Train Doors Slamming

Alison McRobb reviews Train Doors Slamming, by SoF member John Pearson. Writersworld. 2005. 267 pages. Pbk. £8.50. ISBN:1904181465

‘You want to hug it,’ said one reader of this novel. Well for the first couple of chapters I wanted to strangle it. By the end, however, there was certainly much more evidence of huggability, and not only because of the appeal of the main character or the inclusion of likeable children and dogs. Born in 1943, with a father absent in the RAF for another four years, I identified with a lot of the saga. Unlike the heroine’s father, mine didn’t win the VC, but did survive to receive a gold watch for 45 years with British Railways, in the years when train doors slammed.

The problem at the beginning of the book is in grasping who’s who and what decade we’re in, as the author introduces the octogenarian Mary on her ‘old-fashioned’ train journey the length of Britain. Her present and all her pasts are entwined with the histories of her family and friends, as she uses the day to read in their entirety her father’s wartime diaries. On another level the real-time passengers on her train interact with her throughout. Some brisk editing would have helped here, particularly as the first diary entries do not appear in bold italic (as they later do). The layout would also have been helped by wider margins: the reader is assaulted by too many words. Mysteries are all unravelled eventually, but it is irritating to read ‘After the accident . . .’ and have to wait so many pages to discover what accident was so serious as to blind her faithful Reg.

Pearson is at his best when straight-forwardly narrating the story. There is a lot of sensitivity here and thought-provoking observation. For one thing, the era when so many children had a mildly paedophile Uncle Jack, who got no farther than embarrassing games and suggestive comments, at least seemed safer than today, when jail sentences do little to deter Uncle Jacks of all tastes, and internet links provide them with a fraternity. Yet the days when most babies born out of wedlock were swiftly removed to a ‘better future’ are not really so long ago either.

That’s the ‘feminine’ aspect of the novel. The war diaries and the macho Biggles bits will no doubt appeal to another set of readers. They certainly seem to be well researched, though their very detail sometimes tends to overbalance the story. The same may be said of the descriptive passages—perhaps the flavour of many of the locations could have been conveyed more economically. The author revels in countryside and architecture, but from time to time there is too much of the guidebook here, and this distracts attention from the characters.

Now the intriguing question: is this a Sea of Faith novel? It isn’t expressly ‘theological’. Where theology creeps in there are some inaccuracies: ‘Let us now praise famous men’, for example, is not in Ecclesiastes, and the ‘no memorial’ passage is capable of negative as well as positive interpretation. Again some interesting questions are suggested, however. Was Pearson’s Mary, so reasonably resistant to religion in the forms she encounters it, typical of the many young women deprived of love, protection and progeny by the world wars? We hear more often a male response to padre and church parade, recorded in war diaries and poetry, but perhaps less of any female ambivalence towards the God of love so confidently invoked in parish church and chapel for those left behind. It’s likely, as Pearson suggests, that non-realist, and atheistic, opinions were quite widely held but kept very quiet. It’s less likely that a younger Mary would have defined religion as ‘a human creation’, but for present-day Mary it’s not impossible. Along with her precious luggage she might even have been carrying a 2002 edition of this magazine.