Roger McGough (born in 1937) is one of a small number of British poets whose name is known to people who would not regard themselves as lovers of poetry. This is because he has been writing humorous, approachable poems for more than 40 years and he has always been keen to keep his distance from "academic" poetry. That is not to say that he cannot write "serious" poems when he wants to. However, he prefers to use humour as a platform for making serious points, or to draw a broader conclusion from a scenario that, at first sight, might not to appear to offer one. "Waving at Trains" is a poem that illustrates this latter point.
"Waving at Trains" is the title poem of a collection, published by McGough in 1982, which is full of poems of this type. It comprises five stanzas, each of five unrhymed lines.
Do people who wave at trains
Wave at the driver, or at the train itself?
Or, do people who wave at trains
Wave at the passengers? Those hurtling strangers,
The unidentifiable flying faces?
They must think we like being waved at.
Children do perhaps, and alone
In a compartment, the occasional passenger
Who is himself a secret waver at trains.
But most of us are unimpressed.
Some even think they’re daft.
Stuck out there in a field, grinning.
But our ignoring them, our blank faces,
Even our pulled tongues and up you signs
Come three miles further down the line.
Out of harm’s way by then
They continue their walk.
Refreshed and made pure, by the mistaken belief
That their love has been returned,
Because they have not seen it rejected.
It’s like God in a way. Another day
Another universe. Always off somewhere.
And left behind, the faithful few,
Stuck out there. Not a care in the world.
All innocence. Arms in the air. Waving.
The first four stanzas are musings on the reasons why people seem to find irresistible the urge to wave at passing trains. The first thought is, at whom or what are the waves directed; is it the driver, the passengers, or the train itself? McGough finds it odd that the passengers can be the target, given that these are "unidentifiable flying faces".
He then considers the phenomenon from the passenger's point of view, because they (the wavers) "must think we like being waved at". McGough doubts this, making exceptions only for children and "the occasional passenger / Who is himself a secret waver at trains". But, he concludes, "most of us are unimpressed / Some even think they're daft".
So, what sort of response is appropriate? McGough has clearly observed several possibilities, namely blank-faced ignoring, "pulled tongues and up you signs", but he makes the point that any response, even if theoretically observable by the trackside wavers, "comes three miles further down the line".
He then imagines the feelings of the wavers after the train has gone and they fondly assume that their warm greetings have been reciprocated. As a result they are "refreshed and made pure", mistakenly believing that "their love has been returned, / because they have not seen it rejected".
So that is the scenario, with the innocent action of waving at a train making people feel good because they know no better. Is there a broader lesson that McGough can draw from this? You bet there is! However, it is unlikely to be one that many readers would have expected. He starts the last stanza with "It's a bit like God in a way", which is quite a step from waving at trains, and intriguing for its lack of obviousness. We are asked to view the train as God and the wavers as "the faithful few". God is in a hurry: "Another day / Another universe. Always off somewhere". The wavers are "stuck out there. Not a care in the world. / All innocence. Arms in the air. Waving."
It would seem that McGough is having a dig at "happy clappy" churchgoers who seem to think that God wants them to wave their arms in the air at every opportunity, an action which McGough regards as being as absurd as that of waving at trains. The words "refreshed and made pure" seem to be particularly relevant when applied to worshippers, who are just as mistaken in their beliefs. Just like the train passengers who ignore the wavers or make rude gestures in their direction which cannot be seen anyway, God has no time for "the faithful few" because he is busy elsewhere.
This is not a comforting message for Christian readers, or at least not for those of the arm-waving tendency. It is a huge shift from mocking wavers at trains, whose "love" has been rejected, to mocking those who think that their love for God is getting similar short shrift. However, this sudden lurch from the trivial to something much more profound is the reason why "Waving at Trains" is such a powerful poem. It works extremely well, by building the mockery through four light-hearted stanzas and then thumping the message home in the fifth by drawing parallels between the two groups of arm wavers. That is what a good poet can do, and Roger McGough is a very good poet indeed.
© John Welford