On the Train
by Gillian Clarke
In October 1999 the Swansea to London Great Western train collided with a local train just outside Paddington station. It was the morning rush hour and the trains were packed with commuters. Fire engulfed one of the Great Western carriages. The local train had gone through a red light. Thirty one people were killed, many were badly injured.
That morning I was travelling home from Manchester to Wales, safe on a different train. I settled into my seat with a cup of tea, and tried to phone home to say I was on my way. There was no reply, so I put on the headphones of my Walkman radio and switched on Radio 4. News of the disaster was breaking. I wrote this poem in my notebook while listening to hours of news.
A few days later on television I saw a woman who had lost her son in the crash. She visited the scene, looked at the filth, the squalor, the graffiti, the debris and wreckage on the line, and thought: ‘What a shitty place for my baby to die.’ I didn’t know about that mother and son when I wrote the first draft of the poem, but I thought of them as I revised it. So, in a way, this poem turned into an elegy for him. I imagined his body in the ‘blazing bone ship’, like the body of a Celtic king or hero in a funeral ship, launched on an outgoing tide, burning. It was this image that made me want to write the poem.
How to read the poem for its content:
As usual with my poems, I ask you to read it first as a story, and then to notice the language. If you read alertly you’’ll understand most of it. The choice of language will help you to realise what is happening in the poem. As the title tells you, I am on a train. Once you have read the poem for the basic story, if you’re still puzzled, ask yourself some questions:
- Why do I use the phrase ‘black box’ to describe the Walkman?
- How do you know the Walkman is a radio?
- Why is the radio important in this story?
- What is ‘the blazing bone-ship’?
- Whose phones are ringing in the rubble?
- How can suburban kitchens become ‘rubble’?
- Why are the telephones ‘silent’?
- What are the howling wolves?
Read the poem again in the light of the tragedy that occurred on the London Underground on the 7th July, 2005. The Paddington crash was an accident. The July 7th atrocity has killed and injured many more people. This time it was deliberate, calculated murder. Note how a poem is not about just one specific event.
The first verse tells you I’m on a train with my tea, mobile phone, and a Walkman. The landscape is flooded. It’s early ( about 7 am), too early to phone my husband, whom I imagine waking up at home. It is an ordinary morning. There is one detail, a clue, which might make you think ominous events lie ahead.
Verse 2: I turn on my Walkman radio for the news. At the same time other listeners are in cars, kitchens, wherever they live and travel. There’s a breaking story. The last half of the last line of verse 2 hints at a disaster. As I listen, I imagine drivers innocently parking before dawn in the ‘dark parkways’ (e.g.. Bristol Parkway, Didcot Parkway) at train stations, switching off their radios, locking their cars, walking on frosty tarmac to the platform for the London train, unaware that it would carry them to disaster, to ‘the blazing bone-ship’. Verse 3 begins by quoting the automatic Vodafone message, an anonymous voice speaking to a caller who has heard the news and is desperate to know if their loved one is safe. Phones ring in the rubble. (The emergency service people are not allowed to answer them.) Back home, the desperate are answered only by silence. Verse 4, I phone home. No answer. My train carries me safely homeward, but I’m shaken by the tragedy that has struck others. ‘I’m on the train’ no longer seems like a cliché, but a message of great simplicity and significance.
How to read the poem for its form:
There are four verses of 6 lines each - many of my poems fall into this pattern. The first two verses are written in iambic pentameter*. It’s a rhythm* that comes naturally. It suits the solemnity of the subject, so it helps to hint at the tragedy before it is fully revealed. I didn’t consciously choose the rhythm. Perhaps the rhythm of the train was an influence. In the first half of verse 3, where the Vodafone voice is speaking, the rhythm breaks. From lines 4-6 iambic pentameter resumes its five stressed beats. In verse 4, only lines 3-5 use it. Why? I think because I am talking in the final verse, or writing as if I am talking. The first line is made of three short parts. The train brings the rhythm back and keeps it beating for a few lines. The final line is a simple and commonplace phone message. Not a word more was needed.
How to read the poem for its language:
Note the words: ‘cradled’, ‘rocking’, (twice, a repetitive rhythm), ‘trembles’, ‘thinking of you’, ‘thinking of me’. The radio ‘speaks’, then ‘is silenced’. Note ‘slide’, ‘dawn’, and ‘dreaming’, then ‘rubble’, ‘wolves’, ‘howl’. All these words are chosen to mean more than they might in another context. Some of those words suggest safety. Some suggest the dangerous wilderness. This is an intended transition from one mood to another, from trust to fear. The word ‘Darling’ is so commonplace as to be a cliché, and therefore difficult to use in a poem. It risks meaning nothing at all. However, in this poem, at the end of this story, I take the risk of using it, trusting that it regains its tenderness and emotional power from the tragic circumstances. I think it adds a surprise, and creates a moment of ordinary love in the last line.
Metaphor plays a part. The rocking train is a cradle. The Walkman is a ‘black box’ hinting at wreckage. Trains ‘dream’ their way to Paddington. Kitchens turn to ‘rubble’. Wolves ‘howl into silent telephones.’ The burning carriage is ‘the blazing bone-ship.’ It’s been suggested that the burnt-out carriage is a ribcage, the ribs of a boat. Add ideas of your own to a metaphor if you can. I chose three words and phrases that take a risk, words that are there to wake you up. They are ‘Darling’, ‘the blazing bone-ship’, and ‘wolves howl’. The rest of the poem tells the story without too much emotion. Order versus disorder is the balance I wanted.
Suggestions: compare the poem with Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-Term Break’, also about a tragic accident.