Stand aside Jenny Agutter, Julie Mayhew is going full steam ahead. It’s in her blood.
The first line of E Nesbit’s well-loved novel runs: “They were not railway children to begin with…” This is how I know that Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis were mere amateurs. I was a railway child right from the very start.
How could I not be? I grew up in Peterborough: a city you will know from your own rail adventures as a place you zoom through, get stuck at, but never stop. Yet it was at the heart of the railway revolution. By 1900, one in four people in the city worked for the railways.
The occupation claimed my grandfather, Sidney ‘Dick’ Mayhew, at age 13 when he began work as a ‘horse boy’. He later met his wife, Olive, the baker’s daughter, doing station delivery rounds. My dad, their eldest son, grew up a trainspotter, ticking off numbers in his shed book. And it was no surprise that his first job was as a clerk for British Rail.
I, his only daughter, was submerged in steam from a young age. There is not a preserved railway centre I have not seen. Every Christmas, I was bundled aboard the Santa Special at the Nene Valley Railway for mince pies and a fight with my cousins in the dark of the tunnel. I even served a stint one year as a fairy helper to Mr Claus.
While writing this, I asked Dad to send over the stash of pictures of me as a youngster visiting the trains to jog my memory, and here’s where the cracks in my idyllic railway children upbringing start to appear. There is no stash. He struggled to find any. “No offence,” he told me, “But I was always there to take pictures of the trains, not you.”
So while you may be mesmerised by Bobbie pelting across a deserted platform, crying, “Daddy, oh my Daddy!”, every REAL railway child knows how that scene would play out in truth. Daddy would be far too busy bending the ear of the driver and getting a sniff of the footplate to be bothering with any dramatic reunion.
The only time you would use Bobbie’s phrase is when watching the latest historical drama to feature steam, and you’d say it with complete exasperation. “I’m sorry but that is completely the wrong loco for that era!” your father will carp, drowning out several crucial plot points. “Daddy, oh my Daddy!” you will wail, “have you never heard of artistic licence?”
So when Eastern Angles theatre company approached me to write a new stage version of The Railway Children, transferring the action to Peterborough in the 1960s at the end of steam, I initially said no.
Being a railway child isn’t all buns for tea, I told them. I understood the wrath I’d face from the railway community if I got just one small detail of history wrong. Yet I also understood this play was my unavoidable destiny. I was a railway child. No one else could write it but me.
So I booked a train to York – my dad chipping in with his thoughts on the route, where I’d gone wrong with my booking, etc, etc – and I camped out in the archive at the National Railway Museum. I quibbled over train numbers and station façades, over route closures and job hierarchy, just as I had been raised to do.
I found my grandfather – a man I had never known, because he died when I was two – springing alive on the pages of the LNER journals. There he was being awarded a Safety First badge for his excellent driving in the Goods Yard. In one article describing a Christmas jolly in London, my very young grandfather was listed among the band of musicians. A skill we never knew he had.
My dad became my writing consultant, handing me six pages – six pages! – of notes on the first draft of my script – five whole pages more than my agent or director. And in the dress rehearsal room his interjections were suddenly gold.
“You would never say ‘train station’, always ‘railway station’.”
“To make the signalman sound sarcastic there needs to be a long gap before he sends the last ‘ping’.”
On opening night, a former steam train driver and kingpin of the local railway scene came to tell me how much he enjoyed the play. “And as for accuracy…” he left a long gap, reminiscent of those sardonic signalmen, “…I have to give you 10 out of 10.”
Of course that was never really in doubt. I am a railway child, a complete anorak. It’s in the blood.
The Fletton Railway Children runs until 5 November at The Undercroft, Serpentine Green, Peterborough. Tickets from www.easternangles.co.uk or call 01473 211498.
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Julie Mayhew writes radio dramas about love and novels devoid of romance, most recently Nazi alt-history The Big Lie.