Unpicking the threads

new-zealand_canterbury_tranzalpine_zg9e2369_20071026_454.jpgWeave me a rope that will pull me through these impossible times.
Tim Finn

None of us knows what will happen each morning when we step out the door. The wind may be bringing us good fortune. Or it may not. So there is an excitement in every day, anticipation, a hope. It is the beginning of a new journey and the continuation of an old one. While we may think we know where it will end, there is no certainty, there are no guarantees. Maybe that is why we like travelling so much. Maybe that is why train journeys are so popular.

I never figured myself as a trainspotter. They have always seemed to be rather eccentric, cardigan-wearing, Austin Allegro-driving individuals who climb out of the woodwork like borer whenever a train goes past, who long for the golden age of steam, whatever that is. I have really never understood their fascination for the perceived mystique that surrounds trains and railways even though there have been enough of them in my life. Colleagues, friends and relatives, with a passion for matters railroad have surrounded me for most of my life, and bemused, I have tried to keep up with their passion. But I have failed.

I remember eating my lunch one day in Arthur’s Pass as a steam excursion pulled up and disgorged the faithful. At first glance they appeared to be predominately elderly men, armed with cameras that were state-of-the art back in the middle of last century. Much-loved Rollei twin-lens reflexes, Pentax Spotmatics and Braun rangefinders. I could imagine them later that weekend in their pantry darkrooms, huddled over their processing trays, lovingly teasing a result from paper and chemistry long past its use-by date. They hovered around the engine, spinsters around the bride, adoring, entranced. They scurried and circled and worshipped as the engine was wheeled onto the turntable and slowly manipulated into position for the journey home. I sat in amazement, looking at a sub-culture that had suddenly popped its head above the trenches, blinking owlishly in the daylight. Then they scuttled back aboard, the engine wailed, puffed self-importantly, and they were gone. I returned to a lunch which seemed as stunned as I was.

Living on the downs above Rangiora in North Canterbury as a child was my first introduction to trains. Each morning my father would lift me onto the kitchen bench where we could see the sweep and skirl of the Plains. We would watch the plume of smoke panning left to right away in the distance, as a train headed down from Amberley into Christchurch. Somehow it seemed a fitting start to the day. Later, as an adult living in the city, I would sometimes be woken by the mournful wail of a steam locomotive in the distance, crossing the vastness of a liquid Norwest Canterbury night. But I still never really got this thing about railways.

Now perhaps I do.

A month or so ago, I was asked to shoot images for a book on train journeys in New Zealand. I was to bring back images of the Tranzalpine, apparently one of the 7 great train journeys in the world, the Coastal Scenic and the Taieri Gorge Railway. Through a connection I managed to get the chance to ride in the cab with the driver. This would be no dark satanic steam locomotive but a diesel locomotive, a vast pulsating behemoth. As I left home, I felt an excitement coming on me, an urge to make something of an event this special, to open myself to the adventure and see what it had to tell me.

Whatever that was.

My publisher had emailed me a copy of the text. Reading it over the night before, I marked paragraphs that could be subjects for images. The author, whose name I have yet to learn, talked of his journey as a young man along with his friends, and how those memories interweaved with a recent journey on the Tranzalpine. It reminded me of travelling on the Cabbage Train to Arthurs Pass, of how we used to hide in the toilets to avoid having to pay for a ticket. Well, that was the theory. Looking back I think we did it for the challenge of beating the system. Interspersed amongst it were references to Bob Dylan, to his music, which has always seemed to me to have the quality of a steam loco’s wail in the night, a celebration of the Forlorn. And therein perhaps lies the fascination of a train. It is a breaking away from daily life, a shared journey to..Elsewhere.

And so I set forth.

Climbing up into the cab made me realise how massive the engines are. 1500 horsepower, 30 tons, 6 electric motors, a giant steel elephant with a rumbling heart. The mental metaphors were flowing thick and fast, my pulse rate was up, the train bug was biting badly…Snatches of songs heard across the years were finding their way to the front of my mind. Steve Earle whispered in my ears:

Can’t you hear her blowin

Can’t you hear her blowin
Wonder where shes goin

Can’t you hear her blowin

I was digging my way down into a place I had long forgotten, barely considered.

Perhaps I was beginning to understand.

And then we ambled off in an inexorable way. As we picked up speed, there was a sense of power, of inevitability. Perched that high above the landscape, the view was one of dominance. Factories, buildings, office flicked by. We skidded through intersections where traffic waited, drifted into view then slid away, the Doppler effect of the bells only adding to the effect of invincibility. We were on a journey and nothing could stop us. A schoolboy on a bicycle watched us with enthusiasm; a truck driver eyed us languidly from the cab of his B-train. Daily life flicked past in snatches, and then we were clear of the city.

But I had multiple views. Through the front window I could see the lines ahead, contemplate the future. Out of the side window a seemingly endless series of moments, of hastily-arranged script of scenes that snapped into view then slid away. Ahead the future; beside me the present. My life was flicking past me, a cine reel of frames peeling the covers off the day. Perhaps the fascination of train travel lay in this sense of being in a movie, of being out of temporal control.

As I looked at each of them I began to consider how they clipped together, how I could link both future and past together visually. Could I extend the photographer’s mythical 1/60second, expand its time frame and yet hold the moment?

So I began to work both side and front windows together. This time it was the Doobie Brothers singing to me:

Down around the corner half a mile from here
see them both feet run and you watch them disappear

…with the feeling always central and the southern central freight
you got to keep on pushing mamma you know they’re running late

On through Springfield, up past Staircase, where a coal train waited patiently for us to pass, and over the Broken River Viaduct, pushing tunnels aside, leaning into curves, until we paused for breath, to take stock in Arthurs Pass. One card, two card, 3 card, four. The images were spilling from my camera, and I could no longer remember what I had shot. That would have to wait. Because I did not have a gas mask ticket, I would ride down the Otira tunnel in the carriages. As I climbed down onto the platform, the passengers were spilling out, tottering and stumbling in the fierce wind. An elderly Chinese woman wrestled with a suddenly-recalcitrant silk scarf. Her friends did not notice. I watched a video camera lead a middle-aged tourist by the nose, persuading him that the world unrolling on his screen was better than the real thing. As I climbed into the nearest coach and moved down the aisle, I noticed another couple sitting, unmoved by the grandeur outside. He was unpicking the crossword in a carefully-folded newspaper; she was deep in the pleasurable mire of a celebrity gossip column. According to ‘Oscar’, the Baby Secret had been blabbed (complete with exclamation mark). Naomi Watts was pregnant and ‘set to marry’. That strident punctuation mark told me I really should know who Naomi Watts was. I didn’t.

I moved past and found a seat with the train staff.

Then we descended into the Pit, down the Hole, as the staff called it, the sunlight blanked out, and the world settled down into a rumbling, shuffling darkness. In the ghastly glare from the fluorescent lights and the enforced jollity of the passengers as we descended, balladeer Chris Rea whispered in my ear:

Well I’m standing by a river
But the water doesn’t flow
It boils with every poison you can think of
And I’m underneath the streetlight
Not the light of joy I know
Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows
And the perverted fear of violence
Chokes the smile on every face
And common sense is ringing out the bell
This ain’t no technological breakdown
Oh no, this is the road to hell

Then the tunnel, as if unimpressed, spat us out into a dour grey Westland day with all the humour of a fundamentalist preacher. Otira hunched its shoulders against the rain and turned its back on us. In 20 minutes we had crossed over into a parallel universe, where Time stood around, its hands in its pockets. Mist clung to the hills like an unwelcome guest at a party and the light had a soft grey luminosity that brought out the intense orange hues of the lichen-infested boulders. I scrambled backup into the cab, we picked up speed and pushed on down the valley. The caravan was underway.

As we neared Aickens, through the rain-smeared front window I saw a white truck approaching, trailing skirts of spray behind itself. It nodded dourly to us, put its head down then was gone. The rain closed in, surrounded us, kept pace. Informed my photography.

And in the perfect melancholy of a Westland day I felt a piano playing and Gary Jules crooning:

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It’s a very, very
Mad World
Mad world.

11 Responses

  1. Alan Blacklock says:

    In 1936, John Grierson, accepted as the father of the documentary genre (and a Scotsman) produced a film for the General Post Office. The movie is listed as one of the 50 most influential documentaries ever and is the story of how mail is sorted on the overnight mail train. The following poem, by W.H. Auden, forms part of the soundtrack and to me, evokes imagery similar to your commentary on the TransAlpine.

    Night Mail

    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 and 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 the 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 the bedroom gently shakes.

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

    Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
    Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
    Receipted bills and invitations
    To inspect new stock or 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 in the margin,
    Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
    Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
    Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
    Notes from overseas to Hebrides
    Written on paper of every hue,
    The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
    The chatty, the catty, the boring, 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 at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
    Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
    Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
    They continue their dreams,
    And shall wake soon and long for letters,
    And none will hear the postman’s knock
    Without a quickening of the heart,
    For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

  2. bb says:

    With such emotive words, Tony, we hardly need to see the images! I imagine the series is totally different to the other doco sets you have shared with us. You must have had a great journey on the train as well as reviewing your journey through life. It will be interesting to see the book sometime. Once again thanks for the insight . . .

  3. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi bb:
    I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose it could be seen as a review of my life. it wasn’t meant that way.
    It was an attempt to show how what I am feeling influences how I interact with my subject. In this case, I approached with no preconceptions…I think, just a fistful of expectation of…
    What happened thereafter was a revelation, or the beginning of one. I will be unpacking for some time to come.
    Sometimes I think our prejudices and preconceptions really blind us to what is on offer, and so we take refuge in what we know. It
    is easier that way.
    And safer.
    I might add..writing that piece took a lot of courage and over a week. It fought me to the finish.
    Sometimes our angels come dressed as demons..

  4. Tony Bridge says:

    my deepest thanks for sharing that poem with us. I can really hear the rhythm of the trains passing.
    Auden really was a genius.
    Querulous of Queenspark

  5. Alan Blacklock says:

    Meanwhile at the Queenspark Camera Club amidst the idolatry for technology which was essentially electronic, thus arcane, the two engineers shook their heads.

    For them the world was one of obvious strengths and power. Anybody could gauge the machine’s capabilities just by looking at it. Anybody could appreciate the quality of engineering just by examining the wear surfaces and laud the skills of the artisans who work to such close tolerances. Yes, this is the epitome of man’s industry, man’s ability to wrought form from lump, man’s ability to forge great machines. The machine served another, some say a more practical, purpose than photography. Engineering is to be a part of the infrastructure of this great nation and to facilitate the conduct of commerce.

    Yes said the engineer, it is good to be alive.

    The engineers thought, but what of those people who are drooling over TLAs and other MLAs. What substance does this small hand held plastic lump have. What good does mankind get from it and what is this talk of changing the plastic lump completely in eighteen months time? How foolish is that? We the engineers have made this locomotive that works just as well today as it did fifty years ago, and, it will probably work for fifty more.
    Look, said the first engineer, I have photographs from the day the loco was christened, my friend here has others from when it was shipped to Aotearoa and we have several albums of her career in the service of our country. We cherish the emotions felt when looking at these pictures.

    The group of photographers parted and their leader, Anthony Heisenberg, signaled he wished to speak. The hush was palpable, the atmosphere highly charged, the words delivered with a strength seldom heard in these halls……..”Gentlemen, we exist in separate environments and our orbits, occasionally, come together. It is then we look at each other and wonder. We wonder the how and we wonder the why of our separate industries”

    Anthony paused as if he was mentally choosing his words with great care before their delivery and he continued.

    “We are both creators, you the engineers make wondrous things that serve their masters well. We the photographers also make wondrous things that serve to educate, inform, record for posterity and can give joy and comfort to all. We cannot exist without each other, in fact, when we get together and interact, we change each other.”

    “Yes” said the engineers, ” in principle, this guy Heisenberg is right”.

  6. virginia gray says:

    You took me back to my childhood where steam trains – the real thing – were providers of daily thrills. I would rush to the window to watch yet another iron monster steaming by. One day one iron monster came to grief. After heavy rain a huge slip put a tree trunk through the guardsvan, killing the guard and toppling the entire train. The huge engine lay, like an exhausted dog, on the main road, puffing smoke. It seemed that each puff would be its last, the coals rapidly cooling and the fireglow growing paler. No stoker to fill the firebox. I felt very sad to see this invincible monster showing distinct signs of weakness. Engines are not supposed to lie on the road. Thanks for stirring the memories, Tony

  7. Tony Bridge says:

    many thank for that.
    You have a point, dammit…..
    Many thanks for your comments and the tale.Fortunately I nhave never seen such a thing…nor do I wish to…

  8. Alan Blacklock says:

    With apologies to the various authors especially Tony, and to the keepers of good English.

    As I climbed into the driver’s cab
    Parts metallic, parts all drab
    Realizing the raw power
    Of 1500 horses power
    This giant steel elephant
    Had a rumbling heart

    Mental metaphors flowed thick and fast
    Childhood memories from the past
    Songs of youth, those early years
    Came to my lips and to my ears
    Steve Earl’s words came to the knowing
    “Can’t you hear her, she’s a blowin”
    Wonder where this old girl’s a going

    From memories past to Arthur’s present
    Along straight lines and those of crescent
    Her passage was but quick and lively
    My pulse echoed pace as in allegro
    At last I began to understand
    This was no British ley land
    Then I knew and understood
    This was the moor and heath of my childhood

  9. Michaela says:

    Ich bin mit einer Dampflok aufgewachsen, taeglich lief ich am Bahnhof vorbei auf dem Weg zur Schule. Wenn ich heute eine Dampflok (steam train) sehe, hoere oder rieche, muss ich unwillkuerlich an zu Hause denken, an die Heimat in der ich so gerne aufgewachsen bin in Ostdeutschland. Als ich dieses Jahr im Juni daheim war bei meinen Eltern bin ich natuerlich auch wieder zum Bahnhof gelaufen und mit dem Zug gefahren, das gehoert einfach dazu. Nicht nur der Spaziergang mit den Eltern, der Besuch bei der Oma, ein Stueck Schwarzwaelderkirsch Torte, nein eine Zugfahrt die muss sein in der guten alten Dampflok, wie damals.

    Ich vermisse meinen deutschen Zug in Neuseeland und besonders den Dampf der auf Nimmerwiedersehen im Himmel verpufft, die Gerauschkulisse und die monotone Vorwaertsbewegung die mich immer so in Trance versetzt und abschalten laesst. Ganz aehnlich wie es Dir ergangen ist, das Leben zieht an einem vorbei und im selben Moment scheint die Zeit still zu stehen. Eine Zeitreise die sich wie Stillstand anfuehlt, wahnsinn.

    Ich merke wie viel leichter es mir faellt, meine gedanken in deutsch auszudruecken, vielleicht sollte ich mein Blog doch wieder in Deutsch schreiben, die Sprache liegt mir so viel naeher am Herzen, was meinst Du? Kann man seine Gefuehle ueberhaupt so richtig in einer fremden Sprache sprich “Fremdsprache” zum Ausdruck bringen?

    Bis bald Tony

  10. Tony Bridge says:

    Vielen dank dafur. Freut mich sehr, dass du etwas geschrieb’n hast, besonders auf deutsch.
    Als ich deutsch lernte, als ich ” Bahnwarter Thiel” von Gerhart Hauptmann bei der Universitat studierte, konnte ich sehen, dass es Konzepte, Ideen gibt, die ausser Ubersetzung stehen.
    Wenn man kann nur erklaren, was sich im persohnlichtsten befindet, dann so muss es sein.
    Und vielleicht ist das die Grundprobleme der Fotografie, das Vorbei von Leben gegen Moment.

  11. Michaela says:

    auf die Gefahr hin dass nur wir beide das hier verstehen … ich habe viel darueber nachgedacht in den letzten monaten, was ist der nutzen der Fotografie fuer mich. Nur erinnerungen bewahren, den moment heiligen und immer wieder in die vergangenheit zu diesem moment zurueckkehren?

    Oder ist der sinn der fotografie vielleicht einzig und alleine diese momente wahrzunehmen ohne sie zu fotografieren? Sie einfach zu geniessen ohne zu selektieren?

    Ich habe fuer mich entdeckt das diese besonderen momente im austausch mit anderen menschen und kulturen zu finden sind, wow, what a feeling! So wie gestern, als ich im zug (wieder im zug 🙂 von Kota Bahru in Malaysia immer tiefer in den Dschungel fuhr und die menschen beobachtete die auch im zug sitzen und mich fragend anschauen, wer ist diese weisse frau? Ich wunderte mich was sie in ihrer fremdlaendischen mir unverstaendlich sprache wohl ueber mich sagen? Ich habe mich besonders gluecklich gefuehlt als ich diesen moment wahrnahm, das gegenseitige interesse spurte und das verlangen es fotografisch festzuhalten. In diesem moment wusste ich, das ist was! Und ich tat es, aber es weare auch ohne foto gegangen…

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