The Great Railway Bazaar


Paul Theroux


Marian had just caught the far-off sound of the train. She looked eagerly, and in a few moments saw it approaching. The front of the engine blackened nearer and nearer, coming on with a dread force and speed. A blinding rush, and there burst against the bridge a great volley of sunlit steam. Milvain and his companion ran to the opposite parapet, but already the whole train had emerged, and in a few seconds, it had disappeared round a sharp curve. The leafy branches that grew out over the line swayed violently backwards and forwards in the perturbed air.

'If I were ten years younger,' said Jasper, laughing, 'I should say that was jolly! It inspirits me. It makes me eager to go back and plunge into the fight again.'

– George Gissing,

frseeeeeeeefronnnng train somewhere whistling the strength those engines have in them like big giants and the water rolling all over and out of them all sides like the end of Loves old sweet sonnnng the poor men that have to be out all the night from their wives and families in those roasting engines

– James Joyce, Ulysses

…the first condition of right thought is right sensation – the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it…

– T. S. Eliot, 'Rudyard Kipling'

Chapter One


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. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places -a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom aeroplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don't even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to – like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass. Better to go first class than to arrive, or, as the English novelist Michael Frayn once rephrased McLuhan: 'the journey is the goal'. But I had chosen Asia, and when I remembered it was half a world away I was only glad.

Then Asia was out the window, and I was carried through it on these eastbound expresses marvelling as much at the bazaar within the train as the ones we whistled past. Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories. It was my intention to board every train that chugged into view from Victoria Station in London to Tokyo Central; to take the branch line to Simla, the spur through the Khyber Pass, and the chord line that links Indian Railways with those in Ceylon; the Mandalay Express, the Malaysian Golden Arrow, the locals in Vietnam, and the trains with bewitching names, the Orient Express, the North Star, the Trans-Siberian. I sought trains; I found passengers.

The first was Duffill. I remember him because his name later became a verb – Molesworth's, then mine. He was just ahead of me in the line at Platform 7 at Victoria, 'Continental Departures'. He was old and his clothes were far too big for him, so he might have left in a hurry and grabbed the wrong clothes, or perhaps he'd just come out of the hospital. He walked treading his trouser cuffs to rags and carried many oddly shaped parcels wrapped in string and brown paper – more the luggage of an incautiously busy bomber than of an intrepid traveller. The tags were fluttering in the draught from the track, and each gave his name as

We would be travelling together. A satirical widow in a severe veil might have been more welcome, and if her satchel was full of gin and an inheritance, so much the better. But there was no widow; there were hikers, returning Continentals with Harrods shopping bags, salesmen, French girls with sour friends, and grey-haired English couples who appeared to be embarking, with armloads of novels, on expensive literary adulteries. None would get farther than Ljubljana. Duffill was for Istanbul – I wondered what his excuse was. I was doing a bunk, myself. I hadn't nailed my colours to the mast; I had no job – no one would notice me falling silent, kissing my wife, and boarding the 15.30 alone.

The train was rumbling through Clapham. I decided that travel was flight and pursuit in equal parts, but by the time we had left the brick terraces and coal yards and the narrow back gardens of the South London suburbs and were passing Dulwich College's playing fields -children lazily exercising in neckties – I was tuned to the motion of the train and had forgotten the newspaper billboards I had been reading all morning: BABY KRISTEN: WOMAN TO BE CHARGED and PLAN TO FREE STAB GIRL AGED NINE – none lettered NOVELIST VANISHES, and just as well. Then, past a row of semi-detached houses, we entered a tunnel, and after travelling a minute in complete darkness we were shot wonderfully into a new setting, open meadows, cows cropping grass, farmers haying in blue jackets. We had surfaced from London, a grey sodden city that lay underground. At Sevenoaks there was another tunnel, another glimpse of the pastoral, fields of pawing horses, some kneeling sheep, crows on an oast-house, and a swift sight of a settlement of prefab houses out one window. Out the other window, a Jacobean farmhouse and more cows. That is England: the suburbs overlap the farms. At several level crossings the country lanes were choked with cars, backed up for a hundred yards. The train passengers were gloating vindictively at the traffic and seemed to be murmuring, 'Stop, you bitches!'

The sky was old. Schoolboys in dark blue blazers, carrying cricket bats and school bags, their socks falling down, were smirking on the platform at Tonbridge. We raced by them, taking their smirks away. We didn't stop, not even at the larger stations. These I contemplated from the dining car over a sloshing carton of tea, while Mr Duffill, similarly hunched, kept an eye on his parcels and stirred his tea with a doctor's tongue depressor. Past the hopfields that give Kent a Mediterranean tangle in September; past a gypsy camp, fourteen battered caravans, each one with its own indestructible pile of rubbish just outside the front door; past a farm and, forty feet away, the perimeter of a housing estate with lots of interesting clothes on the line: plus fours, long Johns, snapping black brassieres, the pennants of bonnets and socks, all forming an elaborate message, like signal flags on the distressed convoy of those houses.

The fact that we didn't stop gave this English train an air of hurrying purpose. We sped to the coast for the Channel crossing. But it was a false drama. Duffill, at his pitching table, ordered a second cup of tea. The black train yards of Ashford loomed and tumbled past, and we were crossing the hummocky grass of Romney Marsh, headed towards Folkestone. By then I had left England behind. So had the other passengers. I returned to my compartment to hear Italians raising their voices, perhaps deriving courage from the assurance that we were at the edge of England. Some Nigerians, who until that moment had been only a quartet of bobbing headgear -two Homburgs, a turban, and a beehive wig – became vocal in Yoruba, seeming to spell out each word they used, smacking their lips when they completed a syllable. Each passenger migrated to his own language, leaving the British muttering and averting their eyes.

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