Friday, July 3, 2009

Trainspotting Monty Python, et al

Inspector: I suggest you murdered your father for his seat reservation.

Tony: I may have had the motive, Inspector, but I could not have done it, for I have only just arrived from Gillingham on the 8:13 and here's my restaurant car ticket to prove it.

Jasmina: The 8:13 from Gillingham doesn't have a restaurant car.

Tony: Oh, er... did I say the 8:13, I meant the 7:58 stopping train.

Lady Partridge
: But the 7:58 stopping train arrived at Swindon at 8:19 owing to annual point maintenance at Wisborough Junction.

John: So how did you make the connection with the 8:I3 which left six minutes earlier?

: Oh, er, simple! I caught the 7:16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8:09.

Jasmina: But the 7:16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays.

Tony: Oh, yes! How daft of me. Of course I.came on the Holidaymaker Spedal calling at Bedford, Colmworth, Fen Dinon, Sutton, Wallington and Gillingham.

The Monty Python Agatha Christie Time Table Sketch is one of my all-time favorites. There was a time when the tradition of the British rail service meant something. Their trains ran efficiently, and on schedule, and everyone knew and loved particular schedules the way we might know baseball stats for a favorite team.

There are those who still kindle the rail passion, serious collectors of the classic British/Commonwealth time tables, as we see in the Sydney Morning Herald: “He and other members of the Australian Association of Time Table Collectors (there are branches in most states) find great pleasure in analysing timetables of any vintage.” You’ve got to love people who put “great pleasure” and “analyzing timetables” in the same sentence.

The Father of the Time Table

Now let us praise George Bradshaw, the 19th century cartographer and printer who is the father of the printed time table. British literature is littered with references to Bradshaws, particularly in Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie who loved the idea of complicated alibis based on train schedules (hence Monty Python). The great Dame Agatha seemed particularly smitten, writing the ABC Murders for Poirot, where an ABC Railway guide is found by each body, and the 4:50 from Paddington for Miss Marple.

This focus on train times is no mere folderol. I am going to England next week for a few weeks, and looking to get here and there on the rails. Unbelievably, I’m being boxed out by the Midland time tables. Sure, you can get from Kings Cross, London to Peterborough on National Express, then change to Midland trains to Oakham (where the Tallis Scholars Summer School takes place). But just try going from Oakham to Swaffham, the Mutt and Jeff of market towns. You can get to Swaffham, via Peterborough, but the trains only run late in the day—-not very helpful at all. This poor scheduling would not have happened in the heyday of rail travel.

When I went to university at Southampton, I enjoyed direct service into the great Waterloo Station, the terminus of the London and South Western Railway, near Waterloo Bridge. In a Wizard of Oz reversal, I imagined whenever I stepped off of the train that the station was in glorious black and white, straight out of every World War II movie. For just an instant the throng appeared as a sea of men in hats and women in stoles, before the late 20th century technicolor and Gap fashions clicked into focus.

Steed and Mrs. Peel on Track

The most famous current fictional train is the Hogwarts Express, from track 9 ¾ from King’s Cross railway station. The Brit love for their iron horses lead to two rail-themed Avenger episodes. It’s so ethnically distinct for a tv series. From the b&w era, "The Gravediggers" brings Steed to “The Sir Horace Winslip Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen" and Mrs. Peel tied to the tracks to the sounds of silent era tinkling piano. And in the color Emma Peel year, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station” has the villains trying to blow up the private rail car that will carry the prime minister. It features the station of Norborough, which I believe is just down the line from my Peterborough. (At whose cathedral the body of Mary Queen of Scotts was originally buried. My world is so connected.)

* * *
I am going on my blog break now, to have time to learn the music for the Tallis Scholars Summer School (TSSS). If I get the hang of it, I may tweet from Oxford. I’ll be back middle of July, in time for the tributes to that other moon walk. I hope you’ll come back too.

But now, watch Monty Python and the fabulous Agatha Christie Sketch.


Jeremy said...

Dear M.A.,

I have no idea when you were last on a train in the UK, but I fear your wallet is in for a bashing and your nostalgia will be all that gets you through the horror.

The Fat Controller

M.A.Peel said...

Jeremy, I haven't been in England for 20 years. I expect a lot has changed.