27 February, 2012Issue 18.4EssaysTravel

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A Smooth Transition

Alexander Bubb


Slough’s redbrick railway station, in common with many of its suburban streets, possesses a grace and wrought iron symmetry that smiles unrewarded on its town centre planners. A half-built commuter development looms overhead, sheeting for its plate glass left to peel off and blow like plastic rags in the breeze, with all the dereliction and none of the raw promise of Shanghai. But gazing down the long, broad concourses between the twinned pavilion-like ticket halls, you can still—and this is valuable—see trains gunning at one hundred or more under the bridge and down the straight track, unfettered by urban speed caps, and feel momentarily the horror of Victorian men and women who could not even quantify such speed.

My journey did not begin here. Only the wait for the down train gave me time to observe this. Six minutes ago I was at Windsor, out of breath from an uphill climb after a heavy lunch—a family reunion in a place with which none of us had any connection. And it was not the first time I had travelled the ground. Eight years ago, driving test finally passed, I jaunted through here with some friends in a borrowed car: over the river, through Eton and up to the place we derided merely on account of a poem, on our way back to London. Six minutes of startling contrasts which have only sharpened, and which now from the window of the little shuttling branch train, attains somehow the smooth and superficial panorama of history. It is a strange journey, awkwardly challenging for anyone who, with quixotic British earnest, tries to reconcile socialism with the equally betrayed sentiment of old England. Its absurd brevity is almost a parody of our islanded tininess.

Leaving what was once Royal Station, the two carriages slope down a handsome curving viaduct built essentially for the convenience of Queen Victoria—unless she was merely a ruse to sneak a commercial project under the noses of local pedagogues. Although the long barrel-vaulted train shed at its neck has now been converted into an elegant shopping arcade, I read earlier in a stray programme that a man was being honoured in the castle today for services to the Royal Train. Putting down my book, I see the cars in the park and ride, the tree-lined avenue better suited to carriages, and then, as we reach the river, Windsor reminds us that she always looks her best from a distance. Will those who look up from their newspapers be tuning in eagerly for the Jubilee pomp and ceremony? The curtain wall that seemed cartoonish in the High Street, where I overheard two teenagers discussing the ins-and-outs of an Oxbridge application, gives way to the hanging cliff-like ramparts of the Upper Ward, the weirdly Teutonic Curfew Tower in the foreground, and many more unexpected details that can still excite the hazy silhouette so well known from photographs.

Narrowboats are moored along the bank astern to us, the train now beginning to glide as quietly as its diesel motors can, up past the Victorian church planted, as though by some leisured master-planner of the picturesque, directly athwart the Gothic pinnacles of St George’s and those of the College. If the branch’s length justified an intermediate station perhaps Eton Lane would stand here on the embankment, a functional Brunel-designed waiting room facing down to where a modest Queen Anne house stands at a bend in the road—no doubt a much conspired for bolt-hole of long-dead schoolmasters and clergymen. It is pleasing to reflect that chapel and top hats are still compulsory, just as they were for Orwell, but less grimacing to speculate instead if here was the prospect before which Gray tuned up the green strings of his elegiac sensibility, or there the meadow where Shelley stole to launch fire balloons and summon the Devil. “You are many, they are few”—Eton is accomplished at reversing that proposition—and I know that if I bring my foreign lover here in the summer with a verse anthology then he will laugh or worse. Laugh to pay admission before an edifice whose website pictures small waistcoated boys hunched over exam papers and bowls of porridge—just to see where Guy Burgess got his rocks off.

The train accelerates faster than one would credit. It seems unnecessary. But then why should a cranky, fairly unimproved piece of diesel technology conjure for us such a privileged window into the past? Is it that our nostalgia is so shortsighted, or because with trains and stations one can say with certainty: here so-and-so did just the same thing that I am doing? W.B. Yeats once got down at Slough. He too was a still precocious boy, and his prodigal father was taking him on a painting trip to Burnham Beeches. After the war T.E. Lawrence passed through and lost his manuscript at Reading. All however-so-many years to this day. Or does it still charm only because the landscape files past like a film of which we need watch only as much we like?

But here a shadow falls and we cross the threshold. Although it is blue only on maps, the M4 fixes polities now much as the Thames once did. And we do enter another country, though not of Betjeman’s electric canteens and bomb factories, but of back gardens, first of the 1920s, then 1880s, some crudely patioed, some industriously planted, and fly over uneven terraced streets and slate-roofed garages named “Pathak”. I remember the driver, glimpsed at Windsor, and the train slows, banking right again behind the university, completing its u-shaped route as it rolls home. A little to the east must be the Observatory shopping centre: Herschel’s house, where George III whimsically took a turn through the barrel of the forty-footer before it was hoisted onto the scaffolding to comb undiscovered galaxies with king-size lenses. For here too genius has lived, here love, here wit and humour in the bars and workingmen’s clubs. Now even the Windsor road, which we now meet, bridges the station with a pleasing symmetric curve, and we pass something not visible to overhead car passengers of eight years ago. A blue timber shed named the Slough & Windsor Railway Club advertises itself with an old sign: “Friday night at the Manor. We open 7pm. All Welcome.” That’s today, someone might have thought. But the door is padlocked and bears a high voltage warning badge.

As the substation recedes slowly, from behind its weathered gable slides a long plain white wall, then the “T…E…..S” of a supermarket sign, and the train stops. Buttons are pushed. Sightseers get off, homebound commuters get on. Almost noiseless until it is totally upon us, the wind of an express roars down the opposite platform.

Alexander Bubb is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Hertford College, Oxford.