Home > Words and writing > Leave that train in the station

Leave that train in the station

Much like Christ used parables, politicians and journalists pile on metaphor after metaphor. Of those, none is as useful, generic and ubiquitous as the train one. But despite Mae West’s quip that too much of a good thing is a wonderful thing, too much of a good thing can actually sit quite heavy on the stomach. Case in point, a quote in the August 19 Washington Post, from a former Yeltsin aide, Georgy Satarov, remembering the good times.

“People had hope. Now they are disappointed and frustrated.” So far, so good. Then, wouldn’t you know, Satarov reaches out for a train metaphor. “We saw the old train was taking us in the wrong direction, but we thought all we had to do was change the conductor and we would have comfortable seats and good food. Democracy would take us where we wanted to go, not our own effort. Sometimes you have to get off and push.”

Not bad, eh?

When I was working with various Iranian politicians–in Iran then in exile– they loved, in true politician style, nothing as much as a good metaphor. In fact, Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda went into train-metaphor default mode whenever foreign media pestered him about human rights or similar concerns. It was all “when the train has finally pulled out of this station…” or “a train going as fast as Iran today surely cannot make every stop…” and so on.

Now that the electoral train in the US is leaving the station and gathering speed, you can bet that so will train metaphors. Candidates will be wary of “third-rail political issues;” there will be those “leaving the station early,” others “losing steam” and a number disappearing into veritable “train wrecks.”

But no train metaphor can hold a candle to this one in The Times of December 13, 1992, commenting on a European Union summit. Sorry for quoting it in its entirely but as train metaphors go, it’s a gem.

“The European train finally chugged out of the station last night; for most of the day it looked as if it might be stalled there for some time. It managed to pull away at around 10.30 p.m. only after the Spanish prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, forced the passengers in the first class carriages into a last minute whip round to sweeten the trip for the European Community’s poor four: Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland. The fat controller, Helmut Kohl, beamed with satisfaction as the deal was done. The elegantly-suited François Mitterrand was equally satisfied. But nobody was as pleased as John Major, stationmaster for the UK presidency, for whom the agreement marked a scarce high point in a battered premiership. The departure had actually been delayed by seven months by Danes on the line. Just when that problem was solved, there was the voluble outbreak, orchestrated by Spain, from the poor four passengers demanding that they should travel free and be given spending money, too. The coupling of the carriages may not be reliably secure but the pan-European express is in motion. That few seem to agree on the destination suggests that future arguments are inevitable at every set of points. Next stop: Copenhagen.”

What did I tell you? A gem.

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