Girl on a Train is a song with lyrics by Clive James and recorded by Pete Atkin on the album Beware of the Beautiful Stranger released in 1970. It was the first of six Atkin/James collaborations, about 100 songs in total.
The combination of Atkin’s dry, deadpan delivery and James’s clever allusive lyrics won a cult audience, a large part of which were students, bedsit poets, hip English teachers, lovers of books and literature, wits and scholars, singers and musicians, wild-eyed drunks quoting Kierkegaard in public bars…
The songs are full of wordplay, slang, allusions drawn from literature, art, cinema, popular culture. William Blake, Shakespeare, John Donne, Petrarch, TS Eliot sit alongside references to the Lone Ranger, Elvis, biros, double decker buses, Guy Fawkes’ Day, Ford Cortinas, second-class train carriages, Star Trek.
The songs are tightly constructed, reminiscent of French chansons and Elizabethan lyric poems, with the end rhymes clicking satisfactorily and the internal rhymes adding a lyrical jauntiness.
This, and the self-deprecating, self-aware wit and sense of the absurd, offsets the songs’ atmosphere of melancholy and despair. Pete Atkin’s music brings an extra dimension to the words. It covers the range of jazz, rock, pop, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and underlines the songs’ poignancy.
Girl on a Train is a sweet sad story of what might have been. I imagine that the train is going to Cambridge, just because that is where James and Atkin met, and the girl who is reading a volume of Paul Verlaine’s poetry might be a student there. She’s totally absorbed in the book, making notes in the margin, oblivious of the boy opposite who is entranced by her beauty.
Not only that, he is himself a poet, a leading young hope, and he is alive and just a few feet away from her, yet she ploughs on through the work of this dead, obsolete writer who can’t see her fabulous mouth and isn’t drowning in her eyes. He thinks of ways of making her notice him, such as offering the driver money to crash the train so that he could behave like a hero (wonderful rhyme with ‘wreck’ and ‘cheque’ here) but there is nothing to be done.
The girl gets off the train and walks like a princess out of his life, leaving him to sing his plaintive song over and over again, like a wandering troubadour of bygone days.
A nice little back story is sketched in. He boards the train, relieved to have got out of town with ten quid from the bank in his pocket. Why did he leave? The train journey lasts an hour, during which time his heart ‘mended and broke’. This suggests that he left town with a broken heart, which was cured by falling in love with the girl opposite, only to be broken again as she walked off.
Here we have a true romantic, a courtly lover who worships and suffers at the altar of love, which can strike anywhere, even in a second-class train compartment rattling through English fields in the wind and the rain.