Wednesday, 24 October 2012

People So Busy, Makes Me Feel Dizzy

I have an old railway poster print on my wall.  Well, actually, I have a lot of old railway poster prints on many of my walls.  I’m incapable of leaving the National Railway Museum shop without at least one.  They are my favourite art form of all, especially those commissioned by the “Big 4” companies, London Transport and early British Railways.  Imaginative, idyllic, colourful – I find them the perfect thing to break up the monotony of a bare wall.  Anyway, one of those posters depicts Waterloo Station with the legend

“A centenary of uninterrupted service during war and peace.”

 I recently watched two films in a row which upheld this proud Southern Railway statement; a company which must have been giving out a dying gasp as the railways were privatised at the beginning of the centenary year (1948).  The first of the films was ‘Bell Bottom George’ (1945) starring George Formby.  George, who has accidentally joined the navy, returns to the docks after playing his ukulele on a BBC radio show in London.  He joins his train at Waterloo – so recognisable from the platform gates which are almost closed on his would-be girlfriend.  The train is crowded with servicemen of all kinds as well as civilians.  The strain that must have been felt by train services in wartime is palpable, but after over five years of fighting, people are still getting around on the network.  This is one of our quietest but greatest feats of World War Two.  I have a book called ‘The LMS at War’, written by George Nash and published in 1946.  This tells us that the railways were a vital component of the Normandy Landings; and of movements of service personnel both on troop trains and ambulance trains.  Also, that the infrastructure took direct bomb hits to tracks, trains and lineside equipment.  Yet the Glasgow LMS station alone handled 3 million personnel between 1939 and 1943.  And in 1943, the LMS alone ran 400 special trains each week.  ‘Bell Bottom George’ was filmed at the end of this long and weary fight, and the system hadn’t collapsed.  I think that’s rather wonderful.

A couple of days later I watched ‘The Good Die Young’ (1954), a forgettable film featuring a young Joan Collins.  This is about the only notable thing about it.  Oh, and that the boxer character (Stanley Baker) looked like Morrissey’s more handsome older brother.  However, there is a scene on Waterloo station.  One of the characters is a member of the US Army and is in the process of being posted to Germany.  His unit departs from again that instantly recognisable terminus.  The soldier decides to go AWOL and leaves by those famous steps.

This serves as a reminder that even though World War Two had ended, the railway still had much to do – bringing troops home; ferrying GIs and National Service soldiers about; taking ordinary workers into the City and fulfilling their expectations of peace time holidays and days out.  It managed to do it with very run down infrastructure.  This certainly substantiates the Southern Railway poster’s declaration.

There are a few other scenes in ‘The Good Die Young’ for transport enthusiasts - for example a depiction of what happens if you touch a third rail (ouch) and the interior of an early airport (boo).  It might pass on a snowed-in afternoon. 

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