Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 51

Another New Town

The midnight trial was lots of fun. A passenger car was tacked on behind the main engine for all the railway observers, but Vignis and I rode in the twin cabs of the main engine, just managing to keep out of the fireman's way as he went from one to the other making adjustments.

The engine itself consisted of two high-wheeled old express engines, extremely delicate and graceful in their way. However, in giving them new boilers, MacRitchie had considerably raised the steam pressure, so that the combination had at least three times the power of each original engine. When, in response to a continuous whistle blast of the lead engine, the driver opened the throttle, there was a marked surge forward. Indeed, with all six locomotives of the train wide open, we accelerated quite remarkably. The driver leaned back and shouted to us over the commotion, but, with the noise, I could hear little. I think his attitude was that, while it wasn't what he was used to, it all seemed to work well enough.

Coming out of Brent Yard, we entered on a short stretch of main line, and must have gotten up to seventy by the time we hit the tunnel under Hampstead. What was notable mainly was the constant signalling, both with the high-pitched toots of the English whistles and the full-throated roars of the American ones.

When we came out of the tunnel, our ride became rather like one on a roller coaster. We were off the main line now, and there was sharp braking, alternating with maximum acceleration, as we went around those famous curves connecting the lines. Then, when we were past the main lines coming out of Euston and St. Pancras stations and on to the belt trackage of the Tottenham and Hampstead Joint Railway, we moved up to maximum speed briefly, only to come to a screeching stop at Harringay. Our driver leaned over conversationally to Vignis and said,

"That railwayman that we passed was waiting to uncouple the last section. If we stopped in the right place, he's done it by now."

Looking back, we heard the engine of the last section, destined for the Ferme Park Yards of the Great Northern, pulling its train backward away from the rest.

In front of us, a string of cars destined for Hither Green, with its own engine in front, was backing up to us. We could see the engine around the slight curve, and it was guided by a signaller at trackside who then went in to couple up. There were none of the safety measures we had on the GER to protect a man between the cars, and I knew, without asking, that a good many men would be killed and maimed each year. It also placed a great responsibility on the drivers, who could never really know, when they started up, whether they were crushing a man between cars. Our driver was probably so used to such things that he didn't think about them most of the time. He now said, as nearly as we could understand in his accent,

"We'll now be the third engine in line. Mostly, I just relay signals back, but I can also give my own. If I think the engines in front are stretching the couplers between me and them too hard, I can blow for more power from the rear. They'll also hear it in front and ease off just a bit."

That possibility hadn't been anticipated by MacRitchie and Stewart in designing the system, but I was glad to hear of it. There is no industrial system, no matter how sophisticated, which doesn't have to be modified and adjusted by the people who are actually to use it. If those people are not of the sort who can make those adjustments, it will fail utterly. Looking now at our clever Cockney driver, his sharp- nosed profile lit dimly by the scant light in the cab, I realized that there was no need for concern on that score.

We next set off for the eastern-most section of London, where the lines run parallel to the Thames and serve the industries which we had seen from the ship. In the course of this run, we came down the hill from Tottenham at what seemed a reckless speed, crossed the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames shining in the moonlight, blasted through Walthamstow, and came to another abrupt stop on a sharp curve at East Ham. The dropping off of our tail and the adding of a new head took only something over three minutes, and we were off again. The driver pointed to some curious looking things hanging from a hook in the cab roof and again said something which I could hardly understand. Vignis asked,

"Those are gas masks, aren't they? Should we put them on?"

The drver said,

"You'd better get ready with them."

I finally understood. We would fairly soon come back to the heart of the city and enter the underground section of the District and Metropolitan Railways. These were not true underground bores, but cuttings, mostly down the centers of major roads, with the roads being put back over them. There were numerous "air holes," short sections which had been left uncovered, but the accumulation of smoke and steam in the tunnels was still a serious problem for the crew members. In the double-engines, an arrangement of heavy canvas had been provided which could be used to close the gaps between the two cabs and keep much of the smoke out. However, a good deal still got in, and the gas masks provided for German gas attacks on London were adapted to this purpose.

Vignis put her mask on first, and, when the driver caught her in his glance, he grimaced and shouted,

"You may not need it."

She did look horrible in a gas mask, and I joined in urging her to wait with it in her hand, ready to put on. I tried mine, found it smelly and unpleasant, and did the same.

We were in the tunnel for three miles, and, at first, the pitch darkness as we bounced and rattled along at speed was more unpleasant than the smoke. Vignis hung on to me, and I hung on to a stanchion where the cabs joined. Then, when we got used to the darkness and the smoke was becoming unpleasant, I began to fiddle with my mask. Before I got it on, we were out in the air and stopping for Snow Hill Junction.

We next crossed the Thames at Blackfriars. Looking out the window of the empty cab, we saw St. Pauls and the city, lit even at that time. The lights were reflected in the black river, and the moon, a new one, hung just above Tower Bridge. I said to Vignis,

"When the bombers come, they'll probably come right up the Thames. The lights will all be out then, and it'll be the easiest thing to see from the air."

For reply, she only gave my arm a little hug. We soon came upon the sharpest curve yet, from one viaduct to an even higher one, and I was actually surprised that we remained on the rails at the speed we were going. Still at the cab window, we looked back to see the other locomotives and their cars pop around the curve, as if it had been on a model railway. Vignis said,

"I guess if they can get the whole train around that curve without mishap, they can manage about anything."

"I certainly hope so."

Because there are no bridges across the Thames below central London, our circle around the city had a deep indentation in its eastern segment. Once south of the river, we headed east again, through some of the poorest parts of the city. Most of the time, we were either in brick-walled cuts or on viaducts with brick tenements on both sides. Lights were few and far between, and, whenever I looked ahead, I had the impression that we were headed straight for a wall or bridge pier.

We went right through the large London Bridge Station without stopping, and then past Woolwich Arsenal, which would certainly be a bomb target. Passing Greenwich and zero degrees longitude, we followed the Thames and passed various clusters of industry on its south bank. We then reached the loop at Slade Green and stopped to do our shunting. When we turned sharply to the southwest for the final stretch, the country opened up and we could see fields in the moonlight. The curves were also better banked, and we could make speed more comfortably.

Once the train reached Hither Green, it would be completely disassembled and classified. The main double engine, after servicing, would then be the nucleus of a new train which would head west, cross the Thames at Richmond, and circle back to Brent.

When we all piled out in the Hither Green yards, it was announced that we were four minutes ahead of time. There was satisfaction all around and compliments for MacRitchie, Stewart, and Sigiloff. MacRitchie accepted them with little to say, Stewart made the appropriate smiling responses, and Sigiloff, apparently not sure whether he should act pleased, fussed with the arrangements to return his guests to central London. An engine with a coach was run out of the yard with the idea of dropping us wherever we wished. Vignis and I were taken right to Charing Cross, and, in the course of the journey, we met some dozen railway executives.

After getting up late, we spent a good deal of the next day at the employment and refugee agencies. Indeed, we hired some eighty girls on the spot. The cars were being collected at Neasden, and we instructed everyone to report there the next morning. Stewart had said that tools and paint would be provided, along with miscellaneous other materials, but, to make sure that they would have something to do right off, we instructed our young ladies to bring with them whatever mops, brooms, and buckets they could find.

Early the next morning, Vignis and I, accompanied by Sigiloff but not MacRitchie, arrived at the Neasden yards, formerly the property of the Great Central. Since we were taking over the former Great Central line to the coal fields of the midlands, the yards into which that line fed were effectively ours for the duration. Sigiloff kept saying,

"I told Crunchie not to come, this is gonna be chaotic, that'd drive him crazy ..."

Vignis replied pleasantly,

"I know Mr. MacRitchie prefers order and would want to plan and organize. I'm just going to tell the young ladies what's needed, five bedroom compartments to each car, and let them go to it."

Sigiloff looked thunderstruck. He might have been more willing then MacRitchie to take his chances with random events, but to let eighty or more girls loose in the yards obviously struck him as unwise in the extreme. He managed to get out,

"What if they fight, see, start pullin hair and scratchin and bitin ...."

"Oh Sammy. They won't fight. And there are already over a hundred cars. Each little group can work on a separate car and put their ideas into effect."

I was a little surprised at that myself. In her previous communities, Vignis' own taste had always prevailed. This seemed to be a new departure.

The girls started to trickle in from the Bakerloo underground station before eight, and then came with a rush. About one third were English girls, many from the north, and most of the rest were refugees. In the crowd, I could hear a number of English dialects, German, Yiddish, what sounded like a Slavic tongue, and French.

In other respects, the girls also differed greatly. Some were shy quiet little people, and others shouted and screamed happily. One picked up a sledgehammer and swung it around experimentally, as if she were dancing. Sigiloff retreated to the fringe of the group, his hands literally over his head.

Some little groups, who seemed already to know one another, went immediately to the flat wagon on which all manner of tools and materials were laid out, chose their equipment, and disappeared into one or another of the nearer coaches. At the other extreme, there were ones who only drew water for the buckets they had brought, and then, mop in one hand and bucket in the other, went off alone to a coach far down the line.

In contrast to both these sorts, there were some who wanted to have a discussion on first principles before going to work. These, often not already knowing anyone, approached others tentatively, sometimes having to bridge gaps in language. As they did so, they gestured at the cars and at tools, nodding, accommodating, and making plans. Then, within five minutes, they would be off with their tools to seek a virgin coach.

I walked over to Vignis and asked her if she were conducting a social experiment. She replied,

"In a way. I've said only very little to them, hoping that they'd get the idea and make decisions for themselves. It's working. No one's following me around asking what to do next."

It was noticeable, as I walked around, that most of the girls were much more inclined to clean and wash than to knock down partitions. Although it's more rational to make the mess first, and then clean, one English girl said to me,

"These coaches are so filthy that one has to clean them first just to see what has to be done."

When I repeated this remark to Vignis, she declared it a piece of genuine alternative feminine thought.

"A man is so sure that his plan is right that he just charges ahead and does it. Then, if it looks wrong, it's too late. A woman wants to experiment aesthetically at the beginning, and then at each successive stage. She'll eventually come out with something better."

I wasn't sure that analogous techniques would be useful in locomotive construction, but I could see that progress was being made.

The general consensus was that the bench seat on one side of a compartment wasn't wide enough for a proper bed. I did overhear some tittering as to whether the men would wish to sleep alone, but it was agreed that, even if they did, it would be nice to be able to turn over without ending up on the floor. The most common solution was to rip out the bench opposite and move it over next to the first.

When we left, late in the afternoon, a good start had been made. Vignis said,

"It looks as if no two coaches will be the same, which is good. Then, when the men get here, they can choose what they like."

Hungry, we went immediately to the Cypriot restaurant in Rathbone Street. The proprietor welcomed us, and, as we were again the first diners, he conversed with us. He was the one who mentioned the probability of war, and said,

"I thought I'd escaped war when I got away from the Turks in Smyrna almost twenty years ago. Now, it may catch me up again."

Vignis replied soothingly,

"They probably won't bomb this part of London, only the factories."

The proprietor made a Mediterranean gesture as he said,

"If they bomb my restaurant, I might as well be in it."

As he went away with our orders, I asked Vignis,

"How serious do you think he was about that?"

"Perhaps fairly so. He's not a young man, and he was evidently wiped out once. War losses aren't covered by insurance, and he might almost prefer being killed to having to start from nothing."

"On the other hand, if he isn't bombed, war might bring increased prosperity for him. It does for many businesses."

"I wonder if there are people who hope for war."

"Soldiers used to. It brought honor and advancement for the officers and opportunities for plunder, rape, and pillage for the men. But now, with bombing, the uncertainties and risks are just too great, I should think."

We soon got off the subject of war, and the dinner was a pleasant one, not very different from many others we had had together.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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