Railtracks by John Berger and Anne Michaels – review

Railtracks book cover

Railtracks by John Berger and Anne Michaels: railways, love and loss

They may be sleek, clean temples of modernity, but airports aren’t a patch on train stations.

Where is the romance in what are essentially tightly controlled and hypersecure out-of-town shopping centres attached to runways?

Evocative reminiscences and meditations on the smell of coal at train platforms, of separations and reunions, are expressed in passages full of subtle cadences in this concise volume by the acclaimed novelist and commentator John Berger and the novelist Anne Michaels, which serves as a reminder of the beauty of our grandest transport interchanges.

These include the King’s Cross railwaylands – an industrial wasteland where you can still see “wires like ganglia hanging from the coarse brains of cement”.

Published in Hackney, the book reads like a less ornate version of something by Iain Sinclair.

The sometimes elegiac prose is finely written with a light touch, and it swirls around London treasures including the Hardy Tree in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, which was incidentally once the site of a pagan Temple of Mithra.

Stations, unlike airports, are surrounded and suffused with memories of this kind. They are “the shunting-yards of history”.

Take Washington DC’s most famous train station, from which many soldiers departed to travel on to fight in Europe in the war.

Berger writes: “For so many, Union Station is the place where fathers, brothers, sons, husbands were last alive. And, among all the partings, it is said, were lovers who had no place else to go, who came simply to join the anonymity of the crowd, so they could kiss with inconspicuous passion among the throngs crowding the platforms and the great hall, their public display swallowed up by the intense emotion all around them.”

With photographs by Czech artist Tereza Stehlíková, this sensitively written work, which contains not a word too many, will make you yearn to embark on a long return journey by train.

By John Berger and Anne Michaels, photographs by Tereza Stehlíková
Published by Go Together Press
Price £9.99
ISBN: 9780955767616