On the Right Side of the Tracks

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Anne Michaels will be at the Bookshop next week to talk about her latest poetry collection, Correspondences, a collaboration with painter Bernice Eisenstein. Here, Gareth Evans remembers one of her previous collaborations: Railtracks, a series of conversations with John Berger.

In early 2003, I approached John Berger with the idea of curating a cross-arts overview in London of his work in all media. I’d been in touch with him once before, at the end of the 90s, when I’d been asked by the New Statesman to review both his novel King and the extraordinary performance The Vertical Line, made with Simon McBurney for Artangel and set in the closed Aldwych tube station on the Strand. I filed my response, only to have it ‘killed’ by the then Arts Editor. Frustrated by this, especially as both works had moved me enormously, I located John’s address and sent him the review. Expecting to hear nothing back, I was amazed to receive a handwritten letter within the week, thanking me with great generosity for the piece.

Early in 2003, I contacted John again, and went to Paris to meet him and propose the season. He listened carefully and, by the end of my pitch, gave me permission to contact venues across London to gauge their interest. We agreed that we’d meet again in six months. In that time, I approached pretty much every relevant organisation in the city – from the National Theatre to the National Gallery, the ICA to the NFT; from universities to theatre companies; writers, musicians and film-makers to doctors, AIDS activists and campaigners. And everybody immediately and unequivocally said yes, to whatever John wanted to do.

I relayed this to John, and I think it’s accurate to say that he was bowled over by the warmth of this citywide response. He’d not lived in London for 35 years by this point, and felt somewhat distanced from the place, and certainly from its politics. He couldn’t possibly have known that his work had deeply affected almost everybody in a position of influence, and they were only too keen to repay the debt they owed him.

So followed 18 months of intense, unpaid work, with event producer Di Robson assembling the season, which unfolded over six wondrous weeks in April and May 2005. Among the numerous talks, readings, screenings, exhibitions and walks were two original performances commissioned especially for the occasion. The first was a profoundly affecting ensemble adaptation of King by the extraordinary theatre company Cardboard Citizens, in a squatted space in north London. The second was a devised site-specific work, Vanishing Points, directed again by Simon McBurney (of the legendary Complicite) from an original text by John and multi-award winning novelist and poet Anne Michaels, both of whom also performed live. It was staged in the vaulted upper hall of the German Gymnasium in Kings Cross, and the script took the form of a meditative dialogue between protagonists J and A on the lives, loves, longing and loss associated with railways, whether personally or politically, historically or very much in the present tense. With trapeze work, projections, soundscapes and a promenade format, it was a unique and unrepeatable event, poised between two of London’s greatest stations. (Images, text and video are available on the Complicite website – navigate to Past > Productions > Vanishing Points.)

The work evolved out of several long walks we had all been on, in and around the area of the stations, with author Dan Gretton (whose epic non-fiction work I You We Them will appear from Heinemann in 2015). Multi-layered pedestrian trawls through the densely-woven and layered histories of the district – taking in everything from Lenin to Phil Ochs – they revealed the viability and possible life of the seed that John and Anne had planted. On receiving our commission, both writers felt that the lives of railway stations might reveal certain necessary insights at this juncture in the culture. These walks provided factual foundations, but also an experiential base from which they could then explore their concerns (worked on thousands of miles apart, and communicated in drafts by various technologies between Toronto and France).

Inevitably, as part of the creative process, John and Anne’s script shifted in its life for the stage, and there remained an abiding interest in revisiting it at the right moment for possible publication. This came six years later. In 2008 I co-founded a small press – Go Together – with Czech artist Tereza Stehlíková. We produced an annual review, Artesian, and one or two books. In 2011, both Anne and John decided that they wished to see the original text of their shared work in print. Beautifully designed by Julien Lesage and accompanied by an evocative sequence of Tereza’s photographs, taken on a rail journey at night through Southern Bohemia in the Czech Republic, it appeared as Railtracks in early autumn of that year.

When thinking about its format, we all agreed it should suggest the dimensions of a train timetable. Anne also thought it should fit in the breast pocket, over the heart, while John felt it should be able to stop a bullet… Not too different in the end then, I guess!

Railtracks sold exclusively through the London Review Bookshop for six months and became that year’s bestseller. It was published in the US by Counterpoint in February 2013. Thank you to all who made it possible to produce and circulate this beautiful volume.

Anne Michaels and Gareth Evans will be in conversation at the Bookshop on 16 July. Book tickets here.

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