(To be read out loud)
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.
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.
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.
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?
Anyone who was anyone in York around 2006 would have found themselves, at some point, in the Train Poetry corner at the National Railway Museum. Here , at the giddying heights of mid-noughties Yorkshire tech, you could press a selection of three buttons, put on a greasy black headset, and spend a few minutes in the company of a locomotive-themed poem. Toot toot!
This is where I stood listening to Night Mail, by Auden. I was probably feeling a little smug, because it was a poem that I had already heard the previous year, at the advanced age of 5. Dad, in the dual role of literature academic / father, had read me some of the best bits of Auden’s poem, and told me about the real system of night trains. After this, we would send ‘Night Train’ letters each evening before I went to bed, and I can remember staring at the ceiling imagining the pages trundling away along the tracks: ‘Down towards Glasgow she descends’ is pretty far away from suburban Birmingham when even a walk to the post-box is a stretch for small legs.
It’s possible that we didn’t actually send the letters. I remember one flying off to Hull, for my Grandad, and one to Darlington, for my 7-year-old cousin Lucy (now 22), but I think that halfway through the week Dad switched to ‘Night Train Emails’, i.e. him sending work emails at 7pm and me watching, entranced. (Regular e-mail sending still wasn’t a big thing in our house in 2005). He also omitted to mention that the Night Train didn’t carry the post anymore, leaving me to happily believe until around two years ago that all letters were still transported by rail.
This poem was my first real engagement with poetry, and it’s a fantastic place to start if you want to have a bit of fun with the form. Read out loud, the stanzas move at such a pace you can hear the whistle of the pistons, the high-pitched hoot of the horn, the slow thick chug of steam. It whizzes you past the Scottish, in a blur of images: ‘Letters to Scotland from the South of France / Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands’, drops you in the quiet homes of private lives : ‘In the farm she passes no one wakes / But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes’, and revels in the great lattice of love and despair the post carries and is carried by: ‘The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,/ The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,’
Just as the strangeness of e-mail had intrigued me, strange too now is the world that Auden conjures. The train he depicts, which pushes on with such force, ‘Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes’, would crawl along slowly now; and the flurry of letters, whose quick poetic delivery to the reader reflects the excitement stoked by these engines, is nothing in comparison to the instantaneous messaging to which we have become accustomed. Far from the heady days of these gleaming machines, now the Night Train would be considered quaint, an inefficient novelty. So time passes, and excitement abates as expectations expand.
In spite of the constant delays and cancellations and overcrowded carriages, in South America I actually missed the trains here: the solidity of travel, and watching the countryside blur past, a canvas of browns and greens and blues and (mainly) greys. The prospect of being met on the platform, transported from a goodbye hug on one platform to a wool-coated welcome on the next. Even weak tea in a cold waiting room feels like holding a felted hand: familiarity. Now, en route to Cambridge and London (via, joy of joys, Stevenage), I am enjoying the jolting journey just as much as I look forward to the destination.