The Lung-Hai Railway in War-time

Taken from the New Statesman archive, 16 July 1938

Taken from the New Statesman archive, 16 July 1938

Describing the difficulties of making what should be a simple journey can be a powerful way for a foreign correspondent to make conflict vivid for readers faraway in ordered societies. Isherwood (1904-86) does it deftly here, blending weak tea, boredom and Chinese lessons with an air raid, a fatal derailment and a final, shooting-gallery dash past Japanese guns. He visited China with W H Auden just after his Berlin years, during which he produced the Mr Norris stories that made him famous, and just before he settled for good in the United States. His Chinese experiences are recorded in a book, Journey to a War (1939).

Selected by Brian Cathcart

The Lung-Hai Railway was built by the Belgians and runs through wheat-growing districts immediately south of the Yellow River, from Pa Chi to Hsiuchiou. Beyond Hsiuchiou the track has been torn up to check a possible Japanese advance. At Chongchow the Lung-Hai links up with the Pin-Han line. These two lines form the only artery for moving troops along the Yellow River front, and for carrying eastward such war material as may enter China from Russia. The Japanese have repeatedly bombed and shelled it, but so far traffic has never been seriously dislocated.

We made several journeys along this line. Here is one of them:

Wednesday. The sky is cloudless and the midday sun very hot, although it is only March, as the westbound "express" steams into Chongchow. Chongchow station has suffered more than most from air-raids. The waiting-room is in ruins. In the street outside, all that is left of the Hotel of Flowery Peace is a mass of bricks and one tottering wall. The streets are quiet, because business is only carried on at night.

Our locomotive has been camouflaged with mud; the roofs of the third-class carriages are black with refugee passengers. On every journey, we are told, two or three fall off and are killed. Hardly have we got into our compartment when the air-raid warning sounds and we have to hurry to the station dug-out, while the train pulls out to hide somewhere in the country. The air raid is a false alarm, so we start, only an hour late. A last-moment rush of refugees is beaten off by station officials with sticks. The victims merely laugh: their padded coats are so thick that the blows raise only a cloud of dust and lice.

We are in luck. The train stops only a few minutes at each station. (On an earlier journey, we waited six hours at a place called Democracy: a young officer got so bored that he began firing at the rooks with his revolver and was severely reprimanded.) We are passing through the loess region: precipitous sand-canyons, cave-dwellings, fantastic sand-pinnacles resembling Lot's wife.

There is no dining-car. Meals are cooked in a box-car: the boys bring us hot face-towels and cups of weak tea. They tell us that, barring accidents, we shall be in Sianfu tomorrow morning, if the train can get to Lo Yang by dusk; for the section between Lo Yang and Tungwan can only be travelled in the dark. Here the line runs beside the Yellow River and the Japanese are on the north bank with their guns sighted on the track.

Towards evening the hills flatten down into a valley of orchards and green wheat. It is six o'clock and we are running into Lo Yang. A soldier leans out of a troop-train and lays two fingers side by side: "England and China," he shouts, "together. Italy and Japan, together too."

Thursday. Something has gone wrong. We wake up to find ourselves in a small station, halfway between Sian and Lo Yang. There has been an accident down the line. The train moves out of the station for safety and stops in a ravine between two tunnels. Within half an hour a complete market-town has sprung up around us: peasants sell cigarettes, tea and all sorts of food - boiled chickens varnished red with soya bean, sausage-shaped waffles, hard-boiled eggs. Child beggars gather under the windows, intoning a litany of want and staring at the foreign devils through swollen, trachoma-infected lids. Most of the passengers clamber down and sit about chatting, or go to sleep on the shady side of the line.

Friday. We have moved during the night, but only one station. As we have found bed-bugs we decide to spring-clean the carriage. We take out all our bedding, beat it with walking-sticks and hang it up in the sun. The idea catches on, and soon the station is festooned with clothing. By now the car-boys are very friendly: they bring along a gramophone and some records of Chinese singing, which sounds startlingly like Donald Duck. We have begun Chinese lessons, which are followed by a delighted crowd on the platform.

Saturday. Again, we have scarcely moved. We get a lift on the breakdown train to see the accident. On the edge of a steep embankment above the Yellow River we find an engine on its side amidst torn-up track. Half-way down the slope is a splintered carriage. A wheel came off, derailing the whole train: nine people were killed, fifteen seriously injured. But a new track has now been built, skirting the wreck, and we leave this evening.

Fuel has run out, the meat is high and there is no sugar, but a bottle of whisky has appeared, unearthed from the box-car like a gift from a better world. All lights are put out as we move off for our rabbit-dash past the Japanese guns. The train gathers speed, roaring through tunnels and deep cuttings, swaying precariously over high bridges. The carriage is filled with sulphur and smuts. Suddenly we come out of a tunnel and see the Yellow River below us and, across the river, brilliant and isolated in the huge dark countryside, the Japanese searchlights. But there is no shot. We plunge into another tunnel, and soon we are passing at speed through Tungwan station, where no train ever stops now. We are clear. Passengers begin to talk and light candles. Tomorrow we shall breakfast in Sianfu.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.