Unpicking the threads
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