WH Auden and Night Mail.

I like to stand on the platform next to a stationary train. I stand very still adjacent to said train  until it fills with expectant customers who may notice me.  At some point I walk backwards slowly at first then quicker.  This gives the people on the train the impression that they are moving. I stop abruptly and watch them jolt. Well you’ve got to do something to fill the hours.

Not today though. I’m here  to make a series of five fifteen minute documentaries for radio four to be broadcast in the week of 25th march. It’s in connection with the 100th anniversary of  1936 film mail train, which includes the WH Auden poem. Night mail with music by Benjamin Britten. .The producer is Phillip Sellars who tells me I am not allowed to do the train trick thing. Later I’ll  be off to Cairnforth Train Station. That of the film Brief encounter  part of the journey of Night Mail.  

It is amazing what train station staff have to go through and the stories they tell.  After asking what happened a station worker talks about the attempted murder  “I knew the train was arriving in one minute and  that’s when he pushed me ”. An irate customer decided to kill him. He flew  backwards over the platform down five feet  onto the train tracks  “there’d been a platform change you see so I was aware exactly where the train was – and exactly when it was coming in”. He had one minute to move. Customer relations.

I ask another customer relations officer of his previous employment. He’s a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a long shadow.  “pathologist” he says nonchalantly while looking out for the train “ I saw dead people for twenty years”. He excuses himself to attend to a train pulling in and then returns “yes… I suppose I wanted a little bit of life… in me life”. 

There’s the station staff member who has a passenger of her own – she wobbles. “Oh yes” she says “this is the most important passenger of them all – there’ll be no delays”.  And sure enough it is.   But the most glorious of all was the transvestite train driver Angela. She has a deep gruff voice and I notice her in the drivers cabin of a train waiting to leave.  As she pulls down her window I start an ad hoc interview from the platform. 

“I’ve been doing this for thirty years and I love it” she says cheerfuly. She has painted purple nails each with three black and silver stripes on each and pink eye shadow along with the regulation orange train drivers jacket. After our interview she starts to leave the station and blows the horn shunting off  into the sunset.  After the interview the Producer decides that rather than getting the later 5pm-ish train journey to London we could get the earlier one.

Back in London at home four hours later its breaking news -There’s been a train crash. One person dead. Many injured. It’s the train which we would’ve been catching – the Glasgow to London.

7 thoughts on “WH Auden and Night Mail.

  1. Hello again Lemn, i emailed Philip as you suggested but unfortunately did not receive a reply , do you have a recording you could sell me, i really feel these wonderfull programmes will get better with repeated listens, i can not understand why the BBC have deleted them after just 7 days, i missed the first 2 but as soon as i heard the 3rd i ordered NIGHT MAIL DVD from amazon which also includes WEST HIGHLAND an equally evocative film about the GLASGOW /FORT WILLIAM/MAILLAIG lie in the 1960s, if you wanted to see it i would be more than happy to record you a copy ,
    best wishes, lol bishop.

  2. David, my memory fails me, but the documentary I made was on an anniversary connected to WH Auden (his death or birth) or the film.

  3. You're right, and I should've guessed, centenary of W H's birth, 1907.
    He also wrote some of the rudest limericks ever, but here my memory fails me too.

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