A DISCORDANCE OF ANCIENT LAWS

song of the damned 1I wasn’t expecting to find I had combined an ancient law and opera for a book, but Song of the Damned, (Book 3 of the Phineas Fox series), turned out to have both elements at its heart.

It’s not, of course, so very rare for opera and the law to meet up. In Lohengrin Wagner invokes the laws of the Holy Grail as part of the plot, while, at the other end of the spectrum, Gilbert & Sullivan light-heartedly satirize the legal system for Trial by Jury, spattering it with cheerful quarrels over breaches of promise.

But it was a far older law and a much more modern opera that inspired the plot of Song of the Damned.

In 1953, Frances Poulenc composed an opera called Dialogues of the CarmelitesDialoguesIt relates the grim and emotionally-charged, true story of the imprisonment of sixteen Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution. They were captured because of their religious beliefs, and subsequently executed. The execution seems to have been an extraordinary piece of theatre – of which Poulenc makes full use. The nuns were forced to form a queue for the guillotine, and to mount the scaffold one by one, with the most junior novice being first. As they waited for death, they re-affirmed their religious vows aloud, and sang various hymns, (reports vary as to what the hymns actually were depending on which source you use).  The singing was punctuated by the relentless fall of the guillotine for each nun, their voices gradually diminishing as each was beheaded, until, at the last, only the lone voice of the Mother Superior was to be heard.  And then there was silence.

This was a scene that had great impact on me. The dreadful inevitability of the massive guillotine blade swishing down – the helpless progression of the nuns towards it. But then – as is frequently the way with novelists – I began to wonder whether there might be a plot to be found in the story.  Poulenc had already made use of it, of course, and so had one or two other people. A writer called Georges Bernanos wrote a screenplay around it, and the text of that was based on an earlier short story – The Last at the Scaffold written in the early 1930s by Gertrud von le Fort.

So it looked as if the fount had been squeezed dry. Or had it?  Supposing a plot could be woven from the left-overs? Supposing those original nuns could be given links with other nuns – maybe a small convent community in a rural corner of England…  And supposing Phineas Fox, the music historian whose third outing this was to be, found a lost medieval ritual within a locally-written piece of music – a macabre ritual and a piece of music that could be traced back to those nuns…?

So far so good. What about the setting, though?  As anyone who has read any of my books will know, I’m keen on atmospheric settings and I’m very keen indeed on houses and buildings with intriguing histories.

It was at that point in the deliberations, and in the early and difficult stages of drafting a plot, that I came across a fragment of a very old English law.

It happened by purest chance. One afternoon having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I drove past a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’.

Infanger’s Field?

The English countryside is, it must be said, liberally strewn with strange and intriguing names. Quite near to where I live is a village called Coven.  It’s an extremely nice place, but its name is always very deliberately pronounced ‘Coe-Ven’.  Purists carefully point out that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon, cofum¸meaning either a cove or a hut, but despite that, there are occasionally dark mutterings suggesting that the place once had witchcraft associations, and that the pronunciation was politely slurred to hide that fact.

Then there are all those instances of Glue Works Lane and Slaughter Yard. There’s Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London reputedly started in a baker’s shop. On the other hand, there are places whose names are open to interpretation, such as Cockshutt in Shropshire, which, despite sounding like a venue for a Carry On film, is likely to derive from fowl hunting activities. Other names are satisfyingly rooted in the past: Oxford has Brasenose College and Brasenose Lane – supposedly from the Brazen Nose door knocker of the original sixteenth century Hall.  Incredibly, though, the city also once had the now-lost Shitbarn Lane, c.1290, which ran between Oriel Street and Alfred Street.

But Infanger’s Field?

I dashed home to scour bookshelves and the internet. The bookshelves yielded several indignant spiders, dispossessed of their homes, and a couple of dictionaries and encyclopaedia with ageing pages but legible information.  The internet provided several alternative spellings for the word and about 3,000 search results.

Edward 111And it seems that the word comes from the Old English infangene-þēof ‘Thief seized within’ or ‘in-taken-thief’.  Infangenthief or infangentheof, no matter how you spell it, was, an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor – c.1003-1066, and one of the last of the royal House of Wessex.

It apparently permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived. On occasions it also allowed the culprits to be chased in other jurisdictions, and brought back for trial.  The justice that was meted out was often extremely severe – there was no cheerful Gilbert & Sullivan principle of letting the punishment fit the crime in those days.

The privilege of exercising this law was granted to feudal lords, and inevitably to religious houses. And later, when the Normans came barrelling in they made cheerful Norman conquestuse of it as well.  It helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place. The law fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century and all-but vanished from England’s history.  Except for the occasional name here and there.  Like Infanger’s Field.

I have no idea if it was a fragment from the past I encountered that day – perhaps a shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants. And I’m doubtful if I could find the field again.

But there it was. A long-ago storyline involving a group of nuns in the French Revolution and a macabre musical ritual.  And there, too, was the potential for an atmospheric house that could be given the name Infanger’s Cottage.  A house whose present-day occupants might find themselves forced to make use of the ancient law to guard the secrets that dwelled in the cottage’s foundations – secrets that stretched back to those long-ago nuns and the ritual that had been part of their mysterious story.

SONG OF THE DAMNED is published 31 July in the UK and 1 November in the US.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Damned-Phineas-Fox-Mystery/dp/0727888145/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1523962621&sr=1-1&keywords=9780727888143

 

 

 

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PUTTING A BOOK TO BED

cartoon-writerFinishing the writing of any book is a curiously mixed experience. There’s a sense of achievement and even a muted delight because you finally got there. But there’s also hideous doubt, because although you got there, you’re no longer sure if it’s as good as it seemed when you exuberantly wrote ‘Chapter One’ about a year earlier.  You’re also struggling to see a resemblance between the finished product, and the original synopsis your editor and your agent liked so much.  You remember the famous line about characters: “You do everything you can to raise them right, and as soon as they hit the page, they do any damn thing they please.”

Still, when you come to the last page, the euphoria means that you can forget the bad parts of writing the book. Or can you? There was the time you deleted an entire chapter by mistake, and had only the fuzziest recollection of what it was all about. You knew it included blackmail, seduction, and probably most of the crimes in the Newgate calendar, but as for who did what to whom…  You had no idea. In the end you resigned yourself to never knowing who seduced, who blackmailed, and who did anything else, and you re-wrote the whole chapter. You almost managed to persuade yourself it was better than the deleted section, too.

Then there was the time when you spent the best part of a week frantically trying to think of a motive for a particular action which was vital to the entire plot. You certainly remember that, because you paced the floor (you even cleaned the floor at one point), tried out solutions ranging from vaguely unlikely to utterly implausible, crossly discarded them all, and decided to give up writing altogether.  At around 3 a.m. (insomnia being an inescapable by-product at this stage of a book), you suddenly saw a really good motive – and then found, on opening your original synopsis/ plot notes, that you had worked out that very solution a year earlier, before even starting to write the book.

Even sending the book to your agent and editor wasn’t free from trauma, because the printer broke down on the very morning of printing the ms, necescluttered desk 2sitating a frantic rush to various computer shops to buy a new one and then an entire day trying fathom how it worked. When you finally did get it operating, at the end of the print run the entire ms slid off the desk and scattered itself everywhere.  That entailed crawling around the floor, fielding 200+ out-of-sequence pages, and shuffling them into order. Inevitably, it took longer than it should have done, because you found yourself reading bits you had forgotten writing, and having to read on to find out what happened next. You then found a continuity error – characters knowing, and acting on, events before the events had actually happened.  So you had to comb the entire text to put that right, then print the whole thing all over again.

At this point, you decided to write all future books by longhand. After all, the great Victorian novelists did that. Then you remembered the length of some of their books (Bleak House inevitably came to mind), and changed your mind.

But once the ms was shovelled off to your agent and your editor, you felt entitled to a few indolent days. Undemanding TV, reading other authors’ books, meeting friends ignored for the last six months. First, though, you tried to wind down by determinedly tackling some of the tasks you had been able to put off on the grounds of being too busy. Defrosting the freezer for instance. That was when you discovered how many things you had forgotten to label. But you optimistically assumed that the plastic tub of pale viscosity in a forgotten cryogenic corner was home-made soup, which would be just right for an inclement January day. It turned out to be lemon mousse, (which you then remembered you had made for a long-ago meal at which you wanted to impress someone). You found out that lemon mousse does not take kindly to being heated.

victorian-writerThat was when you decided it would be more restful to return to the desk and start writing another book.

 

WRITING THE MUSIC AND COMPOSING THE PLOT

Chord of EvilMusic has frequently been a catalyst for me in the creating of a plot, and it seems to have found its way into a good many of my books.  There’s the eerie death lament, ‘Thaisa’s Song’ in The Bell Tower, and the music hall songs in Ghost Song.  More Death Notes currentrecently, there’s the Phineas Fox series, with a music historian and researcher as the central character – although it has to be said that while Phin certainly gets entangled in music mysteries, he also finds himself drawn into other intriguing situations

But one of the difficulties with using music as a frame for a plot, is the embarrassment of riches that music’s history offers.                           There’s the macabre – such as the legend of how Paganini’s body was refused burial because of alleged participation in satanic rituals, and was apparently trundled across Europe for the best part of four years, before an appeal to the Pope finally allowed conventional burial.  That practically presents itself as a complete plot, there for the writing.     Or, if an author happens to incline towards the realms of the supernatural, there’s the dark tale of piedpiper2the Piper of Hameln to draw on – that infamous figure from the Middle Ages, who, when the townspeople reneged on payment for his rat-catching services, wrought his grisly revenge by luring the children into the mountains by his magical music.  You do have to be wary of sinister strangers offering peculiar deals, although the legend has certainly provided material for such diverse names as the Brothers Grimm, Robert Browning, and Walt Disney.
And, staying with the supernatural, might there really be a ‘Curse of the Ninth Symphony’, given that a surprising number of composers died after completing their ninth? The composer Philip Glass was convinced of it – to the extent that he insisted on completing his tenth symphony before allowing his ninth to be performed in public.

Moving away from the macabre, there’s the humorous, such as the Elizabethan Kempcaperings of one Will Kemp.  Master Kemp was a Shakespearean comic actor and ‘purveyor of mad jests and merry jigs’, and he accepted a bet that he could not dance from London to Norwich – roughly 80 miles (132 km).  He won the bet, although it took him nine days to do it – which he later chronicled as ‘The Nine Daie’s Wonder’ [sic].  Happily, though, the nine days don’t seem to have been entirely without a few lighter moments;  one version tells how, at one part of his journey, a young lady came out and danced a mile with him, to keep him company.  Some versions suggest slyly that caperings of a different kind took place, as well.  But that would be a tale for an entirely different kind of book, and in any case, Shakespeare, if he heard about his actor’s exploits, would have instantly spotted the potential for a bawdy romp scene, and very likely used a version of it in several of the plays.  (He probably did just that, although probably not in Hamlet or King Lear).

There are other, more straightforward mysteries, of course.  There’s a definite whodunnit flavour in the question of whether Salieri really did murder Mozart – witness Peter Shaffer’s play/film ‘Amadeus’, and also Alexander Pushkin’s 1830’s poetic drama, ‘Mozart and Salieri’.  There’s the question of why Schubert never finished his ‘Unfinished Symphony’.  To come more up-to-date, there’s surely a lively quest to be mapped out in solving the meanings and identifying the characters in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’.

And so Phineas Fox, in his second outing, might have found himself imbroiled in any one of half a dozen plots, ancient or modern, classical or rock or jazz, any of which could be based on true stories.  I considered and discarded and researched and re-considered.  I tumbled half-forgotten books from my shelves, dispossessing armies of indignant spiders in the process, and I trawled libraries and the internet.

Then I latched onto the infamous tritone – the ‘Devil’s Chord’.

If we’re going to be technical (which always sounds nicely scholarly and looks impressive in this kind of article), the devil’s chord is an augumented 4th, or Tritonus, and spans three steps in the scale.  It’s been described as one of the most dissonant music intervals around – so much so, that it was banned in Renaissance church music.   Church music was supposed to be a paeon of praise to God, and the tritone was considered so ugly that it wasn’t thought suitable.  Medieval arrangements even used it to represent the devil, and Roman Catholic composers sometimes used it for referencing the act of the crucifixion. Its dissonance can work to advantage in some cases, though. It’s remarkably effective as background music in films, where it can serve as a warning to the audience that something bad’s about to happen. That harsh discordance that tells you the killer’s outside the door with an axe.  Think shower curtains in Psycho.

It occurred to me that the devil’s chord might make a guest appearance in a composition that had become part of music legend.  But what could that legend be?
Well, as somebody once said, if you can’t find a genuine legend, create one of your own.

Music has often been composed to celebrate great events – coronations, births, victory in war.  But what about a legend in which a piece of music was written to celebrate not a happy, or a triumphant event, but something far darker?  Something so menacing its existence was kept secret?

It was at that point that I saw the whole plot.  I could see Phineas Fox peeling back the layers of a secret that had lain undisturbed for three quarters of a century – glimpsing edges and corners of it, and ending in delving into a very grisly fragment of musical history indeed.

And so, Chord of Evil was born.

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FROM CLAY TABLETS TO ANDROID SCREEN

old bookThere’s a sense of familiarity and reassurance in much-read copies of books by favourite authors.  It’s comforting to turn a page and remember that this is the part where you spilled soup on the name of the murderer because last time you read it you had flu and were under a blanket on the sofa.  Or to realise you’re coming up to the part where you dropped the book in the bath, and that the renunciation scene between the lovers is permanently scented with Imperial Leather.  Even better, is embarking on the chapter detailing the villain’s midnight prowl through the dark old house, where the pages are spattered with hair dye, because you were trying to put magenta streaks in your hair, and you had 15 minutes to fill up while the colour soaked in.

 But in favour of of eReaders and iPads, it has to be said that it’s very convenient to carry around an entire library in a small device roughly the size of a sheet of A5 – to know that the flick of a switch can open up the complete works of just about every writer.  The more impatient reader also has the satisfaction of being able to download and start reading a book within a matter of minutes.  (Wi-fi connection permitting, and bank balance allowing).  Also, you can mop soup splashes off the screen, scrub out hair dye and rinse away soapsuds, and you don’t have to replace your complete works of Colin Dexter because the cat was sick on them.

In 3,500 BC, the Sumerians wrote their books on tablets of baked clay. A thousand years later, papyrus scrolls were the reading method of choice. We’ve come a long way since then and probably it’s just as well. The prospect of hauling a couple of dozen clay tablets onto the train to while away your journey is daunting.  Papyrus wasn’t something that could be packed into a shoulder bag or a beach tote, either – the history of the Egyptian King Ramses III was reportedly over 40 metres long.

Bookshops and libraries have changed dramatically, as well.  The ancient and vanished Library of Alexandria is reported as having, in addition to scrolls, a room for dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens and lecture halls.  According to one source, an inscription above the shelves read, The place of the cure of the soul.
Forgotten glories…?  And yet today’s libraries often have a coffee area, a section for book clubs and talks – although it’s likely that the rows of computer terminals would have fazed the long-ago Alexandrians.

old-and-rare-books-sellerOnce upon a time there were secondhand bookshops – marvellous places with creaking floorboards and intriguing cobwebby corners. You could spend hours in them, searching for lost titles by long-ago authors.  Often it was a good idea to take a few sandwiches and a flask with you, cancelling all engagements for the rest of the week.
But sad to relate, such places are dying out, although it should be noted that the world wide web has developed a quirky charm of its own.  I’ve bought secondhand books from sellers rejoicing in the internet names of Salty Mavis, Captain Jellyman Twinkle, and Alex the Fat Dawg.

Quite apart from the shops themselves being so intriguing, they were excellent venues for authors who had a character needing to discover a clue, and they were an absolute gift to writers of mysteries with an historic slant.  Any number of plots to assassinate a king or queen, to smuggle a pretender onto a throne, or topple a royal line, could be uncovered by a character searching diligently along dusty shelves.  Privately-printed diaries could be disinterred as well, revealing all manner of scandalous secrets.  On that last score, I’d have to give honourable mention to Denis Mackail’s short story, The Lost Tragedy – written in 1926, still to be found in various anthologies and well worth searching out.

And as for the debate about the printed page versus the screen – that’s something that will probably run for a very long time.

STORY TELLING – THE ANCIENT ART

scheherazade1_zpsd56eee2b

There are many theories as to when story-telling actually began.  In the old Arabian legends, Scheherazade was allowed to live for the following day if she told an entertaining story that night.  Which is singing for your supper with a vengeance.

Our prehistoric ancestors spun tales about what might lie in the darkness beyond their cave fires. They were a bit restricted, of course, not having pens or paper or ink, and probably limited when it came to actual speech, as well, but they could paint their stories with considerable clarity and drama, as innumerable cave paintings prove. They probably didn’t go a huge bundle on chick-lit – describing a candle-lit dinner wouldn’t have met with much credibility when most people were living in hollowed-out rocks, and hoarding their fire-making equipment to keep prowling predators at bay – but they would have been able to tell many a gripping yarn when it came to chase sequences.  ‘And the dinosaur ran for its life, with the entire clan chasing it…’

When James Frazer was collecting material for the Golden Bough, he was very generous with the giving out of fire-water to the various tribes he talked to.  And the tribes, liking the fire-water – as who would not? – apparently used to go away and think up tales to tell him, to get more of the stuff.  Which begs the question as to how far a legend can be trusted.

There’s also the existence of the quest, a plot structure found almost everywhere on earth from the earliest recorded times. It’s a universally-known theme:  a character leaves the safety of his home, and whether he’s searching for the Holy Grail, a Golden Fleece, or the ‘One Ring that rules them all,’ he has to endure a dangerous journey into forbidden territories (allowing the narrator to conjure up marvellous and often fantastical settings), and usually defeat a few enemies along the way.  Often there’s a period of extreme hardship to be endured as Sir Gareth found in the Knights of the Round Table saga, when he was made to work as what Thomas Malory calls a ‘lowly kitchen boy’ in Camelot, before achieving recognition, honour, and – of course –  winning the lady of the castle.

A similar period of adversity is accorded to the heroine best known as Cinderella – a story which apparently pre-dates Grimm and Disney by almost a thousand years, and seems to have made its first appearance in a Chinese book written around 850 A.D.  In that version, Cinderella is called Yeh-hsien, and her ball gown is a cloak of kingfisher feathers, although the shoe motif remains, with gold shoes replacing the glass slippers – which glitter-shoesprobably proves that a girl in any era will suffer a good deal to get a decent pair of shoes, and may go some way to explaining the shocking cost of today’s Christian Louboutins.

In 1930 with television still in its infancy, there was widespread horror at a project to dramatise a novella for TV.  The title was The Man with a Flower in His Mouth, and it was prophesied that the experiment would herald the end of the book – that the country would subside into a cultural wilderness and authors would become an endangered species.

It didn’t happen.  Nowadays, authors and publishers will do anything to secure a TV deal for a book.  As for digital publishing – according to some authorities, the success of that took the publishing world somewhat by surprise.

The art of story-telling goes on.  It adapts and, as an art, it’s a survivor.

The people who spin the stories adapt as well.  They, too, are survivors.

A MATTER OF A NAME… and an unexpected piece of theatre lore

 

death-notes-currentWhile writing Death Notes, (Book One of the Phineas Fox series), I was initially delighted to discover the existence of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Odessa – a building that had the splendid address of No 1 Tchaikovsky Street.
The theatre had been burned down towards the end of the 19th century, and it seemed that this might all fit beautifully into a plot that wove in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. (Less well-known than the butchery meted out to his grandson, Nicholas and family in 1917, but sufficiently documented to make it possible to disinter the salient facts).

odessa-theatre
Odessa Theatre today

I wrote four chapters, with happy diligence, making use of this Russian theatre.  Then I discovered that it had burned down in January 1873 – which was eight years too soon for the plot. I cursed the person who had struck the matches (tinder box?) in 1873 for not waiting just a few more years before consigning a beautiful old theatre to blackened rubble, and then I muttered imprecations against the tsar’s assassins for not bringing their dastardly plot forward, and committing the foul deed in 1873 instead of 1881.
And since the dates of assassinations can’t be shifted, any more than the burning of illustrious theatres can be put forward, in the end I resorted to the ploy of most writers in such a situation.  I set about creating a fictional theatre.  This seemed a very good idea, until I hit the problem of what to call it.  Names matter, and the theatre I was conjuring up, the theatre that would stand somewhere in Tchaikovsky Street (because I wasn’t going to lose that terrific street name), had to sound authentic and romantic.
ghost-songAn English theatre mightn’t have been difficult.  A few years earlier, writing Ghost Song, I had created the Tarleton Theatre, the name a nod to the memory of the Elizabethan clown actor, Richard Tarleton.  I had even called the theatre yard Platt’s, from the old word for a stage plot (layout).  But this was Russia.
I rummaged the bookshelves, scouring dictionaries and reference books and encyclopediae to find a suitable name. I trawled the internet.  Chapter 11 lay abandoned and incomplete on the hard drive. Chapter 12 was still worryingly embryonic (scrappy notes in Word), and Chapter 13 was a mere hope somewhere on the horizon, with no Word or, indeed, words to its name.  Chapters 4-10, all containing the infuriatingly inaccurate references to the Odessa Theatre, patiently awaited amendment.  My agent and my editor patiently awaited a manuscript.

Then I discovered a wonderful piece of Russian theatre folklore – that of the ancient skomorokhs_02people called the skomorokhi.
The skomorokhi appear to be part of an astonishingly old tradition – dating to around the ninth or tenth century, and there are frescoes portraying them in Kiev, thought to date to the 11th century.  They were medieval, East Slavic harlequins – actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances.
Traces of them and their legend are sprinkled over the centuries, and the Tale of Bygone Years, sometimes known as the Primary Chronicle which covers about 850 to 1110, uncompromisingly denounces the skomorokhi as devil servants,
Several authorities suggest that the word, Skomorokh, is linked to the Italian Scaramouch – the clown character of Italian commedia dell’arte, which literally translated as Little Skirmisher.  Harlequin and Columbine are known to most people, but that third character, Scaramouch, is perhaps not quite as familiar.
And yet Scaramouch is still around.  In the 1906 fantasy play, Love in a Dutch Garden, (filmed silently in 1918 as Prunella,) a character says, ‘Scaramel, I am tempted…’   Scaramel’s reply is, ‘Always yield to temptation.’  Which may well be borrowed from the infamous Oscar Wilde line, but does go to prove that Scaramel/Scaramouch, knew that if you’re going to plagiarise, you choose the best loot you can.

In Freddie Mercury’s mind-blowing Bohemian Rhapsody, he gives Queen a line that asks, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango…?
It’s likely that Scaramouche and certainly the long-ago Skomorokh performers, could indeed do the fandango and any one of a dozen other dances.

So there it was, the theatre’s name.  Never mind that I couldn’t pronounce it and that I had to enter it into the spell-checker on the computer for auto-completion of the word, it was undoubtedly the Skomorokh Theatre.  The charismatic 19th century violinist, Roman Volf, whose mysterious and scandalous life lay at the heart of the book, could wander through the ruins, weaving plots of his own, possibly in company with a suitably alluring lady.
Best of all, The Skomorokh Theatre itself could burn down in the right year for the plot of Death Notes.
Fiction is frequently so much more easy to manipulate than fact.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0727886606/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i1_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=&pf_rd_r=AGR9W5JXJ70Q91NRXSBT&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=73fe89c4-d62f-4a8a-8074-7c0f4d46813c&pf_rd_i=desktop

 

TRAVELLING THROUGH FICTION… IT’S NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

ancient_world_map_by_bilui.jpgThere was a time when a degree of glamour attached itself to a journey – when journeys themselves could provide a writer with a splendidly atmospheric setting.  You could place your characters on a train or a ship and cast them into all manner of perilous, murderous, or even merely romantic situations.  You could bump people off, cause annoying bit-part players to vanish, and you could develop relationships over a civilized meal in the restaurant car or at the captain’s table, (assuming you had remembered to allot to the lovers the income needed to travel First Class).  You could even allow a casual encounter to become an actual liaison – providing that if the characters were destined to enjoy the railway’s equivalent of the Mile High Club, you were careful to avoid such busy intersections as Crewe and most of the main London termini.

But although travel is nowadays fast, clean, and efficient, (we could possibly exclude the train networks on that last one), something’s been lost for authors.  Because if there had been a high-speed, open-carriage service, would Agatha Christie’s redoubtable Miss Marple have become imbroiled in the murder on the 4.50 from Paddington?  And would the English lady have vanished so completely and so intriguingly in Ethel Lina White’s classic The Wheel Spins, filmed as The Lady Vanishes? Would the ill-starred Anna Karenina have had quite such a complex relationship with Vronsky if they had not been shut into a railway carriage together so early in the plot?

Brief EncounterIt’s difficult, as well, to picture the lovers in Brief Encounter playing out their grand renunciation scene without the swirling smoke of steam engines shrouding them, the relentless chug of trains blurring the dialogue, and the crashing of crockery from the seedy buffet.  Even if you imported all three movements of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto and had Lang Lang playing them, gut-wrenching farewells just aren’t the same on a modern, multi-platformed station, with indecipherable announcements assaulting the senses, and soulless machines dispensing tea, coffee and soup.

To be fair, murders can still be staged on inter-continental journeys, but Dame Agatha did really corner the market on that one, and the Inland Revenue are annoyingly suspicious of expense claims for a trip on today’s version of the Orient Express.

It would be lovely to set a ghost story on a railway station, as Charles Dickens memorably did with The Signalman, and as Arnold Ridley did when he wrote The Ghost Train – the stage ghost-train-1version of which is still being performed up and down the country by professional and amateur companies alike.  Anyone who ever saw the 1941 film version with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch can probably remember the marvellous scenes in the tunnel, where the mysterious figure of Ted Holmes is said to be glimpsed, “His lamp still burning in his hand,” singing Rock of Ages as he haunts the tunnels.
But ghosts don’t seem to have a place in train stations any longer – although St Pancras is still nicely gothic, and you might get a good bit of atmosphere from the Underground, as a number of film-makers have discovered.  Creep comes to mind here, of course, and also The Taking of Pelham, 1, 2 and 3.  And J K Rowling certainly immortalised Kings Cross and its fabled Platform 9 ¾, with Goathland Station in North Yorkshire (largely unchanged since 1865), providing a terrific setting for Hogsmeade in the film.

The old story-tellers knew the value of adding a bit of mystery to a journey.  Travellers on the brink of unexplored lands (perhaps running out of energy, courage, or simply food), would instruct the map-makers to write, ‘Here be dragons’, on the uncharted areas.  Thus conjuring up all kinds of alluring lands for future journeys, and far more fun than losing the signal on a sat-nav, or running out of petrol on the M25. Although both these events can open up intriguing possibilities for plot developments.

James Elroy Flecker, in his 1913 verse-drama Hassan – The Golden Road to Samarkand, wrote:

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.

Those are words that conjure up the ancient silk routes and the caravanserai of Persia and Isfahan.
Standing on a railway platform, sipping a plastic cup of instant coffee, listening to automated announcements about delays due to leaves on the line (sometimes snow, as well), doesn’t have quite the same resonance as the dimly-lit night corridors of Hercule Poirot’s Orient Express, or of Flecker’s glimmering sea…   Perching on an uncomfortable chair in an airport lounge for five hours because your flight is cancelled owing to an air traffic control computer crash can’t compare with Rider Haggard’s doughty travellers trekking across deserts and braving shipwshangri-lareck fever to discover King Solomon’s mines…
Nor is there any comparison with the
romantic allure contained in the plane crash in a Tibetan snowstorm in Lost Horizon – a crash that sent the passengers on the legendary journey to the fabled and fabulous Shangri-La.
Those really were journeys.