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Waving to a Train

New Statesman, 16th March 1984

Nostalgia is traditionally green on TV. There’s so much of it about it’s a wonder the green doesn’t wear out before the other colours, to turn to mud from all the tears that are shed over it, mine included. For instance, I already feel nostalgia for M.J. Read’s play ‘Waving to a Train’ (BBC2) in which someone goes back to the scene of a childhood picnic in the Fifties when he was nine.

We see the old fifties bus trundling into the countryside, the little family descending, walking, then the modern version of the bus, with the narrator on board, following them. He never catches up with the family and overhauls them, as he might in a modern play or ‘Hamlet’, but he is there on the poppies hillside, overhearing with the weepy hindsight of adulthood the struggles of his widowed mother to meet his and his sister’s demands, so innocent and yet so brutal in their effects. The sister wants to go to a Milk Bar and wear lipstick. The boy wants to go to boarding school. The mother is the classic soppy-stern model of the period, trying to be all things to her disintegrating brood. “I’m not having you walking the streets like a harlot,” she says. “Oh Christ, let them go, let them go,” cries the man, but she cannot hear him. “It was all such fun when I was married,” she mourns, as the boy waves and the train passes.

Now we are aboard the train, watching and waving with the man to the little trio in sun hats and sandals waving from a sunlit hillside. The train enters the tunnel (of time) and we are looking back at a little splash of green as it receded again into the past. Why am I such a sucker for this kind of thing?

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