The early railroads were rough maps of Victorian fancy. Trains and human hearts, in those days at least, were similar engines, chugging along on fresh steam or dank air. The Victorians cared about going forward: they meant to conquer all the worlds beyond their own, and no matter of geology, or history, or finance, was too big for their ambition, or too small for their genius. The story of the great railways is also the story of minor lives, and how they were made, or altered, or destroyed, with the coming of the new machines. People have been travelling from one great place to another forever, in their heads, but to move over the distant world - to be carried quickly on wheels, or propelled fast over water, or carried supersonically through the air, or through space, to some faraway place - must count for a lot in what it means to be modern. The carriages that carried us, the sustaining vessels, have a central role in our recent tales. We are intimate with our modes of transport. These vehicles are now close to us by nature, by desire and by design. Transport promises a future, just as it carries the remembrance of selves and places and things passed. Ours is a world of pictures coming and going at speed. Few of us now live, or would care to live, with the guarantee of being in one place for ever. But the British live with these thoughts of expansion and speed just as their empire is shrinking to nothing.
LRB 6 March 1997 | PDF Download