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The Prehistoric Railway Station

A railway station is an admirable place, although Ruskin did not
think so; he did not think so because he himself was even more
modern than the railway station. He did not think so because
he was himself feverish, irritable, and snorting like an engine.
He could not value the ancient silence of the railway station.

"In a railway station," he said, "you are in a hurry,
and therefore, miserable"; but you need not be either unless
you are as modern as Ruskin. The true philosopher does not
think of coming just in time for his train except as a bet
or a joke.

The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to be
late for the one before. Do this, and you will find in a railway
station much of the quietude and consolation of a cathedral.
It has many of the characteristics of a great ecclesiastical building;
it has vast arches, void spaces, coloured lights, and, above all,
it has recurrence or ritual. It is dedicated to the celebration
of water and fire the two prime elements of all human ceremonial.
Lastly, a station resembles the old religions rather than the new
religions in this point, that people go there. In connection
with this it should also be remembered that all popular places,
all sites, actually used by the people, tend to retain the best
routine of antiquity very much more than any localities or machines
used by any privileged class. Things are not altered so quickly
or completely by common people as they are by fashionable people.
Ruskin could have found more memories of the Middle Ages in the
Underground Railway than in the grand hotels outside the stations.
The great palaces of pleasure which the rich build in London all have
brazen and vulgar names. Their names are either snobbish, like the
Hotel Cecil, or (worse still) cosmopolitan like the Hotel Metropole.
But when I go in a third-class carriage from the nearest circle station
to Battersea to the nearest circle station to the DAILY NEWS, the names
of the stations are one long litany of solemn and saintly memories.
Leaving Victoria I come to a park belonging especially to St. James
the Apostle; thence I go to Westminster Bridge, whose very name alludes
to the awful Abbey; Charing Cross holds up the symbol of Christendom;
the next station is called a Temple; and Blackfriars remembers
the mediaeval dream of a Brotherhood.

If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million
feet of the crowd. At the worst the uneducated only wear
down old things by sheer walking. But the educated kick them
down out of sheer culture.

I feel all this profoundly as I wander about the empty
railway station, where I have no business of any kind.
I have extracted a vast number of chocolates from automatic machines;
I have obtained cigarettes, toffee, scent, and other things
that I dislike by the same machinery; I have weighed myself,
with sublime results; and this sense, not only of the
healthiness of popular things, but of their essential
antiquity and permanence, is still in possession of my mind.
I wander up to the bookstall, and my faith survives even
the wild spectacle of modern literature and journalism.
Even in the crudest and most clamorous aspects of the newspaper
world I still prefer the popular to the proud and fastidious.
If I had to choose between taking in the DAILY MAIL and taking
in the TIMES (the dilemma reminds one of a nightmare), I should
certainly cry out with the whole of my being for the DAILY MAIL.
Even mere bigness preached in a frivolous way is not so
irritating as mere meanness preached in a big and solemn way.
People buy the DAILY MAIL, but they do not believe in it.
They do believe in the TIMES, and (apparently) they do not buy it.
But the more the output of paper upon the modern world is
actually studied, the more it will be found to be in all its
essentials ancient and human, like the name of Charing Cross.
Linger for two or three hours at a station bookstall (as I am doing),
and you will find that it gradually takes on the grandeur
and historic allusiveness of the Vatican or Bodleian Library.
The novelty is all superficial; the tradition is all interior
and profound. The DAILY MAIL has new editions, but never a new idea.
Everything in a newspaper that is not the old human love
of altar or fatherland is the old human love of gossip.
Modern writers have often made game of the old chronicles
because they chiefly record accidents and prodigies; a church
struck by lightning, or a calf with six legs. They do not seem
to realise that this old barbaric history is the same as new
democratic journalism. It is not that the savage chronicle has
disappeared. It is merely that the savage chronicle now appears
every morning.

As I moved thus mildly and vaguely in front of the bookstall, my eye
caught a sudden and scarlet title that for the moment staggered me.
On the outside of a book I saw written in large letters, "Get On
or Get Out." The title of the book recalled to me with a sudden
revolt and reaction all that does seem unquestionably new and nasty;
it reminded me that there was in the world of to-day that utterly
idiotic thing, a worship of success; a thing that only means surpassing
anybody in anything; a thing that may mean being the most successful
person in running away from a battle; a thing that may mean being
the most successfully sleepy of the whole row of sleeping men.
When I saw those words the silence and sanctity of the railway station
were for the moment shadowed. Here, I thought, there is at any rate
something anarchic and violent and vile. This title, at any rate,
means the most disgusting individualism of this individualistic world.
In the fury of my bitterness and passion I actually bought the book,
thereby ensuring that my enemy would get some of my money. I opened it
prepared to find some brutality, some blasphemy, which would really be
an exception to the general silence and sanctity of the railway station.
I was prepared to find something in the book that was as infamous
as its title.

I was disappointed. There was nothing at all corresponding
to the furious decisiveness of the remarks on the cover.
After reading it carefully I could not discover whether
I was really to get on or to get out; but I had a vague
feeling that I should prefer to get out. A considerable part
of the book, particularly towards the end, was concerned
with a detailed description of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Undoubtedly Napoleon got on. He also got out. But I could not
discover in any way how the details of his life given here were
supposed to help a person aiming at success. One anecdote described
how Napoleon always wiped his pen on his knee-breeches. I suppose
the moral is: always wipe your pen on your knee-breeches, and you
will win the battle of Wagram. Another story told that he let loose
a gazelle among the ladies of his Court. Clearly the brutal practical
inference is--loose a gazelle among the ladies of your acquaintance,
and you will be Emperor of the French. Get on with a gazelle or get
out. The book entirely reconciled me to the soft twilight of the
station. Then I suddenly saw that there was a symbolic division
which might be paralleled from biology. Brave men are vertebrates;
they have their softness on the surface and their toughness
in the middle. But these modern cowards are all crustaceans;
their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.
But the softness is there; everything in this twilight
temple is soft.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton