From Sikander 14. Copyright © 1987 by Irwin Hirsh. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance" sings Paul Simon, "Everybody thinks it's true...The thought that life could be better/Is woven indelibly/Into our hearts/And our brains."1
And it is true about trains and life and hearts, but I didn't know that when I was four years old. In 1952 a train--the one with the electric thingie on top--was our way of getting to the centre of Melbourne. Other trains--the exciting ones that chuffed smoke and snorted steam--played shuttle on the line that was over the road from the front of our house. For hours each night they batted goods wagons at each other along the shunting rails.
There were other trains that hurled themselves past our house, roaring at me to stay in my safe garden on our side of the road. These workhorses of the Victorian Railways were headed for a mysterious region called Gippsland. Such an engine would drag behind it a long line of goods wagons that sometimes took five or ten minutes to pass our house.
No wonder I wanted to be an engine driver when I grew up. Trains were all-powerful. They went very fast on long journeys. They played mysterious Brobdignagian games just over the road and beyond a slight fence. From the parapet of the veranda at the front of our house, I could watch their endless antics. One day I might even have my own set to play with.
In every childhood there is a day that is so magical or terrifying or ambiguous that forever after one wonders whether or not it actually happened; perhaps it was the first very vivid childhood dream. For years I had such a memory, a dream-feeling. I remembered that my father opened the door of the front loungeroom, a door that was almost never opened to anyone, let alone to children, and let me glimpse an entire model-railway set laid out on the floor. Lines made a circle on the carpet, with a bridge and a railway station beside it. My father picked up the railway engine, wound a key, and let the little green object scoot around the circle until it jumped the rails and clattered towards the wall. My father attached carriages to the engine. This slowed it, and the whole regalia trundled off demurely around the circle.
This went on for some time. It seemed that the set had two engines, a little green one and a black one, both driven by clockwork, and lots of carriages. We tried out all the possibilities. Various combinations of carriages circled the track. I wound up the engines until the clockwork broke on one of them.
That was that. I wasn't old enough for the train set yet. I was bundled off to bed, and in the morning there was no sign of the miraculous layout. Nor did it show itself again for about four years, which is so long a time in a child's life that I really thought I had dreamed the whole episode.
It's still not clear to me how parents decide that a child is old enough for something. In their endless attempt to get me to do something in life besides reading books, one day during a particularly long and hot school holidays at the end of 1956 Mum and Dad revealed that the model train set really existed. It had been my father's when he was a boy. Dad showed me the Hornby catalogue for the year, sometime in that late 1920s, when he had started the collection. The catalogue was more exciting than the set of model trains. All the engines and carriages shown were based on famous English trains of the early twentieth century, and each of them bore mysterious initials such as LNER, LMS, and GW. My father explained that these letters showed which English railway company each belonged to. The idea of private ownership of railway lines was new to me and somehow indecent. No matter. English railway engines and carriages, as shown in the catalogue, looked much prettier than the humble black chuffers and red rattlers that passed our house every day.
I have always been bored by games of any sort. Once I know the rules of any game, there is no more interest in it; I give up such useless activity and go back to reading books. So what could I do with a model-railway layout? It was very exciting to get everything out of the tin trunk in which the set had been stored for thirty years. It was rather nice putting together the first circular track and running trains around it. But watching things go around in circles was boring after the first half hour.
To beat the boredom, I connected the straight rails and put aside the circular rails for when the line went round corners. My sisters Robin and Jeanette and I soon had a track that stretched from the kitchen, through the living room, and into the front passage. This was fun for a while. We could invent place names for destinations, and use blocks and toys as part of the layout. There was one snag: my mother wanted to use the house as well. After she had tripped over unsuspected rails and carriages a few times, she decided that maybe I could go back to reading books.
Not so, for I had glimpsed a new idea: that of destination. Where could we take the railway lines so that they stretched out into the distance, like a real railway line? How could I make their destinations mysterious and variable?
One night I had a dream, one that excites me still. Somehow the Oakleigh railway line curved over Haughton Road, came up the side of our house, made itself small, climbed up through some passage in the floor, went through the living room, out the other side, and eventually rejoined the main railway line. (Years later I discovered that someone had written a song along similar lines: "The Railroad Goes Through the Middle of the House.") During the hot days of the January annual school holidays, in that long-gone era when summer began in December and ended in February,the lawn was dry, and there was no danger of sudden showers. Why not set up the whole layout on the back lawn?
The back lawn was a large oblong, with a grassed gutter down the middle. A chunk at one end of the oblong had been turned back into garden. It looked to me like a map of the United States of America, with the gutter as the Missisippi River, and the chunk as the Gulf of Mexico. My obsession the previous year had been the films, comic books, and stories about Davy Crockett so by the end of Grade Four I thought I knew everything there was to know about American History and geography. In 1954, during the visit to Australia of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, my parents had bought an atlas. It was, naturally enough, called The New Elizabethan World Atlas. One double-page spread in it showed the USA. I spread out the atlas in front of me. The double-page map was filled with possible destinations, including many that I had never heard mentioned in films or comic books or on the radio. Natchez--what a wonderful name. There was no name in Australia with that kind of sound. Waco, Texas. I could journey towards a place with a name like that. Tampa, Florida: Let's head for there.
There was one difficulty: the line could go to Florida or over to St. Louis. Seattle or Los Angeles were quite out of the question unless, of course, one started from there. Nope. New York was always the starting place. I needed new railway lines so that the layout, with the help of points and a bridge across the Mississippi, could cover the continent. From then on my parents and relatives were faced with expensive requests at each birthday and Christmas time: More railway lines! extra carriages! Even at the age of nine, I was afflicted with the collecting disease, which merely gets worse with age.
The model-railway idyll lasted only three summers. The weather was too damp during the May and September holidays for us to set up the railway layout, and we didn't get many ideal days even during the summer holidays. By the beginning of the summer of 1958-9 the crunch had already come. My parents had decided to move from Haughton Road, ironically because they were increasingly irritated by the noise from the Melbourne-to-Gippsland railway line across the road. We moved to Syndal on 17 February 1959, and I took the lines and engines and carriages out of their tin trunk only once again in my life. Yet, somehow, by summer 1958--that last, regretful period of six weeks at Oakleigh--I had collected enough lines to cross the American continent via St. Louis and send a branch line to Florida as well. We had extra accessories and lots of extra carriages, but never a bridge that crossed the Mississippi safely. (The carriages always fell off the bridge my father had built to cross the gutter.) The clockwork mechanism had failed in both engines. The rails had already begun to rust.
The whole layout is still with my parents. In its tin trunk it was dragged up to Bacchus Marsh and back to East Preston, up to South Belgrave and down to Rosebud, but it's never been played with again. Maybe it's valuable--perhaps very valuable--to someone. Whatever happens to those model railways, they already have given their special pleasure, not because of what they are, but because of the way they attached themselves to my imagination.
Why did I choose America as the basis of that model railway layout? Why didn't I choose Australia, which has roughly the same shape and size as the USA?
Because there's nothing in the middle of Australia except desert. Only one line, the Transcontinental, crosses the continent. In the middle of Australia, there is no Des Moines, Iowa, no Albuquerque, New Mexico, no Wichita, Kansas; where a tired railway passenger can alight for a good night's rest before going on with his journey. When I was nine or ten, Australia did not seem to hold any possibilities; it seemed empty in the middle. I felt the same about Melbourne and its suburbs. I rode through Murrumbeena or Caulfield or Toorak in real and very suburban carriages; they were built merely to carry people; they left nothing to the imagination. The suburbs--my own home turf--were home, parents, relatives, houses and gardens, everyday practicalities, boredom. Could anything ever be better, except over there somewhere in New York or the middle of America?
It was only much later that I found out that Victoria's railway system was not built wholly according to boring ironbound practicalities. The people in charge during Melbourne's most important growth period, from 1870 to 1890, used the suburban rail system as a way of letting their imaginations go. Also, of course, they wanted to line their pockets. They bought undeveloped land way off the edge of the suburban perimeter and then bribed somebody in parliament to run a railway line through it. This procedure often worked. The Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, for instance, was built around its railway station.2
Therefore, during the 1880s Victoria's rail system became a model railway set that used real engines and carriages. Its imaginative purpose, as opposed to its practical purpose, was to give Victorians the feeling that they could travel safely from anywhere in the colony to anywhere else. And this remained true until the late 1960s, when suddenly the railway system began to make huge losses and politicians began planning ways of shutting it down.
Railway trains are symbols of power, especially when carried along by steam engines. They prance and chuff and speed and prevail against relentless gravity and distance! But railways are also a symbol of domesticity. Boarding a passenger train, ticketed passengers know their destinations. It doesn't crash, except in the most exceptional circumstances. A land filled with railways, like the USA of my atlas, is a settled land. People can move as they like. No wonder Paul Simon feels that the sound of a train in the distance reassures you that life could be better. All you have to do is travel far enough and you reach that better life.
Something like this must have occurred to the people who built Melbourne. Suburban houses fill the spaces between railways. Why not, then, build a railway that did not stretch out directly from the city but, instead, made a great loop that would link all the radiating railways?
Such a plan was made in the 1880s. It was called the Outer Circle Line, and was the most gloriously silly episode in Melbourne's long history of absurdly disastrous public projects. It would go north from near Hughesdale station (now on the Oakleigh line), and cross three other lines until it arched in from the north at Clifton Hill station (very near where I now live). It would provide jobs and guarantee the growth of suburbia. And it would, although nobody said so at the time, symbolize Melbourne's maternal quality, its desire to give total security to its citizens, enclosed as they would be by railways.
The Outer Circle Line was actually built during the 1890s, but as the last sections were opened, the first sections were about to be closed down. Graeme Davison, in his The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne,3 writes that, "The new line was built to the most generous engineering standards with wide double-track cuttings and embankments and closely spaced stations." However, "in its first nine months of operation [the Outer Circle Line] attracted only 5153 passengers (Most of them joy-riders?)".
The Outer Circle Line was Melbourne's great model railway line. Hour after hour, trains would trundle across deserted paddocks and past empty stations. I see on each of these stations a lonely station master standing forlornly while waiting for the passenger-of-the-week to turn up. The Outer Circle Line might have succeeded if it had been opened ten years earlier, in 1881 instead of 1891. 1891 was the beginning of Australia's worst depression, an event that stopped Melbourne's growth for nearly thirty years and ensured Sydney's win in the battle between the cities. Davison records that entire new suburbs built during the boom of the 1880s lay empty, home-owners forced to give up their houses because nobody had the money to take over their mortgages.
Many of the paddocks beside the Outer Circle Line were filled only during the late 1950s. By that time most of the line had been demolished. It left only odd patterns of streets through the "garden suburbs"--patterns so irregular and striking they can still be traced on a street map.
I'm told that there are also plenty of remnants of the line--sleepers, rusty steel bits--hidden behind suburban fences or in unexplained little parks.
There will never be another Outer Circle Line, not even among those grandiose schemes that governments announced every few years. At one stage there was going to be a line from Huntingdale Station to Monash University (demolishing how many millions of dollars' worth of factories and houses?), and even six years ago the Cain Government talked of a line from Frankston to Dandenong. This didn't happen. Instead the government built a freeway covering the same distance.
Cars have made railways unprofitable in Victoria, and now politicians and bureaucrats spend their nights tossing and turning, trying to think up acceptable ways to kill the railway system. Most people are still as emotionally attached to the suburban railway system as I am so the government cannot destroy the system at one go. But only seven per cent of Melbourne's people still travel on the system. Most Melbournites live in one outer suburb and travel to work in another outer suburb. The railways may still radiate from the centre of Melbourne, but Melbournites' lives do not.
If the railways go, the Melbourne I grew up in will have gone. Maybe it has gone already. When I was a boy, Oakleigh was on the edge of the suburbs. Now Oakleigh feels like an inner suburb, and the sprawl stretches another 40 kilometres to the east. Only a small proportion of Melbourne's population lives within walking distance of a railway station. If we can no longer hear the sound of a train in the distance, can we still hope that life will be better?
There is only one remedy. One day in the future when Melbourne lies in ruins because it no longer has its suburban railway system and when my wife and I have won Tattslotto and can afford to retire to a large, comfortable house set on wide lawns surrounded by hedges, I will take out a rusted tin trunk from where it has been hidden for many years. In it I will find all those railway lines, carriages, engines, and accessories. They will be very rusted by then, perhaps unrecognizable. But if the wheels of the carriages and engines still turn, I will lay out the lines across the lawn.
I will not, however, return to the map of America in my old atlas. Instead I will turn to the map on page 156 of Graeme Davison's The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne. I will call the central station of my system Melbourne. Straight lines will stretch out to a station which I will name Hughesdale. Circular lines will veer off to the north. With a combination of straight and circular lines, I will bring the trains back to their destination at Clifton Hill and finally into Melbourne. Hour after hour trains will travel through the long grass. No passenger will ever step on or off that train. But I will know where those carriages are and will keep them all moving.
At last I will recreate the Outer Circle Line. In this way I will create the real Melbourne--the marvellous Melbourne that never quite came into existence--on that lawn in the future.
1Trains in the Distance, CD
Hearts and Bones.
2Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press 1979.
3Davison, op. cit.