By Adam Robinson, Research and Interpretations Assistant
To your soul
To your soul
You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face…
– Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy (June 1st, 1984)
Jimmy Somerville’s echoing vocals in this political dirge for the mistreatment of the gay community in Scotland, and the wider UK in the 1980s became not only a triumphant dance anthem but a reflective piece on the escapism of modern transport. Somerville addresses the song to young gay men stuck in northern alienating towns to call them away to the somewhat free queer spaces growing at the time in the southern and parts of the north of the UK.
Recent efforts have been made by train companies and transport museums to be more inclusive in their approach to serving their communities. Last year, in August 2020, we saw the first-ever Pride Train, 11 carriages at over 265 metres in length, launch on the new Avanti West Coast network. Fully staffed with an entire LGBTQ+ crew and emblazoned with colours and flags, including the most recent version of the Pride Flag, it made quite the impression. Initially realised as a specific transport service to cater for all of the Pride festivals the previous year, their plans shifted considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its name, after a public competition, was chosen to be Progress. A name close to home as one of our Sentinel engines shares the new train’s name at Ribble Steam Railway and Museum. You can read more about how Avanti has committed to bringing diversity and inclusion to both their trains which makes a change from the usual ‘Rainbow Capitalism’ most queer people come into contact with here. The London Transport Museum has dedicated a whole curatorial project to collecting information on LGBTQ+ experiences on transport in London (read more here). The artist Nina Wakeford, commissioned by Art on the Underground, has made exciting new ground with their oral history research culminating in their book Our Pink Depot: The Gay Underground FLO-N202-236000000-TRK-MST-00002-SAY-HELLO-WAVE-GOODBYE-KEN-NIE-BPS (2019). In it, Wakeford ‘queerifys’ the new Northern Line Extension (NLE) tunnels and Vauxhall area in London while interviewing and collecting stories from rail staff and past frequenters of the Market Tavern, a pub that used to stand on 1 Nine Elms Lane:
“The Market Tavern was intended to serve for Flower Market traders and porters but by the late 1970s also became a venue for LGBT clubbing. Memories of both populations are gathered in the book, which also includes photographs found in drivers’ and DJs’ personal collections and the Covent Garden Market Authority archive. The book also documents a ‘Historic Trackwalk’ which permitted LGBT+ staff to be the first drivers down the new NLE tunnels, in recognition of the local history above ground.”
The outstanding work done by the charity Rainbow Railroad deserves some recognition in this article. Using the railroad as a signifier of the literal ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ they help evacuate displaced LGBTQI+ people from countries where discriminatory violence is state-sponsored to countries that help support them and safeguard their innate human rights. They have been an essential and beneficial force tackling the chaos in Chechnya, Egypt, Tanzania, and Central and South America. You can read more about their efforts here.
For more inclusive heritage and general information and resources on some of Britain’s rich queer history, Historic England and English Heritage have bountiful webpages with articles to pique your interests.
A history of queer identities and experiences concerning railways has not yet been written. Nor has a cultural history or source list been created (although there are comprehensive anthologies available for railway fiction that include queer characters within them). Since queer theory can be, in principle, applied to almost anything when applied to railways, its locus will naturally pivot around the shared communal spaces such as the station and carriage. Many experiences to which anybody and everybody can relate to. They exchanged glances with fellow passengers and awakened missteps, and you make your way to your seat or a vantage point less obstructed by crowded passenger carriages. The odd and familiar conversations had when the train breaks down or is delayed. The loud hen parties and gaggles of rapturous people planning their night or wallowing in stupors coming from their night out instead. The loneliness, the excitement, the wistfulness of gazing out on the ever-changing scenery as the train follows on its allotted route through cities and landscapes. Most of these experiences seem distant now, more subdued and alien, what with most of the (lucky majority) having the luxury of abiding by government rules and avoiding public transport altogether, what with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in this light that the passenger carriage and the whole journey of the train passenger from home to a destination becomes a sort of mirror of society as a whole. They are filled with symbolic weight and meaning when the right lens looks at them differently.
The most apparent resource we have at our disposal concerning queer lives and British railways is through art and culture and literary examples. Many authors, regardless of their non-heteronormative identities or expressions, have drawn from transport and railways as a source of metaphorical and symbolic power. The dynamic mobility and enclosed spaces is undoubtedly an attractive device for writers of any kind even to this day. Notable queer authors such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Siegfried Sasson, and many more have drawn trains and railways for inspiration. Siegfried Sasson, the famous war poet and person who had a notable relationship with Wilfred Owen wrote an extraordinary poem about the mania of train stations in 1917:
Along the wind-swept platform, pinched and white,
The travellers stand in pools of wintry light,
Offering themselves to morn’s long, slanting arrows.
The train’s due; porters trundle laden barrows.
The train steams in, volleying resplendent clouds
Of sun-blown vapour. Hither and about,
Scared people hurry, storming the doors in crowds.
The officials seem to waken with a shout,
Resolved to hoist and plunder; some to the vans
Leap; others rumble the milk in gleaming cans.
Boys, indolent-eyed, from baskets leaning back
Question each face; a man with a hammer steals
Stooping from coach to coach; with clang and clack
Touches and tests, and listens to the wheels.
Guard sounds a warning whistle, points to the clock
With brandished flag, and on his folded flock
Claps the last door: the monster grunts: ‘Enough!
Tightening his load of links with pant and puff.
Under the arch, then forth into blue day,
Glide the processional windows on their way,
And glimpse the stately folk who sit at ease
To view the world like kings taking the seas
in prosperous weather: drifting banners tell
Their progress to the counties; with them goes
The clamour of their journeying; while those
Who sped them stand to wave a last farewell. – Siegfried Sasson.
The ‘platform’ has always been a sacred, emotionally resonant space in popular culture and literary symbolism. They become shared spaces where vital things such as “goodbye,” “hello,” “I love you,” “I’ll miss you,” “don’t go,” “you came back,” and more have been said throughout history of railway stations. Moreover, plenty would have been said by people with or without queer identities. These phrases have also been well-entrenched into the popular imagination as thresholds of memory and escapism. Our first impressions of localities outside of our home when we use rail are formatted around the town/city from the platform or station exit. They become our port of call on holidays and journeys, the closest gateway we have to returning or escaping places and, sometimes, people. So, when Somerville cries, “Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face.” most of us, when hearing that, will relate to that lyric either from our own experience or from our memory of watching someone experience that unique moment. The ‘platform’ is an extremely open and public place which has often made it a place of fear and anxiety for people who present in a non-heteronormative manner. This emotional resonance imbued in the ‘platform’ can also be an amplifier for embarrassment and shame.
Oscar Wilde notably suffered public humiliation on a commemorated platform with a blue plaque in July 2019 after fundraising and petitioning by the Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum. On his transport to Reading Gaol, Wilde described his ordeal to his once lover Lord Alfred Douglas in 1897. That puts how far progress has been made into corroding away those old stigmas and attitudes against love:
“On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here [to Reading] from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the Hospital Ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me, they laughed. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. Nothing could exceed their amusement. For half an hour I stood there in November rain surrounded by a jeering mob… Well, now I am beginning to feel more regret for the people who laughed than for myself. Of course, when they saw me, I was not on my pedestal. I was in the pillory. A pedestal may be a very unreal thing. A pillory is a terrific reality.”
– Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, 1897: The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Ed. R. Hart-Davis (1962), p. 490-1.
 The page also has useful information and educational guides about queer identities and an impressive list of answers to common questions