Wild life

Hell is an English train journey

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

Delayed, on Southern Rail

Home From the Hill is a 1987 documentary by Molly Dineen about Hilary Hook, an elderly colonel who after a life in Kenya and the Far East retires to a nasty flat in England. Poor old Hilary has never had to prepare his own food and now, in his twilight years, he can’t even open a can of soup. He is horrified by Britain, its culture and bad weather. When I first saw Molly’s superb film as a young man it struck a chord. Some 35 years later, on a brief visit to England from Kenya, I can almost hear and feel myself becoming Hook. It’s not so much that neither of us can cook for ourselves. It’s more that under this dome of grey skies and public service announcements, we both miss the gaudy melon flower of home.

On the train platform, passengers old and young look like subjugated extras in a dystopian movie. They stand hunched, eating sandwiches and buns, which they bring on to the train to continue chewing while swigging from takeaway coffees. Hell, I know now, will be an eternity of travelling by the local train services towards East Sussex.

We chug along slowly. I try to remember Larkin, but as I look out of the train window at the passing fields I think instead about how Elspeth Huxley described the tamed English countryside – that it was like a castrated leopard. The train slows, then suddenly stops in dead ground. The engines go silent. Outside there are brambles. I think of the high plains back home on the farm, with my herds of cattle browsing through the pasture, Mount Kenya’s glaciers glistening on the horizon. Until now, the passengers were noisy, but now they cease talking. In a seat behind me, a plastic packet is ripped open and crisps are eaten loudly. The aroma of vinegar wafts among the cold carriage seats. Another train passes in a blast and then we lurch forwards.

The sense that there may be engineering works on the track ahead, requiring us to alight at Wivelsfield and embark on a bus for the rest of the journey, brings on a special kind of silent panic for me. I’ve known this route since I travelled alone, very young, on prep school exeats to visit my grandparents in Bexhill. The trains, like the sense of despair they bring on, haven’t improved since the 1970s. It’s the feeling that I will never be able to get out of this train, or escape England. I imagine the herds of zebra braying as they gallop in whirls of dust back on the ranch.

Miraculously, the train pushes on towards the cold southern coast. I feel brief hope when the train divides at Hastings and find myself in the front six coaches so that I am not left behind. But as we continue to chug along, the lingchi torture of announcements before each and every station, together with endless repetitions of ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’, begins to wear me down. I think of the sounds at home on the farm back in Kenya. The sandgrouse and bustards before dawn; the black-headed oriole, the doves and the go-away birds in the heat of the day. At night we hear lion and owls, but never a public address system or even a distant motorbike. See it. Say it. Sorted. Between Pevensey Bay and Cooden Beach, I really feel I am losing the will to go on.

As a boy from Africa, when I imagined England, I would picture the railway station at Bexhill, with its wonderful brickwork arches and all built to a scale that catered for large crowds heading to the magnificent seafront. My grandfather in his tweeds would be waiting to meet my train on the platform. In those days everybody I saw in Bexhill seemed to be a retired Indian Army colonel, like grandpa. Today, the station is deserted and in the town, I pass boarded-up stores and pound shops. The sea is brown and oily but I find the best curry restaurant in England and, despite the fact that there are no Indian Army colonels about any more, this cheers me up.

After my grandparents died our aunt Beryl lived on in Bexhill, until she finally left us two years ago. When her estate is finally settled in the coming weeks, there will no longer be any reason for me to ever take the train between Victoria and Bexhill again. The high savannah is calling me home, back up the hill.

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