Adlestrop

The best poems come from paying attention to the world, when the raw experience emerges in as few words as necessary to make it vividly real. That’s certainly true of  Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas, where the moment a train stops at a country station is caught as in a raindrop or a bubble of dew. I was going to say, “caught in amber,” but that implies the thing inside is dead. Here, all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are still singing on an eternal June day in 1914. Not, alas, Edward Thomas. He died in 1917, during that bout of international insanity history calls the Great War.

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

– Edward Thomas

A haunting poem, and the basis for this haunting short film.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882 – 1890

Forth Rail Bridge Construction

Never let it be said that Beautiful Railway Bridge is parochial in its appreciation. While the Tay Rail Bridge is indeed one of the wonders of the world, there are other bridges, and the Forth Railway Bridge (pictured above during construction) is a strong contender. Below is a period photograph demonstrating its structural principles.

Forth Bridge Suspension Demonstration

I stole the following poem from a post by Diane McWade on KILTR, a new social media platform with Scottish affiliations. Well worth checking out if you’re Scottish, live there, or feel a connection to the place. Colin Donati‘s poem rings with the sound of the Forth Bridge’s construction. I loved it.

The Construction of the Forth Railway Bridge 1882-1890

Knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
knitting and riveting
pinning and weaving,
building the girders out
over the water;

gangers in rivet-teams
sweating at furnaces,
wielding the rivet-tongs,
hammering plates in place,
hanging the arms
of the great cantilever;

decking the space with them
over the water,
complex equations
for cross-beams in tension,
joints in suspension,
engaged with all weathers –

wind blow the bridge-bays
the bridge-bays distort with it,
sun swing from south to west
arms bend away from it
till they’re braced rigid
warping the measure;

the bite of the ice air
through jerkins of leather,
a shower of rain adding
weight to the structure
already supporting
chain, crane and timber

stage, winch and hawser,
furnace and hammer,
the winds of the firth
exerting their pressure
on three growing galleons
sailing the water;

the struts that the jacks lift,
the ties where no pin shears,
the skewbacks through which all loads
pass to the bridge-piers,
building the girders out,
building them further,

the light through the structure
that turns on each girder,
each tubular tower,
the ring of the worker,
macramé of metal,
tracery of shadows.

The man with the camera
slides other plates in place,
times each exposure
then snaps shut the wooden case,
captures the moment,
freezes the hammer.

Colin Donati

And finally, here’s a video of a steam train crossing the bridge.

Night Mail

Night_Mail
This year is the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest acts of social vandalism ever perpetrated by a government – the Beeching Axe – which closed 55% of stations and 30% of route miles on Britain’s rail network. The excuse was efficiency savings, but the rationale ignored the social costs of small communities cut off from major population centres and each other. Railways were an essential part of the transport infrastructure tying the country together, and it’s not hard to see the hand of the Road Lobby in pushing for its implementation.

So I’m posting Night Mail, the famous 1936 documentary about the train that carried the mail from London to Glasgow, in memory of the great railway network we thoughtlessly destroyed in the interests of political expediency. And in memory of those beautiful steam trains, whose rhythm  pounds through the documentary and is echoed in W. H. Auden’s poem at the end. The combination of film, music, and poetry, evoking all the fragile hopes and fears represented by the letters the Night Mail carried, still chokes me up.

Here’s the full text of Auden’s poem.

Night Mail

I
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

II
Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

III
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

IV
Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

WH Auden