The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space. This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).
We also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.
From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6). However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols. The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned. This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).
For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).
Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).
Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).
And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46). They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost. A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.
And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip. Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories. In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic. I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling. The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one. An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85). Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.
There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.
Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.
Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.
De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.
Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.
Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.
Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.