Back then, I did a fair bit of train travel. Home on leave from the Navy, entitled to cheap rail tickets, and lacking a car (or a licence) - of course I went by train.
At Plymouth or Portsmouth or Inverkeithing (closest station to Rosyth Dockyard, unless you got a train that stopped at North Queensferry), I’d be hauling my pusser’s grip (Navy issue bag) into a carriage, tossing it up into the luggage rack, and settling down into the seat, waiting for the clunk.
Actually there’d be a whole series of clunks, getting steadily louder and then fainter, as the guard worked his way along the train, slamming the doors shut. Then there’d be a whistle, and a jerk, and we’d be on the way.
I can’t remember when the clunks stopped. Apparently, in some regions, these old ‘slam-door’ trains persisted until quite recently. But I haven’t done much rail travel since I finally past my test and got a car, and when I have done there was no clunk, just a snake-like hiss as the doors slithered into place, automatically closed and locked at the touch of a button somewhere else on the train.
But it all came back again last Saturday, when I took a trip on the Avon Valley Railway (http://www.avonvalleyrailway.org/) in a sixty year old carriage. It had compartments, and wood panels, and little lines on the windows to mark the points beyond which you shouldn’t open them or you’d get a draught. And it had doors that you had to open by reaching through the window to turn the handle on the outside. And they went clunk when they were slammed shut just before we left the station.
It would be silly to get too nostalgic over a sound – especially one that, back in its day, was so commonplace that most people wouldn’t even notice it. Modern trains with modern doors are much safer, after all.
But there’s a link between fantasy and history. For people who haven’t lived through it, the past is a sort of fantasy – it’s another world, a different world. Similar to their own, but strange and exotic as well. And for those of us who did once live there, remembering the past is to renew our links not only with a different world, but with different people. The friends and family we shared it with have grown up, changed it various ways, or gone away. We ourselves are not the people we once were. Hopefully, we are better, wiser, more mature! But we are certainly different.
L.P. Hartley began his novel ‘The Go Between’ (which I really must read sometime) with this powerful sentence: ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. But I’d put it a little differently: ‘The past is a fantasy land, we are different people there.’
That’ a lot to come out of a slammed door. But that is the only way we can now travel to that other world. Not with a magic portal or a H.G. Wells time machine (if only!) - but with a sound or a smell or a sight that triggers the memory of something once ordinary and dull, now rare and wonderful.
Such as a clunk.