Trains weren't that vital to me when growing up in Aberystwyth and then Cambridge. There was the narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol and that important link to Carmarthen cut by Beeching, but I mostly travelled by coach. This changed when, as a 6th former , I became a pupil-commuter and , at the same time, started following footie across the country.
I once brought my bike on the train to go to a party in the city and cycled
home for the first time at night, slightly stocious(think that's a Belfast word). Every time a car's bright lights hit me face on, I veered off the narrow country road into a hedge or ditch. How I made it back I'll never know!
For football, I travelled to Tottenham, West Ham and even Birmingham . One time I shared the same carriage with several Spurs fans who, after they'd finished devouring my packed lunch, launched into a very measured trashing of the carriage and also attempted to throw coins out of windows and smash greenhouses.The game was snowed off.
Three of my favourite musicians have great songs about trains. Captain Beefheart's 'Click, Clack' is typically deranged but with a bluesy base . It's a song about being unable to get his woman who, we presume, is the same one who has gone off to New Orleans and deserted him. They are on two separate tracks (the 'click' and the 'clack'), going in opposite directions. The music seems to derail the trains, much like my bike-riding at night!
Tom Waits' 'Downtown Train' was reasonably well covered by Rod Stewart at one stage, though nobody really does a Waits song like the man himself. It's a melancholic ballad steeped in the blues like Beefheart, with a strange twist in the final verse. It tells of unrequited love, but in an obsessive way, with the narrator virtually a stalker. The opening is very atmospheric ('Outside another yellow moon / punched a hols in the nighttime'), but the train is slow and steady and you feel for the loneliness of the narrator.
Thea Gilmore's 'Whistle & Steam' is from her highly underrated album 'Harpo's Ghost'. Like the Waits it's about distance and like the Beefheart about separation. This time it's from the woman's perspective : she is moving on and drawn to the train and though her lover may be the same, she leaves him behind. She appears to have no choice, unless she wants to end up like the down-and-out by the station. The beat is metronomic and reflects the sleepers themselves. Her voice captures a strong sense of the sadness.
I've been inspired to write many poems on trains or about train journeys. My book 'Walking on Waste' was full of them , as it concentrated on the many times I travelled home from Radyr to Merthyr. I wrote 'No Shame' about observing two teenage girls passionately snogging (it wasn't from my viewpoint though) and several sonnets such as 'Radyr Weir' and 'On the Floodplain' decribing what I saw from the carriages. My latest book 'Moor Music' contains the poem 'Dust Anybody?' about Tipexed graffiti I spotted in a train toilet on the Aber-Shrewsbury line.
Several of my favourite poems also feature trains. There is the famous 'Night Mail' by Auden where the words perfectly match the rhythm of the tracks. 'Intercity Lullaby' by Sheenagh Pugh (another non-driver poet) is a wonderfully tender poem with a keen eye for social comment, which is never obvious. One of the most neglected of contemporary Welsh poets, Dave Hughes from Swansea, wrote the rousing 'Flowers', a marvellous eulogy to graffiti artists who mural the drab walls and buildings alongside the railways.
Recently, train journeys have been really important to my work, as strange things have happened. On the magnificent Cambrian Coast line, a woman got on at Barmouth. She talked incessantly and in a manic way to someone opposite her. I strained to see who she was addressing. Nobody was there! I followed her crazy conversation a while and she referred to someone being 'killed' constantly. She halted her illusory dialogue to interrogate the trolley-man on his lack of sandwiches.
Later on the same journey, a Welsh-speaking woman was in the same carriage as her Brummie partner and two young kids. At Hereford, a man got on and she immeditely spoke to him in Welsh. The kids went and sat with him and he seemed to be her real spouse! She spent her time drinking lager with her partner and flicking paper at her kids. She then struck up a conversation with a Swansea-bound lad, who flaunted his 'prison card' and talked about various prisons, comparing them like hotels.
The poem below is a Valley Lines one and a real tale -
Two Quid, Two Socks
Two socks, odd.
Train to Bridgend,
this is the ticket,
slow train, short of the runways.
Last thing I saw of him.
Two pounds given,
one for each sock,
enough for a chip.
Shivered into carriage
winter in a shirt -
‘Warm in yer, innit?’
Spoke to a couple
life story in minutes,
talked to me about football.
Cops had bought it,
stuck him on the train,
overnight Ponty police-station,
man knew what he was on about,
been through it ‘for drivin‘ ‘.
‘I stabbed myself loadsa times!
Don’ ‘member nothin’ bout it!
Woke up covered in blood!’
Only seventeen, no job,
stepfather didn’t give a shit.
The slow train didn’t matter,
via Amsterdam, if only.
Two quid, shook my hand.
Two socks. Odd.