The Slow Train

The Potters Special

The last week in June and first week of July meant one thing in Stoke on Trent in the 1970’s; Potter’s Fortnight.  This was the annual industrial holiday when the pot banks shut down and people got a break from working on potter’s rot and lead and cadmium poisoning.  For the kids it meant time off school but without any kids telly, since it was only this odd crowd in North Staffordshire that were on holiday.  And from Stoke station, chartered Potter’s Specials left for Blackpool and Rhyl most days of the week.

Longton in the 1960s

One day in 1978 Mum, Dad and me took a special for a day out in Rhyl.  Sandwiches in tin foil and Blue Ribbon biscuits for the journey were packed and off we went.  Looking east from the coach window between Longport and Alsager, on a hill overlooking the Cheshire Plain at a place called Mow Cop, I saw what I took to be a castle.  “Eet inna a castle”, my dad corrected me, “eets a folly”.  This allowed him an opportunity to expound on the vanity of the wealth owning classes, their excess and their self-aggrandisement, for the folly at Mow Cop was built as a summerhouse by Randle Wilbraham of Rode Hall.  Or rather, it was built by local stone masons paid a shilling a day for their skill and their labour for the idle rich to play in when the fancy took them.

Sometime later, I caught an archive clip of Flanders and Swann on the TV performing their song the Slow Train, in which Mow Cop is mentioned.  I took little more notice of it than that, but it was one of those things that I filed away in my brain under ‘Dad’.

Twenty-odd years later I found myself in a south Manchester Oxfam shop, flicking through the records and I came across a copy of Flanders and Swann’s At the Drop of Another Hat LP.  I took it home and put on the Slow Train song.

I’d kept a 1960’s Marconiphone record player that I’d rescued from a skip for just such records.  A wooden box on legs with chunky black and silver knobs on its facia, it housed a Garrard 2000 record deck of the type we all stacked singles on in the 70’s.  I used it to play scratchy old classical records and knackerd big band jazz I picked up in charity shops for 50p or a quid.  It had a warm, thumpy-bumpy quality to it, like listening to music in the original black and white.

Within a couple of bars of the train track rhythm of Slow Train I was, as Tom Lehrer would have said ‘soggy with nostalgia’.  By the end of the first verse, I was dewy eyed.  By the end of the song I wept for the days of my childhood, between the wars, when life was simple and uncomplicated.

The photographer Martin Parr is a collector of, among many other things, postcards.  In 1999 he published part of this collection in a book called Boring Postcards.  It includes postcard pictures of the National Giro Centre, Bootle; Thomas cook International Headquarters, The Library, Corby and a decal edged black and white image of the Motorway at Knebworth, a vista of about half a mile of road upon which 13 cars can be discerned.  Boring Postcards has been a terrifically successful book.  The trick of it is that just about anyone can identify with something in it.   The M6 at Newcastle under Lyme and Forton service area, the Bus Station and Shopping Centre, Hanley; The Butts Shopping Centre, Reading and Tom Longs Post were a few of the landmarks in Boring Postcards that gave me a frisson of recognition.

Chorlton cum Hardy Station

Flanders and Swann managed to achieve something similar with Slow Train.  It was recorded for At the Drop of Another Hat in 1964 and is inspired by contemporary events.  In March 1963 the first Beeching report called for the axing of 7,000 railway stations.  Slow Train is a response to this.  It’s curious that it sounds so nostalgic given that it really was reflecting the very current concerns of Trade Unions, the Labour opposition and the travelling public.  But perhaps that’s just something that the railways do.  There is something in the English, if not British psyche that attaches us to the railways.  However much they are grumbled about, the railways are embedded in the national conscience every bit as much as football on a Saturday and weather forecasts.

Slow Train is essentially a list of stations that ”…we won’t see any more when we’re no longer able to travel on the Slow Train”, as Michael Flanders says as he introduces the song.  Cue the lilting piano.  I hadn’t heard the song for 20 odd years and even then it didn’t mean that much to me apart from the reference to Mow Cop and its association with that day on the Potters Special.  But listening to the Oxfam copy on the Marconiphone it seemed that something of me had been pressed into that record or that Donald Swann had known something about the life I was going to live.  Or perhaps it’s just as Noel Coward wrote: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”  So many of the station names in the song were now not only familiar to me, some held very particular significance, “…No churns, no porters, no cat on a seat/at Chorlton cum Hardy or Chester le Street…”  Millers Dale, Tideswell, Openshawe and Formby all get a mention and then, right at the end “…no-one departs, no-one arrives, from Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives…”  Liz and I caught the train from St Ives to St Erth on the way home to Manchester, the day after she’d agreed to marry me after just six weeks of courtship and romance.

Slow Train became the song I sang to my oldest son at bed time every night for about two years.  It was the very first song sung to his younger brother, Arthur, less than an hour old as I held him, staring out of the window at the lights of the city, his brand new mouth in a perfect O shape.

Noel Coward might have been right, but I don’t really care.  If nothing else, it might be one of those things that my sons file away in their brains under ‘Dad’

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