David R Ewens

Lifts and Trains

15th December 2016

I’ve lately been taking an interest in lifts, and specifically how to get out of them if they break down – or even if they don’t break down. Three lifts recently travelled in spring to mind – one in an apartment block in Birchington on Sea, the ‘skywalk’ lift leaving the ferry at Calais in order to get onto the port bus, and the lift in the Hotel Ibis in Kortrijk. In each case, there is no removable panel at the top or even at the bottom. Instead, you are urged to press a red emergency button or make an emergency telephone call to get rescued. So if Jason Bourne, James Bond or John McCain had found themselves, singly or together, in one of these lifts, you wonder how they would have got out without calling the lift company. Maybe I’m naïve and they would have found a way involving something really violent, dramatic and enterprising, but I’m not sure I see how.
Trains present the same problem. The slam-door trains up to circa 2005 on the SouthEastern Trains franchise, where you slid down the window and opened the door using the handle outside (there was no indoor handle), would have given the Bournes, Bonds and McCains of the world plenty of scope for mayhem and adventure (if they had found themselves on the Kent Coast line in the first place, say from Victoria to Canterbury East). Like some commuters in that period, they would not have waited for the trains to stop before opening the doors and hopping off (or hopping on to the roof). Similarly steam trains in the 1930s certainly helped Richard Hannay to elude capture in his flight up to Scotland. But these days there are no windows to open, and no doors to open either, except in stations and when permitted by guard and driver, and anyway, when can you ever find a guard to menace with your Glock semi-automatic?
None of this stops Hollywood or Pinewood of course. It’s the same with access to heavily protected buildings like banks, spy headquarters or prisons. There are always convenient, person-sized ventilation and/or electric cable ducts. Why let design problems interfere with a good plot?
Which brings me on to Frank Sterling. He is not the kind of action man, thankfully for me, who is going to have Bond-, Bourne- or McCain-style adventures. Everything is more ordinary and low-key, but not, in my view, necessarily less exciting. His quirky and eccentric cases do involve escapades with lifts and trains, just not modern and conventional ones. It makes the writing, and hopefully the reading, fun.