23 November, 2005

Night train

Picking up on a theme from yesterday, the current cold snap has had another unexpected impact on the world outside my window. All those distant suburban sounds I'd previously only catch from time to time if the traffic fell silent and the wind was blowing the right way have been amplified no end. And one consequence of this is that the noise of the Liverpool-London mainline train thunders through the flat like I was next door to the track instead of several miles away.

There's always been something very moving about, to coin a handy phrase, the sound of a train in the distance - precisely why it's turned up in so many songs. To shamelessly namedrop another pertinent lyric, it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.

When I was growing up I used to be able to hear the noise of the Sheffield-London train quite distinctly at night, even though the station was right on the opposite side of town. That was probably when I must have started to associate the sound with the dark, and attach all sorts of magical, mysterious connotations to it. There was a time when the words 'Night Train' symbolised little more for me than a songbook standard that used to get slaughtered by the school jazz band, of which I was an unwilling member. But then I found myself, many years later on a family holiday to Fort William in Scotland, staying up late to wait for the lights of the last mainline train to pass in the distance and the sound of its engines to fade, experiencing precisely the same thrilling sensations all over again.

Now all those sentiments are flooding back, as once more I'm getting to hear the rush and the clatter of passing carriages, trundling through the blackness with the same eerie momentum and poignant clarity.

All the cliches are true, I'm afraid: when a train goes by it is a sad sound.


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