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Kirsty Wark: in praise of the London to Glasgow sleeper train

The Newsnight presenter hotfoots it to Euston from the BBC and unwinds with a glass of Scotch and some political gossip.

One for the rails: Christmas in a train buffet car, 1934
One for the rails: Christmas in a train buffet car, 1934. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty

Almost at the beginning of the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern there is a room with canvases painted during the years when he was commuting by train between London and Newcastle to lecture at the School of Art at Newcastle University.

They are a series of fleeting, blurred pictures, infused with a dreamy atmosphere, that draw you in deeply. They are the artist’s thoughts from the carriage window. They strike a chord, those seconds and minutes and hours when you look into the middle distance and lose yourself in a journey. It could be from south to north, flatland to the mountains, through forests to the city. I have always loved travelling by train, the departures and arrivals in great handsome cathedrals: Central station in Glasgow, Grand Central in New York, the Gare du Nord  in Paris, or, most of all, well-maintained Victorian stops such as Aviemore and Ilkley. They are a direct connection with our industrial heritage but the routes and the rails still carry thousands upon thousands of us each day.

One of my earliest memories as a child was of the furore around the Beeching cuts, when rail gave way – temporarily, as it turned out – to road. In those days it was an adventure to travel by train from the relative country atmosphere of Kilmarnock to the noisy, sooty city of Glasgow, a journey my father made to work for more than 35 years. He was often impatient with the lateness and the lack of comfort of that 30-odd-minute train ride, but it was by far the best way to travel – a chance to read on the way to work and to decompress on the way back. 

So, now I travel between London and Glasgow by train most weeks. Sometimes, like Richard Hamilton, I stare out at the hilly, heathery landscape between Locker­bie south to Preston, hoping to see birds of prey and the odd deer high up on the fells, but most times I’m travelling north in the darkness. For 20 years now I have followed the routine of the night sleeper train from Euston. I bolt from the Newsnight studio as soon as the lights go down, swapping high heels for something more suitable for running, just in case Dave Murden, our Newsnight driver, encounters traffic, even in the short distance from Portland Place to Euston. Even when he does, though, he always finds a way to get me there. I have missed it only once.

The train has a social life all of its own, but one that’s a lot less colourful than in years past. When there were division bells at Westminster on a Thursday night, an army of MPs would descend on the train, seeking out cross-party tables or their own kind. There was a tacit agreement that what was spoken about on the train stayed on the train, aided by the discreet train staff, who have been known to help the odd passenger to bed in the early hours, only because a driver might be a little cavalier with a sweeping bend on the line, of course.

I can remember when the late Donald Dewar would dodge some of his own back bench, and front bench, for that matter. Particularly paining for him was one winter night when they were all cooped up together for 22 hours in bad weather. The Polar Express it was not. I remember one night of particularly good banter between a Conservative peer and a left-wing Labour MP campaigning for land reform. I miss all that craic, even though it sometimes meant retiring to my cabin at two in the morning.

Now my ritual usually consists of a quick catch-up with the staff in the lounge car as they put ice in my glass and I choose my malt of the night. I used to be loyal to Bruichladdich but for some reason the Islay distillery no longer supplies miniatures. Now, I might choose Highland Park, my late father’s favourite, or a Glenfiddich. On the nights when I fail to eat take-out at my desk at Newsnight (in the office, not on air) I will sit and have – believe me – delicious Macsween’s haggis and a glass of red wine.

There is a trick to a good night’s sleep, apart from whisky, and it’s choosing the right cabin. Anything between number nine and 15 will do, as those compartments are not over the wheels. Don’t all rush now! The berths are hardly the luxury of the Orient Express (at least, I imagine) and it is pretty gross to have carpets up the walls, but the duvets are comfortable. The washbags are unimaginative but recently there are beautiful purple and red travelling blankets at the foot of the bed . . . so beautiful, in fact, that passengers have stolen so many that Lochcarron mill apparently has had another big order; every cloud has a tartan lining. Most of all, the sleeper staff are unfailingly helpful and good-humoured, role models for others on the railways. But just one plea to whoever wins the new Caledonian Sleeper contract this summer: is too much to ask for en suite in the 21st century?

The railway, sometimes called the permanent way, is a strong, powerful steel thread connecting Scotland and England, carrying climbers, musicians, business people, politicians, holidaymakers and students, back and forth between the two countries, north to south and south to north, and no matter the outcome of September’s referendum vote, the trains will steam on regardless. 

Kirsty Wark’s novel, “The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle”, will be published on 13 March