On Trains

Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost

- Bob Dylan


Memory is a palimpsest, recent theory speculates. When we remember, we revisit and in that process revise a site we have been to before. In other words, we don’t go back to the unrecoverable original trace, but to our most recent remembrance of it. If this is so, each enactment becomes a re-enactment, each indulgence a re-indulgence, iteration piled upon iteration, past repletion, in a dizzying maze of revisions and reversions that makes a shape as repetitive, redundant and baroque as the Mandelbrot Set.

A memory is like a treasure box, then, full of objects that have been handled so often they are as if varnished with age. In the Tanimbar Islands in eastern Indonesia, this image is made literal: treasure boxes are taken, on special occasions, down from the rafters of the house, opened, the precious things within unwrapped and under the sightless eye sockets of the skulls of the ancestors, passed from hand to hand while their stories are re-told, after which both they and those who have handled them are ceremonially oiled before the taonga are re-stowed in the rafters.

My earliest memory is of a bull calf, Sooky; or rather, it is a memory of my solo visit to the bull calf’s paddock; but, curiously, this memory includes within it reference to an earlier occasion which, while it surely happened, I do not in fact recall. In this strange concatenation an opening appears, or seems to appear, into the dark backward that is childhood before memory traces are made, as in the testimony of those who claim to recall the unrecallable, their rupture from the womb.

I am walking down a path towards a gate. I am so small, and the grass on either side so tall, that the seed heads bend above me, making an arch. Cocksfoot, browntop, featherhead, rye. I am scared but determined. Scared because Sooky the bull calf lives in the paddock behind the gate and, although I have been this way before with my sisters (this is the recall inside the memory), I have never come alone. To come this way alone is also the root of my determination. I reach the end of the path and climb up the wooden slats of the gate set into a hedge, which is in fact more fence than gate, since I don’t know how, or even if, it opened. And I look at Sooky the black bull calf, who looks back at me with drool looping off his muzzle. Exultant and afraid, heart hammering, trembling …

That was when we rented the Farm House at Ohakune Junction off Mr McCullough, the Headmaster of the District High where my father taught. I am less then three years old because I was born while we lived in that house and we only stayed there three years before buying and moving into our own place in Burns Street. The Farm House had a long hilly drive down to the road and a cottage on the left near the bottom where another family lived. It was very close to the Main Trunk Line and we must have heard the trains passing daily and nightly, as they did in those days and perhaps still do.

Many years later, or ago, I tried to persuade myself I remembered the pattern on the linoleum floors of the corridors of Raetihi Hospital, where I came into the world, but this was either a recall of subsequent visits or a fiction. As a matter of fact, I was a large baby and in giving birth to me, my mother suffered a tearing of her abdominal muscles that necessitated an operation about six months later to repair the damage. In her autobiography she remarks that when Dr Jordan came to speak with her beforehand, he asked, as if he were God and she Eve, did she want a navel? Yes, she said, but ever after her belly was lumpy and wrinkled and on the few occasions I saw it, I felt a pang because I knew I had, albeit inadvertently, done that to her.

We were breastfed babies so I went back to the hospital with her for the op, but that is still too early for memories of linoleum. Nevertheless, when I consider that pre-conscious life, the one we all have and all forget, I sometimes imagine myself at her breast in the dead of night while the Limited Express passes up or down the island, its chuff-chuff-chuffa and hiss of steam, its whistle coming into or pulling out of the station—not a memory as such but a pre-memory, something lodged in the senses which would be reprised again and again, through just about every night of my childhood until I was ten years old, becoming a part of me, like mother’s milk.

Of course these nightly visitations mostly happened while I was sleeping and so must have been more like dreams; but there were many times when I woke in the Burns Street house and heard the north bound train labouring as it pulled across the face of Te Rangakaika, the range of bush covered hills before Ruapehu, just a mile or two away across the Mangwhero river and the Waimarino plain from where we lived. The enormous banshee-wail of the train whistle would echo off the flank of the mountain and ghost across the dark and otherwise silent land like a loneliness too awful for words, and it would be a comfort to snuggle back down under the covers and listen to the sound of the metal wheels dying along the rails.


I don’t know when the books of the Rev. W. Awdry entered my life but it must have been early. I still have some of the old hardback copies from my childhood; the sadly disintegrated one open on the desk beside me as I write is Railway Series No. 1, the very first, published in May 1945 by Edmund Ward of 16 New Street, Leicester, and reprinted twelve times before this impression, from October 1952, when I was just nine months old. It’s called The Three Railway Engines and has beautiful colour plate illustrations by C. Reginald Dalby.

The three engines are Gordon the Big Engine, Henry the Green Engine and Edward the Blue Engine and the picture on the first page shows six engines in one railway shed, none of which is Thomas the Tank Engine, with whom the series has since become indelibly associated. I’m not quite sure now who all the six engines in the picture actually are but I do know that, when young, I tended to conflate the children in our family with the Rev. W. Awdry’s engines. We were, in descending order of seniority, Gordon, Henry, James, Edward, Percy and Thomas. In this strange simulacrum of myself and my siblings, which transgendered all of my five sisters, I was James the Red Engine, a disagreeable character, vain and self-important, who suffers a calamitous fall. These original stories are in fact all quite disagreeable (one of their favoured words) in themselves, since, like the contemporary Snakes and Ladders, they attempt to narrate virtue rewarded and vice punished in a fairly hamfisted manner.

This didn’t bother me as a child because I didn’t really rate the morality tale ahead of the actual trials and tribulations of the engines themselves, their humiliations and heroisms, their failures and triumphs. Now when I open the books, it is the pictures that bring back those long ago emotions, for example the claustrophobic terror I felt and still feel at the sight of Henry the Green Engine being bricked up in a tunnel because he refused to allow his new coat of paint to get wet in the rain. In this instance, the moral failed to bite, since I could never see that anything done or not done by Henry justified such an horrific punishment.

Another peculiarity of these stories was that the clean, brightly coloured and personable engines, with their lips and eyes and noses, bore little resemblance to the heaving black oily steam-wreathed monsters that pulled the real trains we saw, more or less on a daily basis. The school I went to, Ohakune Primary, had running behind it a branch line connecting Raetihi and the Junction, and it was a favourite sport of ours, during or after school, to go up the back where the macrocarpas grew and watch the train go by.

It was a small engine, with perhaps a couple of trucks and one carriage for passengers, plus Guard’s Van, but tremendous for all that, with its hissing of steam and thundering of wheels. Sometimes we placed pennies on the track and marvelled at the way they returned elongated and skinny and bowed from being squeezed between wheel and rail. Sometimes, too, we indulged a fantasy that too close an encounter with a train would lead to you being sucked under the engine or the carriages, and so, having come as near as we dared, we clutched onto trackside bracken or scrub for support in an ecstasy of pretended fear for our lives.

The fatality of trains was real enough, however, as attested by the Tangiwai Disaster which, while it occurred when I was not quite two years old, loomed balefully over the rest of our lives in that place. For a long time you could see in the river bed the ruined carriages lying alongside the tumbled pillars of the bridge swept away by the combined weight of the north bound train and the lahar flooding out of Ruapehu’s crater lake; and everybody in that small community had a tale to tell, usually of loss and grief, though not always: Barry Reynolds, who lived a few doors up from us in Burns Street, coming home for Christmas, caught the train in Taihape and, because he rode in the almost empty first carriage which, with the engine, made it across before the bridge fell, survived the wreck.

And then there was the fatality of the Whangaehu (wan-guy-hoo, we said, not fanga-ehu) itself, the turbid stream, with its sulphurous smell and cloudy yellow waters, as if it was a river out of hell, whose malignity, it seemed to me, was a cause of the taking of the train and the death, among so many others, of laughing Clare Kennedy who had lived, with her sister Gay and her many Irish brothers, on a farm out at Karioi where we were lucky enough sometimes to go.


I never really understood why the railway station at Greytown, the place we moved to after leaving Ohakune, stood at Woodside, five miles from the town. It seemed unaccountable, given the flatness of the terrain, especially since all the other places on that line—Featherston, Carterton, Masterton, Eketahuna, Pahiatua, Mangatainoka, Woodville—had stations where they belonged, in or at least on the outskirts of town.

On the other hand, that railway line was in itself a kind of boy’s paradise we would ride to on our bikes at the weekend or in the holidays, to ramble untrammelled through the long dusty afternoons down the hot rails all the way to the river bridge where we swam in deep pools beneath the piles and sometimes heard the thrilling sound of a train going over above, shaking the world to its implacable core. Or perhaps it would be a jigger, those odd engineless vehicles that were worked up and down the rails by men, usually in pairs, operating levers.

Parallel to the train tracks on the further side there was a grassy step about a dozen feet high that marked the fault line of the 1855 earthquake, the same one that raised the shelf of land upon which the Hutt Road leading into Wellington runs. It was strange to contemplate the extreme regularity of this upthrust, suggesting as it did that somewhere beneath the chaos of appearances there was another, more arcane, geological order to things.

It was near this prodigy, in one of those mysterious gravel pits you find next to railway lines, that a group of us stripped off one day and compared our rapidly burgeoning private parts, searching out and counting the black pubic hairs just beginning to grow down there: he who had the most somehow thereby gained the highest status among us. I remember my own modest total, seventeen, but little else beyond the peculiarity of Douglas Workman’s cock, which, when erect, bent alarmingly to one side like a banana. And that Grant Batty, the future All Black, whom we called Butch, had the smallest one any of us had ever seen.

Further away, up in the wilds of the Rimutakas, were the remains of a railway worked, like the line in Awdry’s Mountain Engines, by trains that hooked onto a third chain-rail running along the centre between the other two. On a tramp up there one time I saw a stretch of this defunct track culminating in a tunnel that brought to mind the only one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories to have left a trace in my memory, about a ghost train that ran ferociously out of just such a derelict tunnel in the black of night towards some fatal destination. I have forgotten the probably mundane explanation for this phenomenon—smuggling perhaps—while retaining the image of the driverless engine hurtling on forever in all its terror and beauty.

If you were going to Wellington from Greytown, you went either by road over the windy Rimutakas or to Woodside to catch the railcar through the tunnel under them, coming out at Maymorn and traversing the evocatively named stations on that route: Brown Owl, Upper Hutt, Trentham, Silverstream, Taita, Naenae, Waterloo, Ava, Petone and then on through Ngauranga and Kaiwharawhara to the vastness of Wellington Railway Station, forever associated in my mind with the rolling stock full of rotting meat and oranges my father remembered seeing there during the Depression.

Woodside is in fact linked for me with my father in his aged state, because he retired to Greytown and sometimes after my visits to him he would drive me out to the station and I would leave by train. At one of these partings, on a bleak winter morning with the grey horizontal rain blowing off the Tararuas, as if negating my youthful priapism just down the line, he confided that he had not had an erection for years and furthermore that it was ‘a relief’. This was one of the side effects of the pills he took for his depression and his panic attacks.

After that dismal occasion, or another, I remember being at Woodville Station waiting for a train and, to get out of the cold, sheltering in the providentially open waiting room. For some reason I left the room for a moment, perhaps to go to the toilet, and the mean wind slammed the door shut behind me, locking my luggage inside. For those ten minutes or so, alone on the deserted platform, my habitual melancholy took on cosmic proportions and I utterly despaired, until a battered Vauxhall Velox made its uncertain way into the station carpark and a glum railwayman unlocked the waiting room door.

Those waiting rooms, in earlier days and on the Main Trunk Line, stayed open all night with a coal fire burning in the grate, a radio playing and some cheerful blokes sitting over it with mugs of railway tea and packets of Greys or Park Drive or Pocket Edition tobacco; I recall once at Taihape spending a few feet-warming hours in one of these listening, improbably, to rock ‘n’ roll records playing on a Sydney, Australia station they had somehow picked up.


We moved again, to Huntly, where our house at 5 Dudley Avenue on the derisively named Nob Hill overlooked a hillside of clay and gorse, the rugby league ground where Test matches were sometimes played, and the shunting yards that worked all night long as trucks of coal from the mines arrived and were assembled into trains by hard working diesel engines. By this time—but when did it happen?—steam engines were a curiosity you hardly ever encountered.

Branch lines served the mines both west and east of the town: Kimihia, Rotowaro, Glen Afton, Pukemiro, where little cottages clung to steep hillsides and in winter hardly saw the sun. At Trevor McLeish’s Glen Afton house, tiny as it was, the front room was never used unless there was a wedding or a funeral and the furniture in there lay silent and still under white covers while everyone crowded around the coal range in the kitchen, like an engine itself with its hot black iron and red and yellow lights, its hissing, steaming wetback.

Those nights at Dudley Avenue, especially Thursday nights, I would lie awake in my Education Department built prefabricated room away from the main house, in form not unlike a railway hut, listening to that incessant revving and clanging and crashing, wondering at the infernal energy that drove men to work around the clock; yet never once questioned the utility of the wagons of gleaming black coal because in all the years of my growing up we were never without a fire, sustained by lumps of coal that glowed on long after the wood had gone to powdery grey ash.

Huntly was on the Main Trunk Line as well but the Limited came through early in the evening, from Auckland, and then early the next morning, from Wellington, and the line was so busy that it seemed without the enormous significance it had in ‘Kune: just another train. Whereas the shunting yard has stayed with me and every time Red Alert, the rock ‘n’ roll band I went to America with, played their cover of Warren Zevon’s Nighttime in the Switching Yard I was back there in the wee small hours hearing that sound like industrial teeth grinding.

Later still, when we had moved from Huntly to Heretaunga, and my father suffered his first breakdown and my mother announced herself as a poet, it came to be time for me to leave home and I did so on the Limited Express. Though only notionally together by now, both parents saw me off, with my three younger sisters in tow, at the Wellington Railway Station and I rode the length of the Main Trunk Line to Auckland alone and for the very first time.

It was a memorable trip, not just because I was leaving home: early on, myself and another stray youth teamed up with two girls travelling together and, sitting in pairs opposite each other, with a tartan blanket over our knees (my mother had sewed my surname on one corner of it), we played cards for most of the night. I have forgotten the girl’s name but can still remember the delicious feeling of our legs entwined together under the blanket, though it seems strange to me now that that’s all we did. She wore tartan as well and was prettier than her friend, or so I thought at the time.

All through my University years we travelled home and away by train, stopping for refreshments at Frankton (Hamilton), Taihape and Palmerston North. You’d go to buy your pie or sandwich or cake and cup of tea in the station cafeteria and take the heavy crockery plate and cup and saucer, with their blue NZR monograms, back to your seat and afterwards leave them on the floor to be collected later by a railwayman with a wheeled wooden trolley that clunked up the aisle. They seemed unbreakable, even when one cut loose and rolled up and down or from side to side in the carriage. You could smoke on the train as well, and drink, though I don’t recall doing that.

Mostly you’d try to sleep against the two big white pillows hired on the platform before the journey began, surfacing at each stop to see the blurred shapes of people joining or leaving the train, their breath steaming in the cold night air, huddled into coats as they went to their cars. I always tried to stay awake through the King Country, say from National Park to Taihape if I was going south, because I loved seeing the white or dark outline of Ruapehu on the skyline, the romance of viaducts over bush-filled gorges, the to me intensely evocative huddle of railway houses at Ohakune Junction where all the loneliness in the world seemed domiciled and where I imagined for years my own estranged soul wandered with the ghosts of trees.

One summer in those University years—it must have been 1971-2—I spent travelling both islands doing casual agricultural work here and there, and ended up, at the fag end of January, as a farm hand on a Lands and Survey block out the back of Stratford, Taranaki, at a place called Pohokura. Our boss, a genial man with the improbable name of Herbie Blank, surpervised half a dozen Borstal boys and me about the daily tasks that are to be done running sheep and cattle on a fairly rugged back country farm.

Fridays, we’d go down to the railway line at the bottom of the drive and catch a ride on a train going to Whangamomona just a few miles east. We’d drink at the pub until closing time, when the same train, consisting of an engine, a couple of carriages and a guard’s van, trundled back to—Stratford I suppose. It’d let us off at the cattle stop on Herbie Blank’s drive and we’d roll up the hill to the shearers’ quarters and roll ourselves into our single wire frame beds to sleep it off till crack of dawn when the farm work started up again.

The New Plymouth to Taumarunui railcar went through on that line too and you could also hitch a ride on that if you wanted to. One morning I got up at 4 a.m. and went down the drive in a darkness so intense I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. When I saw the faint glow of the railcar’s headlight beam in the west, I stood out on the track waving my arms above my head, then leapt clear as the train approached. Somewhat to my surprise, it stopped; even more surprising, there wasn’t another passenger aboard, so I rode up front with the driver and the guard, whose sport was counting the possums sitting out on the rails that we squashed as we rocketed through the bush into the dawn.

I don’t remember what train I caught to Auckland but I do recall in intense lysergic assisted detail the Rolling Stones concert at Western Springs stadium that was my reason for going there. The moment Mick Jagger stepped to the microphone to sing the words of the old Robert Johnston song Love in Vain

When the traaaaiiiiiiin come in the staaaaaation ….

seemed to last forever and I can replay it in my mind any time I want. At the end of the concert, the huge black man who’d spent most of his time on stage slowly bouncing a big coloured ball, came forward with a bowl of rose petals with which Mick showered the audience—or at least those few within reach of the stage.

Next day, coming down again, I caught the train back to Pohokura. And not long after that, but I don’t know how long, trains ceased to be the first choice of travel among us and we began to go about by road, either hitch-hiking or driving in old cars we had somehow acquired.


When, a few years down the track, in Wellington, I wrote one of the first pieces of work I can still feel the magic of, it was a set of variations on a theme by W. B. Yeats, entitled Stations. The Yeats’ poem is called Hound Voice and begins: Because we love bare hills and stunted trees / And were the last to choose the settled ground / … Our voices carry; which for some reason reminded me of growing up in Ohakune. The work is in three parts and each part is named after a railway station: Horopito, The Junction, Tangiwai; all of them attempt to dramatise the moment of departure, a young man leaving on a train from a place he will never forget but won’t return to either. Romantic as that but I was young, just twenty-four at the time.

The work took its theme from Yeats but, formally, it was based upon a poem by Charles Olson, his Variations done for Gerald Van De Wiele, which includes three versions of the Rimbaud lyric from Une Saison en Enfer, the one that begins: O saisons, ô châteaux! / Quelle âme est sans défauts! // J’ai fait la magique étude / Du bonheur, qu’aucun n’élude. Olson translates: What soul / is without fault // Nobody studies / happiness … in the first of his versions.

Stations, which has not been published, was dedicated to my father and I sewed the few pieces of paper it consisted of between manila cards and bound them with a red ribbon to give to him. The booklet returned to me after his death but I don’t recall what comment he made about it, if indeed he made any. This was in strict contrast to my mother who, on the rare occasions I showed her any of my writing, usually had too much to say. It’s odd in retrospect to think that I hung on every word my father did not utter while largely discounting the admirably enthusiastic and informative commentary my mother lavished upon me. Praise can be harder to bear than silence.

These days, after seven biblical years beside the sea, I am once again living near a railway line—the Western Line, that goes from Sydney’s Central Station all the way across the continent to Perth. Sometimes I see the Indian Pacific pass through Summer Hill station in the mid afternoon; other times, usually on a Sunday, I hear the unmistakable chuff-chuff-chuffa and whooo-hooo! of a steam train going by and know it is the 3801, a restored Australian-built 1940s locomotive that does nostalgia runs up to Newcastle and back, one of which I went on, with my sons, for old time’s sake a few years ago.

But mostly what I hear, in the early morning hours, is the sounds of west-bound suburban trains that, by a quirk of architecture, rebound off the brick wall of the next door apartment building straight in my bedroom window. Then, half asleep, I am as if transported back to my childhood in that wooden villa in Burns Street under the spectral mountain, when our family was all one, unbroken, as we liked to imagine we would always be.

If I wake fully, as I often do, I might think about my parents, sundered in life and also in death, buried as they are on opposite sides of the tracks, as well as either side of the Rimutakas, he at Greytown, she in Akatarawa; but together then, during our King Country years. And this thought somehow leads on to a re-visioning of three images co-mingled and set together: the black bull calf Sooky bawling in the home paddock, the babe I was unconscious, milk-drunk at my mother’s breast, and the lonely sound of a train whistle blowing and the great steel wheels rushing by under the dark, bush covered hills of Te Rangakaika.

In all of this, where is my father? Practically speaking he was probably sleeping the sleep of the just as he prepared for another day’s teaching English and Physical Education to the pupils of Ohakune District High School. But in truth he is absent, or perhaps dispersed, partaking of both bull calf and steam train while fully inhabiting neither. While my mother remains the still point and unwobbling pivot of this ideal and quite possibly misbegotten fantasy.

Even so, if it is true that memory is a palimpsest, then this is one I write over again and again in search of the magic combination of letters that will set me free of it; though I know that such freedom is impossible and, even if it were possible, I would not really want it, because those images are me and I them and, like parents and children, without each other we would not exist. This is the strangeness of memory, that we indefatigably attempt to recapture, time after time, what cannot be recaptured.

Here in Summer Hill, after an early morning train passes, there’s always a silence more intense for the noise that has just been. If it’s too soon for the magpies to begin their carolling in the jacaranda tree, and there isn’t another sound to be heard, then my thought shifts away from birth and towards death, going west into the silence … and I wonder why so much melancholy, drama and romance is bound up in trains, why what is just a means of transport continues to have such intense metaphoric resonance for us.

And if I am unable to drop back off to sleep again, I might imagine that this resonance is because a life is indeed like a railway line, with a terminus at either end, and that my birth more than half a century ago in amongst those old cold hills will inevitably, after many stations and much various and variously enjoyed experience, end in death, perhaps in the midst of this thicket of streets and strangers, perhaps somewhere else. I might even remember the concluding lines from Stations and say them over softly, as if talking in my sleep, with a peculiar awareness that words once purporting to describe a young man stepping optimistically forth into the world might now be read as a kind of memento mori:

The station master says
the train will be along on time
any minute now

He puts some coal on the fire
he turns up the radio

The waiting room stays
open till the sun

shines in along the floor.


Bernardus Sylvestris said...

I find this very intense, I am not sure if this is indicative of all your writing.
I like it and spent time reading about the Tangiwai Disaster. How come Australians know no NZ history.
In the meantime, I offer you another meditation on times past which I have been listening to Bob,s radio show can be DLed at
www.whitemanstew.com/mp3/BobRadio/Episode_1/Bob_Ra ...
the first four shows are weather,
Muddy Waters, Frank Sinatra
and strange versions of known songs

mother ,
After that
Trains must be coming.
I can remember watching Johnny Cash on TV when he had a show, singing Jimmy Rogers etc on Trains.

I am listening to one a night to drag it out

Martin Edmond said...

Bernardus - thanks for the Bob link - the wind is crying Mary as I tap ...

Hard for me to say if the essay is characteristic but I like intensity in writing ... & anything else.

It reads a bit more formal to me than what I usually post - a different voice perhaps.

Thanks for feedback too - much appreciated.