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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 March 2019

Stranded at York station, Malcolm Guite encounters something unexpected

I WAS in the railway station in York, among a group of disconsolate and displaced passengers, decanted out of various delayed or diverted trains, and left to stew on Platform 3, waiting for replacement services, when something superb and unexpected happened.

I was trying to get back to Cambridge from St Andrews, where I had enjoyed an intense and wonderful few days taking part in a close reading of Four Quartets. Indeed, some lines from “The Dry Salvages” had been going through my head: lines to the effect that we are never the same people at the end of the journey as we were when we left the station, or who “will arrive at any terminus”, when our train stopped suddenly just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and we were told that there was a broken-down train ahead of us. T. S. Eliot was right: we were going nowhere.

Eventually (in about the time it takes to read and digest Eliot’s Complete Poems), we limped into York, and I joined that group of other frustrated passengers looking for a fresh connection.

And that is when it happened. We were all looking at our watches, straining at changing departure boards, and listening to the scarcely audible garble of announcements, when a train did appear in the distance — but it was not one that any of us expected. With great clouds of white steam, with a glorious whistle sounding above the steady chuff-chuff, and the rhythm of its wheels, resplendent in its green and black livery, its brass plates polished and shining, the Flying Scotsman came proudly down the line, pulling a couple of old Pullman carriages, and stopped just beyond us with a satisfying sigh of hissing steam.

If the appearance of the train was unexpected and wonderful, the effect that it had on the people on that platform was even more so. Suddenly, the very same people who had been checking their watches, shouting, or scolding into their phones, sighing and frowning and complaining into the air, were all now smiling, standing, exclaiming to one another on how lovely it was, pressing pause on complaint forms or angry emails so as to take photos instead.

I have occasionally happened on platforms scheduled for the arrival of famous steam trains, and then, of course, everyone knows what’s coming: the place is crowded with enthusiasts taking photographs and checking numbers. But, on this occasion, the Scotsman had, I imagine, been just as delayed as we were, and no one was expecting its arrival. There was no reception committee; so it all felt unforced, natural, a sheer bonus.

And that is why it had the effect it did. All of us, myself included, were lifted unexpectedly out of our petty little cycles of self-pitying complaint, and forgot ourselves all together for a moment as this shining emblem of a bygone age arrived.

Was it just nostalgia? Partly, perhaps; but I don’t think anyone on that platform was necessarily a signed-up steam enthusiast. I think it’s partly because the engines of that era were and are, objectively, things of beauty, but mostly because anything that has been loved and cared for, restored from ruin, and treasured again, carries with it a kind of aura, a kind of benediction. And that goes for people as well as steam engines.

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