And so Smiley, without school, parents, regime or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard's van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday's news.

Source: Call for the Dead (John Le Carré)

I understand that guard's van refers to a carriage occupied by guards on a train. Does social express here refers metaphorically to society as a train?

  • It's explicitly likened to the "guard's van".
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 14:08
  • 1
    I think it's a brilliant metaphorical usage! Reducing the meaning to social express = society really doesn't do it justice - it encompasses every aspect of one's "journey through life" as regards interaction with other people (at personal and institutional level) with the wonderful "side allusion" to the speed (and by implication, brevity) of an individual's earthly existence. Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 14:49
  • It should be "yesterday's". Please check your source.
    – David
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 7:21
  • Le Carre isn't the only artist to use this metaphor. Bob Dylan used it in Only a Pawn in Their Game (released in 1964) to indicate the social and economic position of "poor whites" one of whom shot civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963. Call for the Dead was published in 1961 so the metaphor was probably in common use on both sides of the Atlantic at the time (unless Dylan picked it up from Le Care)
    – BoldBen
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 23:07

1 Answer 1


Yes is the short answer.
The salient elements of the metaphor cover labels, guard's van, social express, lost luggage. Some mixing of metaphors, the dusty shelf is surely from another comparison, this time in the general realm of the newsagent.

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