Aboard a stuck SkyTrain, reading Samuel Pepys's account of the Great Fire of London
On a toasty Saturday afternoon in August, aboard the SkyTrain in East Vancouver, we are about half a mile from the Science World station when the brakes screech on the track under us and we come to a fast, grinding, wrong-sounding stop that ends with a clunk. A few passengers yelp in alarm. Then we sit in silence—no motion, no ventilating fans, no conversation—high above the street. A tinny voice comes through the wall speaker, identifying itself as SkyTrain Control and saying that there is a problem with our train and it will be resolved as soon as possible. A few other SkyTrain incidents have occurred in the last couple of weeks, generating news snippets such as “serious malfunction” and “five hours of commuter chaos” and “independent inquiry into SkyTrain stoppages?” I open the book I have brought along, a sixty-four-page postcard-size paperback of Samuel Pepys’s journal entries on the Great Fire of London in 1666, and begin to read.
Pepys’s account opens on Sunday morning, September 2, 1666, when he rises to hear that a fire has started in a bakery in central London around midnight, has consumed hundreds of houses and can now be seen clearly from his home just northwest of the Tower of London. He walks to the Tower and climbs up to see “an infinite great fire” roaring toward London Bridge with a brisk wind behind it. Buildings are breaking and falling, and people are screaming through the streets with whatever possessions they can carry. Pepys reports to King Charles, who sends him off to find the Lord Mayor and order him to “spare no houses”: that is, to create firebreaks by demolishing buildings, the most drastic and effective firefighting technique of the time. Pepys finds the Lord Mayor in Canning Street, exhausted and defeated, crying out “like a fainting woman” that workers are pulling down buildings, but “the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.”
SkyTrain Control comes scratching through the speaker again, telling us that steps are being taken to attend to our “Problem Train,” which is now heating up in the sun. Behind me a young man and woman brightly reassure their children, aged about three and five, that we’ll be at Science World real soon. Why do we have to stay here? says one. I’m hungry, says the other. A middle-aged man a few seats away, wearing a dress shirt and skater shorts, stands up with his bulging briefcase and begins pacing up and down the aisle of the car.
Meanwhile, in 1666, central London is chaos. All around him, Pepys sees “every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds.” The river is full of boats and rafts, also laden with people’s stuff, and “all over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of fire-drops.” There is nothing to do but watch the firestorm in horror. “It made me weep to see it,” he writes, “and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine.” At 4:00 a.m. on Monday, September 3, a hired cart arrives at the Pepys residence in Seething Lane to carry away their “money, and plate, and best things.” Pepys supervises the transfer, “riding myself in my night-gown, in the cart.” By Monday afternoon much of the City—the area enclosed by the stone wall built during the Roman occupation—is in flames, and the waterfront is on fire. The only way out is through one of the eight narrow gates in the wall, which is twenty feet high and eight feet thick. People panic as they struggle to get their families and carts and wagons through the bottlenecks.
On the Problem Train, the pacing man sets down his briefcase by the sliding doors, jams both hands into the crack where the two doors meet and yanks hard, forcing the doors open. In one motion he grabs up the briefcase, steps out of the train and pushes the doors shut behind him. Then he sets out on foot along the track—fifty feet above the street—toward Science World. For a few seconds no one else moves. Then it dawns on me, and probably everyone else, that SkyTrain Control doesn’t know about the debarking man, because they see the Problem Train and its passengers only as a point of light on an electronic chart in a technology-filled bunker somewhere. After another minute, a good citizen passenger gets up and goes to the speaker and presses the red button. SkyTrain Control responds at once, scratchily saying that they are working on the situation. Good Citizen reports that a man has left the train and is walking west along the track. Control says that it is very dangerous to leave the train between stations, and that no one should try to disembark or open the doors, and—No, no, says Good Citizen, someone has already done it, pried open the doors and walked away. Control explains that parts of the elevated track have high voltage and leaving the train can cause serious injury, so please do not try to open the doors or exit the train. Good Citizen has no choice but to raise his voice. You’re not listening to us, he shouts into the speaker. It’s already happened! A guy got off the train and he’s—Please stay on the train, says Control, for your own safety.
The London fire is still raging two days later, on Tuesday, September 4, 1666, when Samuel Pepys arranged to have his important papers, his wine and his “parmazan cheese” buried in the yard. “Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower Street,” he writes. The usual way to pull down buildings is manually, with firehooks—long poles with hooks, rings and pulleys—but this fire is so large and fast and hot that it is creating its own weather, so the Tower of London garrison has brought out gunpowder to speed up the firebreak demolitions. Over the next twenty-four hours the fire is calmed by these measures and by shifting winds. Smaller fires erupt from time to time, giving rise to rumours that the fire is sabotage perpetrated by the French and/or Dutch; Pepys’s comment that “it hath been dangerous for any stranger to walk the streets” understates the panicky beatings and even lynchings that are going on day and night. He and some associates walk along a burned-out street one morning to look at the devastation, “our feet ready to burn, walking through the town among the hot coles.”
In the Problem Train the power has been off long enough that we remaining passengers are feeling the effects of being stuck in a sealed glass and metal box under the noonday sun at the peak of a hot summer. We fan ourselves with books, papers, flyers, tissues, scarves, phones, tablets—whatever we’ve got. The younger child weeps a bit while his mum and dad ransack their bags, working out who forgot to pack the snacks and water bottles. A woman toward the back offers them a box of orange juice. But what’s this? Another train pulls up on the track next to us, and stops. Two or three people are aboard, one of whom—wearing overalls! hooray!—emerges and walks along the guideway beside us, stopping occasionally to peer at the bottom of our train and its track. He does not look at us or say anything. Who is that man, the kids ask, speaking for all of us. What is he doing, why doesn’t that train have any people on it, are we going to ride on that train? Some of us begin to gather up our possessions. But no, the man goes back into the other train and it trundles away. SkyTrain Control crackles in again, now referring to us as a “failed train,” advising of a further delay and saying, in what seems a reproachful tone, that the problem has been “compounded by the fact that passengers broke out of the train.” We are shamed even more when a different Control voice—deeper, and more stern—comes through the speaker, informing “all SkyTrain passengers” (emphasis his) that a Problem Train is “causing delays throughout the system,” and Control is working very very hard to get things moving again. A minute later, the power comes back on. Then another train rumbles by, full of passengers who peer in at us with the mix of curiosity and pity one usually sees on people visiting the zoo.
By Saturday, September 8, 1666, six days after the fire started, London is full of talk about the fire—how it started, whether sabotage was involved, how the city will be rebuilt—with not much to go on except hearsay: the post office is gone, and so is the London Gazette building, having succumbed shortly after the Monday edition went out. Months will pass before the losses are totted up and some will never be counted. Officially the fire has taken fewer than ten human lives, but in those days poor and middle-class people were barely kept track of, and many bodies must have been burned to nothing in a fire that was hot enough to melt the iron bars of the local prisons, and there was no enumeration of those souls who died in the winter—of cold, or hunger, or sickness, or grief. Some survivors have earned a bit of money packing up and carting the goods of wealthier people; over dinner, Pepys and his cronies denounce with equal heat the workers who stole things, and the rich men who underpaid labourers or haggled over the price as London burned. On Sunday morning Pepys writes, “many and most in the church cried, specially the women.” A week later, and two more times before the month is out, he reports terrifying “dreams of fire, and falling down of houses.”
About forty-five minutes after we became the Problem Train, a low rumbling noise starts up under us, and then we are moving—slowly and gingerly, but steadily. No one makes a sound for a few seconds, then whoosh—breathing, nervous laughter, wild cheers from the two kids, the peep-peep-peeping of thirty or forty text messages being composed and sent. When we have stopped at Science World and the doors have slid open, we stampede off the train and down the stairs as politely as possible. I am almost at street level when the distant voice of SkyTrain Control comes through the speaker one last time: This train is out of service. Please do not board.