The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 12 (March 1, 1935)
Dear Readers, my knowledge of railways is confined to a contented and contemplative parking on my back collar-stud while throwing banana skins at retreating scenery through an open window.
I know trains go by jets of vapour,
That cause the piston rods to caper.
But otherwise I fear my knowledge.
Is less than what I learnt at college.
I know that trains go here and there,
Disseminating steam to spare,
And getting people where they're
And that's the limit of my knowing
Sufficient is a writer's job,
To net himself an honest bob,
By telling others (such is pelf!)
The things he doesn't know himself.
For the writer's job is to write, and the greater his ignorance of the subject under his subjection, the less is his style likely to be cramped by a slavish adherence to sordid Fact. Only by barefaced ignorance of everything pertaining to subject-matter can he attain that originality of outlook and freshness of style which has made ultramodern poetry so deliriously disruptive and insuperably insolable.
Loquacity and Veracity.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but none at all gives a writer freedom of expression and suppression, without that tiresome insistence on veracity which makes school books (especially arithmetic) such heavy reading.
It is well known that the more men know the less likely are they to make it known, because the more one knows the more one knows how little one knows. On the other hand, some men are so loaded with informative ammunition that they are practically missile-bound. But a mind which is fortunate enough to be practically empty is capable of anything. Which is why, when the editor said to me, “I want a misinformative article on the history and traditions of the “Iron Horse” in all its rumifications,” I simply said, “O.K., chief,” and slipped into “top.”
Of course the veriest school boy knows that the first railway engine was built by Robert Louis Stephenson, who called it the “Racket,” because he conceived the idea by listening to his kettle kicking up that sort of noise which suggests that sort of engine.
Later, “Puffing Billy” was invented by Captain Kettle, but, being a seaman, he naturally forgot to put wheels under it, and so it was never really in the running. It was the fashion in those early days of mechanical morbidity to invest each new specimen of hurtling hardware with a name synonymous with its symptoms; thus we find unrecorded references to “Asthmatical Ann,” “Rattling Rupert,” “Billy-the-bone-Shaker,” “Gasping Gus,” and “The Big Noise.”
These engines were of the depressed double-demented anti-alacrity pull-and-push type, and could run both backward and forward, which was a very fine proclivity—until they tried to do both at once. The passengers rode in open coaches, from which practice arose that ancient railway toast, “Here's soot in your eye.”
The engine driver wore a top hat and riding boots in case he should find it necessary to hitch on an extra horse-power. He was the big brain in Soot and Celerity Ltd., and could even tell the directors “where they got off” because he was the only one, barring the engine, who knew how it worked— and even the engine frequently forgot.
In the present effete and pampered age people insist on knowing when a train starts so that they can arrange to arrive three minutes later, but in the early age of steam nobody knew when a train would start, which was O.K. with everybody, because you can't possibly miss a train which doesn't know when it goes. The hypothetical passenger just took a day off and waited round until something happened. If it didn't happen he still had the day off.
The Man in Front.
When railway trains first took to rails the Law demanded that a man walk ahead waving a red flag so that nobody should walk into the train. At first this was the sort of job many of us are looking for to-day, but as trains began to add a spot of alacrity, Johnnie Walker had to pull up his socks to keep the hardware off his suspenders. Hence the slogan “Johnnie Walker, still going strong.” But, finally, engines became so fast that anybody who could keep ahead of them found that they were able to earn better money catching hares by hand for the Smithfield markets. So the practice died out, and people gradually recognised a certain element of risk in holding picnics on the railway track.
All of which is as incredible as it sounds, and strictly within the bounds of improbability; but, after all, truth is stranger to fiction, and the best lies are merely Truth in a state of elation.
Train Travel, Far and Near.
In their infancy, trains were a luxury, but to-day the railway is as necessary as soap—more so, in fact, because you can cover infinitely more ground by stepping on the train than you can by stepping on the soap.
The railways to-day are as ubiquitous as cabbage in the restaurant belt, and one has only to step into any station in the world to find a railway.
“Travel by rail” is no empty euphonism, because you can't travel at all if you don't, for
In Yugoslav the trains whip through,
And you go, I go, we go, too,
By rail through Hungary and Crotia—
Unless we stay in Nova Scotia.
In Switzerland the people go
By train to yodel in the snow,
And, just like we, on stations kiss—
Unless of course they “miss their Swiss.”
And Italy has gone to pains,
To build the very Fascist trains.
In Argentine the trains are rampers,
And pant all day across the pampas,
Where Rumba and the shy Sombrero,
Flee panting from the wild Bolero.
And, even out in far Uganda,
Through jungle does the train meander.
New Zealand, as you know, of course,
Is traversed by the “Iron Horse,”
No sooner here than it has gone—
Which makes us feel extremely “bon.”
In South America we know,
The trains perforce must travel slow,
Because they take the local grandees,
Tip-tilted up the dizzy Andes,
And crawl aloft in lowest gear,
With people resting on one ear;
They change the ear on which they ride,
When travelling down the other side.
Where'er you go, in spots worth while,
You'll find the railway, mile on mile.
Where'er you take your bone and gristle,
You'll likely hear an engine whistle;
And, if in doubt or perturbation,
You'll beat it to the nearest station,
Because, in desert heat or snow,
The train's a friend you know you know.
A country without a railway is tantamount to a plate of fried eggs without the eggs.
The Great Chinese Puzzle.
Even China, that land of contradictions (not to mention arguments), where a mandarin is not an orange with an inferiority complex, and where a boy in the railway service starts at the top of the ladder and works his way down to the manager's chair, has railways—except when the bandits have them. Certainly the theoretical traveller is never sure whether the ticket he gets at the little window is for Manchuko, the week's washing, or a pop in the local lottery, but a railway is always a railway as long as there is a spot of steam in the boilers.
And so, dear readers, after reading this reprehensible rumble on railways, if you know any more than when you began, you know more than I know, now that I have finished.
'Tis A Wonderful Sight.
Walsh, the commercial traveller, arrived at the wayside village station.
“When's the next train to town?” he asked the porter.
“Three hours' time is the next,” he was informed.
Walsh decided, therefore, to make his way to the village to spend the waiting hours in a cinema.
Reaching the main street, he began his search, but half an hour later found him still looking in vain.
“Haven't you a cinema here?” he asked one of the inhabitants.
“No, sorr,” replied his informer, gravely.
“Is there a billiards hall?” asked Walsh, hopefully.
The villager shook his head.
“What do you do for entertainment, then?” inquired the traveller, desperately.
“Oh,” smiled the other, “we have fine fun! They've just got a new bacon-slicer up at the general store—'tis a wonderful sight!”page 36