement, a flash. A low blow sends one of the figures buckling to the ground. The camera cuts back, just in time to reveal the lights of train carriages passing in rapid succession over the bridge. The victim’s cries are lost amidst the din as his body slumps to the ground, his assailants stealing off into the night, briefcase in hand, leaving the echo of the train playing out behind them. Sinister figures, dark city.

Yet were we to reflect further, it might also become clear that—excepting the cases of workies and certain deviant elements of society, such as graffiti writers—the railway is not a place for being. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is only ever experienced as part of a journey: we are always coming from somewhere, always going to somewhere. Think of the suited businessman on the way to his morning meeting, looking out bleary-eyed over sun-dappled fields, the face of Willy Loman dreaming of that big sale; or the expectant lover, counting the minutes until he will see his betrothed, a box of chocolates wrapped neatly in a brown paper bag and a dog-eared copy of War and Peace gripped tightly in his hands; a family setting out on their on their holidays; rowdy football fans returning from the game; an artist lost in his meditations, as he stares vacantly out the window, eyeballs flitting from side to side.

Here it would seem, lies something of the railway’s power, because as we hear the train passing by, we catch a glimpse of that frail travelling coincidence that so fascinated Philip Larkin, of a microcosmos in which people are revealed to us not as points but as vectors in space and time. Perhaps then, in that briefest of moments, a truth is revealed to us: perhaps the solitude of a space in which people exist as nothing more than transient particles causes us to recognize something of the fragility of our own worlds; or perhaps it serves to reaffirm our sense of presence, since for while they may be nowhere, we at least, are here, solid and sturdy, our feet planted firmly on the ground.

Perhaps though, the real power of those distant rumblings is that every once in a while, they cause us to break from the routine of our daily lives, allowing us to discover the momentary excitement of an exotic whiff of a world beyond our own, at once tempered by the bittersweet solace of sounds that come from a space that ultimately serves to compound the anonymity and isolation of the modern-day urban experience.

Illustration © 2011 Studio Monik. All rights reserved.



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