By Susan Griffith
Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper: The New Telegraph Book of Great Railway Journeys
Edited by Michael Kerr
Rail journeys as described by first-rate travel writers make for a wonderful accompaniment to an evening in an armchair or even better tucked up in a couchette. This fat hardback is a pleasingly varied anthology of stories that cover the world. The title is economical with the truth since the journeys described go east, west and north as well as south, and not all involve overnight adventures. The voices of the many contributors are distinctive rather than generic, and the standard of writing is high. The majority of pieces are taken from the travel columns of a British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph; yet an aspiring travel writer (whether or not wishing to focus on train travel) would benefit from dipping into this spirited collection.
Many accounts date from 2010 and 2011 with a sprinkling of articles from the archive, some of which are obsolete in light of subsequent events, such as the demise of steam rail travel in China, the fall of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the cathedral in Christchurch New Zealand. Some of the extracts are lyrical, even moving. In particular a heart-stopping reminiscence by the American Pamela Petro of an Amtrak crash that had nearly killed her 24 years earlier told brilliantly and obliquely as a flashback from another Amtrak journey on the flagship west coast route.
Other articles achieve high comedy by puncturing the romantic clichés of long-distance rail travel. The reality of water slopping round the floor of the washroom three days inland from Hong Kong and the solid 48-hour viewing of nothing but fir trees and snow out of the (grimy) windows of the Trans-Siberian express are quite unlike the breathy prose of the travel brochures that sell these dream trips. Despite having paid extra for “touring class” on the Skeena through the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Alaska, Michael Deacon can’t escape the beige plastic cutlery and a helpful eight-step guide in the lavatory from (1) “Wet hands” to (8) “Open door to leave cubicle”. The reflections of Canadiana that this writer draws from his experiences on the train are laugh-out-loud-funny (and I say this as a passport-carrying Canadian): “If you want to buy beer on the train, remember that it’ll be Canadian and will therefore, irrespective of brand, taste like chilled bath water. Canadian beer cans are half the size of British ones which, coupled with the foulness of the contents, creates an intriguing optical illusion: at first your can looks insultingly small, but after a couple of sips it looks dauntingly large”.
It is a truism of train travel that it is the most convivial mode of transport, and story after story describes how trains create “proto-societies”. The excellent account of the trip between Hong Kong and Lhasa entitled “From SAR to TAR” (Special Administrative Region to the Tibetan Autonomous Region) describes how the writer’s train becomes a “small Chinese town” with its new-born babies, card players, tooth brushers, “early snorers and late snackers”. Strangers end up sharing jokes and revelations, customs and picnics. Offence can inadvertently be caused: a Chinese passenger in conversation with two Turks has not been warned to avoid mention of Armenia, while the Turkish women retaliate by asking about Tibet.
One of the contributors describes overnight journeys as “cosy sleepovers.” Brief encounters may not measure up to the one in the film with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, but we all remember enthralling conversations we have had on trains, probably more vividly than the landscapes that whiz past. Stephen McClarence (who is among several contributors without a driving licence) recalls meeting an Indian gentleman who solemnly announced that “because you are from United Kingdom, I must treat you as a guest” before leaning back and burping twice. After conversing with another passenger on an inter-city train in North India, the writer is told “the small things I have told you may be of immense use.”
These warts-and-all accounts of rail journeys from the Trans-Siberian to the poor man’s trains of Cuba as experienced by the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy will have you agreeing whole-heartedly with Gavin Bell who is “deeply grateful to have been born after the advent of railways”.
See more April 2012 travel book reviews from Susan Griffith