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25 January 2022

From the NS Archive: Dying for a laugh

5 April 1985: A train suicide and the saving graces of Scouse sardonic wit.

By Ian Williams

Before Ian Williams started his career as an author and broadcaster, he worked on the buses and railways. In this piece from 1985 he describes sitting in a train cab when someone stepped off the platform and stood on the tracks in front of his incoming train. The result was both inevitable and horrendous, and Williams, who offered the mortally wounded man what help and consolation he could, was – unsurprisingly – shaken to his depths. It is a tragic story of one life lost through despair and another filled with shock and distress. Nevertheless, Williams finds a single redeeming aspect, recounting how the humour of his native Liverpool helped him cope.

Some ten years ago I, along with another railway worker, was supposed to be learning about the signals and gradients of the TransPennine line from Liverpool to Leeds. The best way to do so, of course, is to sit with the driver. It is a bonus that you can get a better view of the scenery from the side windows of a local diesel unit without the fear of vandals’ half-bricks associated with urban runs. As we puttered and puffed up the gradients through banks of lush vegetation of an almost tropically intense green that bright day in early summer, it seemed to be the most perfect place in a perfect world.

Approaching the station of a mill town on the Yorkshire side, I called the driver’s attention to someone crossing the line by the platform. “Watch out for that idiot,” I had just finished saying as the man turned to face us and looked at us with an intensity that conveyed that he had no intention of moving. He continued to stare as the driver threw on the emergency brakes. It is one of the cruellest, most nightmarish things, to sit in a train, knowing that whatever you do, with a fatal inexorability you will hit someone who has both identified themselves as human and, almost, introduced themselves personally by looking so deeply into your eyes. There is no way to swerve with a train. The tracks keep you on the straight and narrow while the laws of friction and momentum have already condemned your victim.

The train was still glissading forward, sparks flying from the wheels, as I hurled myself on to the platform and ran back to see where he was. On the sleepers, underneath a bogey, he was huddled – and beginning to move. After shouting to Frank who had followed me down the platform, I climbed down to see what could be done for him. It was difficult to believe that anyone could be so badly injured and yet survive.

I was told later that the flanges of railway wheels will pressure-weld the blood vessels shut, applying a tourniquet even as they torture and maim. Which is why he now survived, conscious, with the top of his skull lifted like the top of a breakfast egg, one leg hung on by a tendon from the knee, the other shin stripped of flesh to the bone. Indeed, he not only survived, but he struggled, shouting repeatedly “I’m a failure” as I tried to make him comfortable, although comfort was not a word I could easily use in such a context. I lied and told him he would be all right, privately convinced that if suicide was his intention, he had not completely failed. I could not see him lasting long.

The only way to get him out was to move the train, and so I had to hold him while he thrashed about, struggling to scratch the gaping wound atop his head, moving limbs that would only partially respond, while overhead, and on either side, the train moved, guillotining wheels scything one twitch away. Pale and trembling, I climbed the platform, to be greeted by a reporter and photographer rushing breathlessly. “We’re from News. What were ’is name?” they asked. “I wasn’t introduced, you bloody ghouls,” I spat as my colleagues physically restrained me from launching myself at them. Recognising the superiority of the laws of humanity over those of the licensing bench, a police sergeant forced a just-closed pub to open for a tranquillising drink, but I was still shaken as I began the long trek back to Liverpool, trying to switch off the constant mental action replay of the whole incident. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw his, staring as we bore down on him.

Back in Liverpool, intent on washing away the memory, we staggered into the pub closest to the loco shed, which was, as usual, thickly populated with railway workers. I was ashen faced and if anything more bleakly depressed than before. But it was not the drink, despite copious doses of it, that was effective as an antidepressant.

Big George stood in his accustomed place at the bar, surrounded by empty and rapidly emptying Guinness bottles, and seeing my obvious distraught state, asked Frank what had happened. Frank laconically explained that someone had “took a dive” and what my part had been. “Was he a passenger?” asked George, with morbid curiosity. “No,” said Frank. “He got a platform ticket and came on the station to do it.” “Got a platform ticket?” said Big George, philosophically, shaking his head. “He must have just come to see himself off.” The dams burst; I could laugh.

Without diminishing the horror, or the sympathy, laughter made the incident manageable. It is only in retrospect that I realised that the sardonic Scouse birthright of black humour is a way of bearing the unbearable, of reducing a big cruel world to laughable, and hence manageable, proportions. It saved me then and even for the next two suicides over another six months. George commented that the Samaritans told callers what train I was on “since they’re assured of a sympathetic hearing off you”. It isn’t a funny old world. But it helps if you pretend.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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