I learnt two fascinating things about the Sheffield to Rotherham railway last Friday. The first was the the 16.24 from Sheffield is invisible, as are all its passengers. Along with a fellow inhabitant of this reality I stood and watched as no train departed from anywhere except the LED screen on Platform 1A. At the information desk we were shocked to discover that it had definitely left because the computer system – triggered by censors in the tracks, no less – said so.
Glad to have narrowly avoided a trip to the Rotherham of a parallel universe, when I did eventually get there I met up with Ray Hearne to talk about a project we’re working on (more on this soon). It just so happened that Ray had a copy of Ebenezer Elliot’s ‘Verses on the opening of the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway’ which he very kindly gave me (you can find it on page 65 of this excellent collection of Elliot’s poems edited by Agnes Lehoczky and Adam Piette for the PlastiCities project back in 2012).
This is a remarkable poem for a number of reasons. Familiar places are vividly brought to life through enraptured, Romantic eyes and returned to the final days of their pre-industrial innocence. The poet stands ‘on war-marked Winco’s side’ less than half a mile from the brand new railway and calls on the surrounding settlements to see ‘with gladdened eyes’ the ‘triumph for mankind’ represented by the ‘towering vapours’ that trace the new trains’ progress:
The note is my favourite thing about the whole poem. It tells us that Osgathorpe is ‘A beautiful eminence between Sheffield and Winco-bank, and, like the latter, overlooking a landscape of equal beauty’. My mum lives on Osgathorpe Road and I was brought up round the corner and I love it, but ‘beautiful eminence’ isn’t a description many people would recognise. It transports us back to a time when Sheffield’s industry was concentrated in a small centre whose outlying areas remained largely unspoilt.
The view over the Don Valley is still a beautiful one in its own, post-industrial way: the vast steelworks away to the north-east, the incinerator, the railway arches and Supertram lines, Park Hill flats and the neatly laid out streets of the Manor. Elliot reminds us that not so many generations ago, if we strip back the layers of history, this was a stunning, idyllic valley (the otters and salmon who are returning to it remind of this, too).
Another remarkable feature is Elliot’s scattergun approach to the exclamation mark, a piece of punctuation now associated with the excitable emotion of acronym-heavy text-speak. The above stanza – with a fairly modest six occurrences – shows perfectly that inveterate texters and shouty copywriters in our own time are working with a long-established textual means of conveying intensity of feeling with a sense of wide-eyed innocence and youthful excitement. OMG! Literary pedigree!? WTF! LMAO!
In all seriousness, though, its sheer excitement at the potential of new technology is what is so remarkable about the poem. For Elliot, the Sheffield to Rotherham Railway is a harbinger of a new, fairer world and proof that the human ‘Mind shall conquer time and space’ to ‘Bid East and West shake hands!’. ‘Tyrants of all lands’ will ‘wither’ before the revolutionary power unleashed by advances in transport and communications, heralding a new world free from oppression.
This utopian vision chimes with the most hopeful and optimistic assessments of the power of technology in our own time, such as in the predictions of a post-work world of full automation by the likes of Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The poem’s most striking relevance to contemporary debates, though a bit more modest and mundane, lies in its advocacy of the democratising power and freedom-giving potential of public transport. Remembering the world-changing optimism of the early days of the railways can help us to re-energise our arguments for renationalisation now. Our ancestors forked out the £100,000 that paid for the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway in the first place and we deserve a cheap, efficient, public and accessible train service that doesn’t depart Platform 1A into a parallel universe.