Railway Weirdness

Paul Screeton. Crossing the Line; Trespassing on Railway Weirdness. Heart of Albion Press, 2006,

Paul Screeton will be best known to Magonia readers as the editor of Folklore Frontiers, a long established magazine of urban legends, wild rumours, fortean eccentricity and scantily-clad young ladies. Also predominant in its pages is evidence of the editor's fascination with trains and railways, and staunch defence of this interest. For instance there are frequent denunciations of imagination-challenged journalists who use 'trainspotter' as a universal term of derision. This book manages to combine both of Paul's interests in one volume, with what is perhaps the first comprehensive survey of railway folklore. It's not surprising that something which has been a part of our lives for so long should have developed a wealth of legend and tradition, but it is surprising that it's taken so long for such a collection to be published.

One of the reasons is touched on elsewhere in Peter Rogerson's review of another book on folklore, The Lore of the Land: "By and large folklore is presented as something quaint, remote and safe, and quite suitable for nice coffee table books." There is no room in this conventional view for a folklore which is based in a modern, arid urban background. Little in Paul Screeton's collection of railway folklore is likely to make the coffee-table books, certainly not stories of fellatio in crowded trains and underwater sex in the Channel Tunnel!

But of course the key to folklore is that it expresses basic human concepts in terms which mean most to the people who transmit it. So that within this collection of ostensibly 'modern' stories, the great themes of legend can still be seen. Many nations have a legends of a mighty king, who never died, but sleeps in a cavern with all his knights, ready to return in his nation's hour of need: Alfred, Charlemagne, Wenceslas, Arthur, have all filled this role, and the theme appears here as the legend of the Strategic Reserve.

A passenger falls asleep on the last train of the day, misses his station and is not noticed by the train crew. When he awakes he is in an unknown shunting yard, or in a tunnel, and surrounding his train are dozens, maybe hundreds of steam locomotives, carefully mothballed to be brought out in a time of national emergency, when the National Electric Grid is disabled.

There are even geomantic overtones to railway lore, with lines being cursed by being cut through 'fairy hills', or power being leached from power lines as they cross the site of a megalithic stone avenue. And was the Box Tunnel near Bath really aligned so that the rising sun shone directly through it on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birthday? [A BBC investigation in 2017 has proved that it was.]

Here are tales of locomotives buried under football grounds or walled up in viaducts like Kray gang victims; a relative of the Phantom Gasser of Mattoon turns up on Italian trains in the 1990s, anaesthetising his victims with a gas pumped under the doors of sleeper compartments, before robbing them of their luggage. It seems that every facet of conventional 'coffee-table' folklore has its parallel in railway lore, and Paul Screeton has done a marvellous job in collating them in this collection. Even 'alternate-history' buffs will find something worth contemplating: the possible influence on geopolitical events in the 20th century of the collapse of the Forth Railway Bridge in 1879. - John Rimmer, from Magonia 93, September 2006.

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