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Review by Nick Jackson

Eibonvale Press
372 p.
£9.99 pb / £23 hb from Eibonvale Press
Which of the following 'facts' is a bluff?  a) 'didcott' is the name for the little piece of your train ticket that is clipped out; b) Joseph Bueys [performance artist] was a train driver in World War II; c) 'Tetsudo' is a type of Japanese train; d) one of the authors in this collection forged himself a Young Person's Rail Card. 

Any ideas?

Taking its title from a story by Wolfgang Borchert, this anthology is a shrine to the railway in all its manifestations and draws as much on the iconic status of these iron behemoths as on the collective psyche of railway buffs that worship them.  There's not a train spotter in sight and there are no pieces about the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian railway or any of the world's other great train lines but to my mind the anthology is all the better for it, looking beyond these clichéd images of railways at what makes them such lasting objects of fascination.  Railways feature as subjects of obsession or in the form of a developing fanaticism into which the characters are slowly, sometimes unwillingly, drawn.

What is it about model railways in particular that fascinates several of these writers?  It must have something to do with the way in which they mirror our world, forming the perfect microcosm - a self supporting, self-justifying world within a world.  Several of the authors create extended riffs on this theme, such as Andrew Hook's superb opening story: 'Tetsudo Fan' which offers a tantalising glimpse into the world of the Japanese railway buff as a young boy is drawn into the adult sphere of model railway obsession.   The characterisation of the boy is deftly accomplished, lending the story a sense of realism around which strange events unfold.  In part it's a coming-of-age story in which some rather kinky adult fantasies begin to intrude on his child's view; in part it's a journey into the surreal culminating in an amazing cinematic sequence.

Model railways also feature strongly in Nina Allen's 'Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle' which seems a little over-stretched but she has such a delightful way of telling a story that she kept me engrossed even as she meandered between different sets of characters.   The main plot follows a model railway enthusiast as she searches for a specific model but it is the author's care with detail which gives this story its depth and interest.  There is a particularly intimate description of a model buffet car and its occupants which places the reader as a voyeur into the Lilliputian world within.  This miniaturised world is exploited to great effect in 'Sunday Relatives', Douglas Thompson's absorbing piece, which follows a psychiatric doctor as he plays with his train set.  Of course, there is an instant parallel between this tinkering and his God-like interventions into the lives of his patients who remain beguilingly on the fringes of the story.  'Choice' by Charles Wilkinson is a wonderfully deadpan piece which, like Hook's story works more by implication than direct revelation.  For me it is the most disturbing piece in the collection.  Set in a bungalow in a strange faceless suburb, a series of ritualistic confrontations are played out between three men.  It would spoil the story to drop further hints but a model railway features prominently.

A number of the stories exploit the idea of railways as a conduit between this world and the next. Aliya Whiteley's 'The Wandering Scent' works up an air of nostalgia as an aging amusement park train driver reflects on her career with a particular engine.  There's some nicely detailed description in this piece as well as some interesting reflections on memory and death.   Allen Ashley's 'On the Level' is a quieter story of teenage angst and coming-of-age.  It follows the fortunes of a group of young musicians whose emotional ups and downs lead to tragic consequences.  Allen indulges an obsession with musical references to interesting effect.  Death Trains of Durdensk by Daniella Geary is an ostensibly documentary piece with surreal elements.  There's definitely something creepy about this story, possibly because while it purports to offer true facts it takes a while for it to sink in that this is fiction.  Or is it?  Seamlessly put together, this snippet of prose had me hooked.  'To the Anhalt Station', John Howard's story impresses with its evocation of Berlin.  Strong characterisation and a wealth of arresting detail help to give form to a complex piece in which history and modernity, time and space are manipulated in a multi-layered narrative.  Time is similarly distorted in 'District to Upminster', Marion Pitman's short piece: a beautifully conceived meditation on the physics of travel with some engagingly surreal description.  Pitman is a writer of skill and imagination with a deft comic touch whose tantalisingly short offering makes one want to know what else she might be capable of.  Joel Lane's 'Last Train' is a dark piece which offers an unsettling glimpse into the mind of an emotionally scarred man.  His psychological state is convincingly evoked and there are details hinting at mental disintegration which are chilling and weirdly beautiful, such as a mysterious talismanic object:  "glimmers of fire: blood red, bruise violet, midnight blue".

Rhys Hughes' stories always ought to come with a health warning, not least his present highly entertaining offering: 'The Path of Garden Forks' which has nothing whatever to do with a story by Borges.  He deserves special chastisement for leading his reader up the garden path, assaulting him with mind-boggling fictions and leaving him in a state of nervous paranoia.    Almost eclipsed by being sandwiched between Hughes' and Lane's meatier offerings, S.J. Fowler attempts some light relief with a whimsical selection of, not always railway-related, aphorisms and quotes in 'Writer's Block'.  Continuing in the vein of the supernatural is 'Stratford International' by David McGroarty - a subtle tale of childhood trauma related in three episodes.  It traces the development of the London's rail network through these three snapshots and ties in with the main character's psychological state over this time.  It leads to a powerful conclusion with quite an emotional punch.

Danny Rhodes' 'The Cuts' sets off in a tone that might almost have tipped over into comedy as a petty bureaucrat from the Transport Department is dispatched to carry out an exercise in obfuscation to disguise a foregone decision in the cutting of a branch line.  The character's self-aggrandising and narrow-minded reflections carry us deep into the Welsh hills where he is disappointed not to be met by a protest group against 'the cuts'.  Instead, he finds himself projected into a nightmare.  The slowly darkening atmosphere of paranoia makes this story work well.  Along the way, Rhodes takes the opportunity to get in a few well-aimed digs at the politics of infrastructure depletion.  Christopher Harman's 'Sleepers' works a similar vein of nostalgia.  Here, two ageing chaps take off for a ramble through the countryside, only to fetch up in a creepy village with a mysterious rail terminus.  Strong on atmosphere, this story is related through the eyes of a pair of archetypal grumpy old men with some extremely scary female characters.

Steve Rasnic Tem's 'Escape on a Train' is a more subtle blending of realism and fantasy in which a seemingly endless train journey might also serve as a metaphor for contemporary alienation and personal responsibility.  A man observes a series of increasingly bizarre and horrific events from the train window and a fellow passenger helps to interpret their significance.   It is this passenger's indifference that chills:  The stranger glances out the window, then shrugs: "We're on the train," he says. "There's nothing we can do."  'The Keeper' by Andrew Coulthard starts off with a lot of atmosphere and quite an edgy plot but manages to get rather confusing once the action shifts from the underground system of Berlin (?) to a ghostly train that materialises in a warehouse.  There is quite a proliferation of fantasy elements in this story, some of which worked better than others but it all leads to a very energetic conclusion.   Gavin Salisbury's 'Embankmen' seems almost out of place as the only poem in the collection but, nonetheless impresses with its sinister spectral narrator and disturbing imagery.

Another piece that develops the theme of railways crossing boundaries between life and death, present and future is 'The Engineered Soul', Jet McDonald's uniquely weird offering.  It takes the form of a first person account of a 'seer' who predicts the rising star of the railway and hence becomes popular with speculators.  This is a beautifully told fable with stunning imagery.  Steven Pirie's 'Not All Trains Crash' is a more conventional train crash ghost story but exquisitely related through the eyes of its young protagonists, sisters in search of a truth which has been withheld.  A very convincing cast of characters carries the narrative to a most touching finale which is also something of a requiem to the age of steam.  Mat Joiner and Rosanne Rabinowitz co-authored the final piece in the collection and take up the idea of an infinite train travelling between this world and the next. 'The Turning Track' concerns a gay man's aim to complete a history of a mysterious train begun by his late partner.  This piece is particularly strong on characterisation and contains some wonderfully gory detail of human-to-machine transformation.  With all dual-authored stories, you look for the seams in the narrative.  In this case there don't seem to be any but my money is on Rosanne for introducing a particularly characterful cat.

There are a few rogue pieces that work their own territory and refuse to be bludgeoned into my neat thematic categories. 'Didcotts' by John Greenwood features a charmingly self-deprecating narrator - a salesman for a computer company who is sent on a mission to the fictitious country of Bandrika, a place reminiscent of the old Eastern Europe with its own language and customs. Needless to say, the narrator falls foul of the authorities in spectacular style and an exhilarating game of cat-and-mouse develops as he gets mixed up with a band of rebels. RD Hodkinson's wonderfully psychedelic "Wi-Fi Enabled Bakerloo Sunset" is perhaps the story that has the least to do with railways, other than the fact that part of it takes place on an underground station platform.  In fact most of the action takes place in a series of flashbacks in which an amnesiac regains his memory of the events that led to his present condition. 

The stories are interpolated by a series of vignettes by the editor David Rix which sometimes comment on the story matter and at others work in their own right.  There is a particularly nice one entitled: 'The Necropolis Railway That Was and the Sewage Railway that Wasn't'.  Sort of speaks for itself really but Rix draws out some interesting points about the way society deals with its waste products and can't help throwing out some story ideas to future authors. 

I found this a hugely enjoyable collection and whatever their individual merits, there's a synchronicity which makes the stories ping off each other in a very satisfying way.  David Rix has brought together a bunch of stylistically disparate stories and, though I have my favourites, I think the weaker are improved by their placement in the anthology.  The stylistic excesses of several gave an astringent edge to the deadpan delivery of others. 

Answer to bluff:  a) is fiction, of course!


Nick Jackson's
most recent collection is "The Secret Life of the Panda", Chomu Press, 2011