Wednesday 1 September 2021

The Dreamland Express

A group of children - boys and girls - lying face down on the ground, staring over the edge of a precipice.  One of the boys is upright and racing towards the edge in the company of a snake.  Is he planning to jump? The scene has been visualised from above giving a strong sense that they are looking into a terrifying void.  They are, in fact, at the edge of the world.  Beyond is the limitless emptiness of space. This anxiety inducing glimpse of infinity comes from a book for children, written and illustrated by H R Millar (1869-1942), the subject of our previous post.

The Dreamland Express was published by Oxford University Press in 1927 and copies are hard to find. A new edition was issued in 1989 and these scans come from one such copy.  Millar put his heart and soul into this book, writing an adventure story in which a trio of schoolboys follow a voyage of discovery through fantastical and other worldly landscapes, encountering a bewildering sequence of wild and dangerous animals, dragons, giants and citizens of exotic and eccentric civilisations.  Holding it all together was the series of trains in which the young adventurers travelled that enabled Millar to indulge his lifelong passion for railways and spice his narrative with romantic vignettes of life on the rails.  Millar begins his tale with a haunting description of the children discovering a passenger train all but concealed in dense woodland, headed by a majestic steam engine entangled in foliage. A full complement of crew are ready and waiting to welcome them on board and get the journey underway.

In the first half of the book the train races through imaginary cities on bridges and viaducts that have all but escaped the laws of gravity, arriving at an extraordinary cavernous station built in the style of Ancient Egypt. Along the way our heroes meet a flirtatious girl, always an uncomfortable moment of potential disruption to the simple pleasures of male companionship. Unlike John, Peter and George she is not granted the dignity of a name but she wins their respect by revealing an unexpected interest in trains, enough to admit her to the travelling band. Later the group is joined by a school swot whose function is to irritate with displays of pedantry.  The second half of the book involves an enforced change of train - the new locomotive is a decrepit specimen apparently riveted together from a motley assortment of life expired parts in the manner of W Heath Robinson. A Mysterious Oriental with a private train carrying a magnificent retinue of slaves and devoted followers enters the story and by sleight of hand substitutes their locomotive for something even worse - an Oriental fantasy made from porcelain and timber with a silken canopy covering the cab.  Despite the handicap of a disintegrating locomotive our heroes find time to rescue a slave from execution, win the favour of a Giant and emerge unscathed from a pitch-black Canyon of Darkness.

Millar’s visions of alternative worlds are brought to life with pen and ink drawing combined with colour washes - the results are close to the visual conventions of the comic strip. Echoes of Lyonel Feininger and Winsor McCay can be seen in Millar’s eccentric architectural fantasies although no evidence that he ever saw their work exists. Millar employed the voice of a narrator throughout to offer context and commentary and he didn’t flinch from challenging subject matter.  The image of the eternally burning city and the desperation of its inhabitants is the stuff of young nightmares and evokes a sense of dread equal to the confrontation with the edge of the world where the journey ends. Millar resolves this situation by having the three boys simultaneously awaken in their beds back home.  Normality has been restored and the boys can resume their natural progression to adulthood where John flies a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, eventually becoming a Conservative MP, Peter survives the privations of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, later rising through the ranks of the Anglican Church to become a Suffragan Bishop and George, having served as a Junior Officer in the Royal Navy, studies Fine Art at the Slade, briefly exhibits his paintings of railway disasters at the Beaux-Arts Gallery while becoming a notorious habitué of the Colony Room, bantering the night away with George Melly and Francis Bacon.



Standby4action said...

Brilliant as usual...just one small thing "One of the boys is upright and racing towards the edge in the company of a snake"....isn't that a tie??

Phil Beard said...

Absolutely right - a school tie discarded with all the other items of clothing. Thank you for your kind words.