Category Archives: Travel

On not being able to read (comfortably)

readingTo sort-of quote Arnie, I’m back.

I can say that with some confidence because I have finally shed my nasty neck collar – which I was only wearing for some exercises, admittedly – and now have what the physio described as ‘a good range of movement’. Painful movement, sometimes, but movement. And I am no longer getting dizzy all the time when I look down. Some of the time, still, but it is soooo much better. For the first time in months I have been able to sit in a chair and read. Am putting out the bunting now…

I’ve been trying not to grumble because I know that, neck injuries being neck injuries, things could have been a lot worse. It seems churlish to chunter about not being able to read anything other than a light paperback when my fall – wet walking boots + wet slate = not good – could have been so much worse, involving the air ambulance and a quick trip to Stoke Mandeville. I have also gained enormous respect for neurologists. It seems to me the medical discipline most close to quantum physics, mixed with a healthy dash of philosophy, alchemy and the doctrine of signatures. Very strange and very amazing.

What I have not gained any respect at all for is the ******* Kindle. Just as awkward for the neck-injured me as a book but without any of the sensory appeal, and – well, let’s just say that people gave up scrolliing through books centuries ago when printing got going. They gave it up for a reason. Grumble. I can see the advantages of using one if travelling or stuck in hospital, but happily I was neither. Very glad to return it whence it came.

The whole experience made me consider something I really take for granted, as do – I suspect – most of us who enjoy reading. It’s just there, right? You don’t really need to think about it. Well, we are very fortunate indeed. Since everything clicked at the age of four and the world of books made it possible for me to run away from home without actually leaving (not that there was anything wrong with home, she added hastily; I just fancied other possibities), I’ve read everything and almost anything. I used to read the back of my father’s newspaper while he read the front; cereal packets held a deep fascination; I could find myself boating with Swallows and Amazons, going through the back of a wardrobe, sitting at the Round Table (who says girls can’t be knights, eh?) or fighting off goblins whenever I wanted.

I never lost that. Admittedly the adventures changed – I stood beside Jonathan Harker and watched Dracula crawling down a castle wall rather than hunted after the Holy Grail beside some Monty Python numpty in armour – but the allure of being able to escape into a book never, ever faded. I no longer needed to read under the bedclothes with a torch, though there have been times when using a torch seemed useful (where’s that Kindle?). And a book can transport you like nothing else, through time as well as place, and into worlds that, strictly speaking, don’t exist and (possibly) never have. I could climb the rigging on a ship of Nelson’s Navy with Jack Aubrey, reluctantly listen to Mary Bennet play the piano or walk the night-time streets of Ankh-Morpork with Samuel Vimes if I wanted. I could read David Simon on crime in Baltimore, Patrick Leigh-Fermor on walking through pre-War Europe or Cecil Woodham Smith on the Great Hunger. I could look at a whole range of Ottoman Carpets, photographs by Magnum members, check out the history and folklore of plants.

And then, suddenly, I couldn’t.

After a few days it became apparent that I was going to have to adapt. If I watched broadcast television all the time my brain was going to melt and run down my nose, and using my laptop was difficult, so I worked my way through my DVDs. The risk of brain liquifaction – another re-run of Escape to the Country when I finished them? I think NOT – was becoming all too real. So I managed to rig up a sort of reading platform I could use lying down, with lightweight books (and the damn Kindle) supported by pillows. That meant paperbacks, and it worked – I could read, not for long, but in relative comfort, and so I did. After a little while I noticed that my apparently unconscious choices had started to develop a clear theme. Novels were, by and large, out. I had to read something I could put to one side, something which wouldn’t lead to me ignoring the pain and just reading on to see what happened, but with one exception. Crime. It had to be familiar crime, though, crime where I knew who did it, roughly, even if I couldn’t remember exactly why. This stage went on for a while, until ‘they’ finally worked out what had happened to me and decided what they were going to do about it. Not surprising, that timing, perhaps – a problem, solved.

Then there were the travel books. I have a lot and I read almost all of them. I developed a particular fondness for the ones where the authors end up in revolting / dangerous / overly smelly / ludicrous situations. Chased by wild bears, hanging off a mountain by your fingernails, being very ill in some yurt? Oh, yes. Travelling around the UK? Nah. Once I’d read through my own selection I hit the local libraries and worked my way through theirs too. And then I moved on, into history. There are some books which blur the boundaries – like The Cruellest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury on the original dog-sled relay to Nome which led to the development of the Iditerod race – so that was to be expected. And then, joy of joys, I discovered I could manage a hardback, which added more to my repertoire since I’d abandoned the ***** Kindle – why pay for something you already own, anyway? (The first ones? Ah, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld books from Going Postal to Snuff, Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Iain Banks’ Raw Spirit, on whisky – and I can contemplate alcohol again; the physio must be working!)

Next, I’m going to be testing illustrated books. I can’t bend my neck completely without the vertigo returning, but I can manage with it slightly bent. So it’s down to whatever can be balanced safely on a crossed leg or a little table without slipping, and there are plenty of those. But I’m going to give the ‘throw the dice, see what it gives you and then blog about it’ thing a rest. I shall blog about what I’m rediscovering without the element of alleged chance. I know how my life works. If I threw the dice I’d just get the travel books again…

Normal service will be resumed…

… as soon as I can read properly and comfortably without hurting myself.

neckieOW. An old neck injury – which I didn’t know I had – has flared up and is giving me all sorts of problems which are far too boring to go into here. I’m in diagnostic limbo, waiting for my appointment with the neurologist (only ten days to go), and while everyone assures me it can be dealt with, they all want further investigations to make sure that no further damage is going to happen. While I applaud this – but of course – it is also extremely frustrating.

And one of the main reasons it is driving me insane is that reading has become extremely awkward as I cannot bend my head without dizziness setting in. I end up lying down with a book supported by pillows and my head by even more pillows, and then I have to change position frequently and lie on the other side. So the ‘reading what the dice select’ game has had to be suspended, as the dice kept selecting large art books. All I can manage are paperbacks. Dice not cooperating.

So what have I been reading? Well, not my comfort books, which is interesting. I’ve been travelling vicariously, since I can’t do too much of that physically, and I’ve been travelling in both space and time. At least you have to do the latter vicariously, whatever your state of health.

WreckersFirst off, Bella Bathurst’s excellent book The Wreckers.  Neatly combining history and travel (and enough accounts of stormy seas to make my dizziness appear comparatively trivial), it’s a very good, well-written read. My only quibble, really, is that the very last section on the ship breakers of Alang doesn’t sit very neatly with the rest, which is confined to the seas around the British Isles. But if you don’t know it, read it. It’s so often better to travel vicariously, and this book is a good example of why that is so.

rubiconNext, Rubicon by Tom Holland. Ah, narrative history. And for anyone who was hooked by that splendid TV romp, Rome, this is the real deal. What really happened. Maybe what really happened. Possibly – after all, can you really trust sources, especially if they were sources dependent for their living – and their life – on the emperor Augustus? But it is crammed with fascinating information (I didn’t know that Caesar was a notorious dandy; how could that have escaped me?) and – yet again – is an excellent read. Very diverting, and intelligent.

Torrid ZoneOne of my favourite authors next, and no way would I have wanted to follow Alexander Frater on this journey – series of journeys, really – neck or no neck. Tales from the Torrid Zone is a mixture of travel, autobiography and history, centred on the tropics, and I’m too much of a northern lass to really enjoy the tropics. I get off the plane somewhere excessive and I want to get right back on. Not Frater. Born there, he loves them – and this book is a paean of love and affection and exasperation. I didn’t get it at first, and this is only my second reading. Boy, have a got it now. Lovely book.

HareAnd another is The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmond de Waal, one of my more recent purchases (but before the whole dice thing kicked in). Again, this was only its second reading, but I know it’s going to merit more. De Waal tracks a family collection of netsuke – and his family, the Ephrussis – from a purchase in nineteenth-century Paris to their residence in his studio (he’s a potter), via Vienna – and being hidden from the Gestapo in a mattress – and Japan. Along the way he learns much of his own history, but also illuminates much of recent European history. Wonderful.

And now I have to choose the next book. Wonder what it will be, other than a paperback? If anyone has any tips for coping with irritating neck injuries, do let me know (head transplants and all). And, in the tones of Arnold Schwartznegger: I’ll be back…

Glorious pictures – but there has to be a ‘but’…

TEXTILES: A WORLD TOUR – Discovering Traditional Fabrics and Patterns, by Catherine Legrande, published in 2008

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 18

coverThere are some books which have been lurking in my collection for a while, and yet I’ve barely looked at them. No, let me correct myself: this tendency is largely confined to the illustrated books, where I’ve looked at the pictures but either ignored the text or just skimmed through it. In some cases, as I’ve mentioned before, this has definitely been a mistake. Reading the text has given me a lot and added to the power of the illustrations.

In other cases – nah. Unfortunately, this book is one of these.

Textiles: A World Tour is also badly titled, because this isn’t a world tour. It’s selective and can be extremely sketchy, even when it does consider an area. Yes, it covers some diverse parts of the world – Laos, Romania, Rajisthan, Guatemala – but it is by no means as global as the title implies. And though there may be something on the textiles of somewhere specific which interests you, that something will probably be confined to two double-page spreads.

However, it is also inspirational – if you concentrate on the illustrations.

inside1

There is much to enjoy, and I’ll extend my positive feedback to the image captions, as well, which are often excellent. Nor, unlike some books on this subject, is male dress ignored (that would be next to impossible, you might think, when looking at places like Rajisthan or Romania, but it has happened before in books of this type).

inside 2

I find the mix of photographs and illustrations compelling. After all, a costume illustration can reveal details of construction which a photograph cannot, and they are vital in any serious book. They are good here, and the captions often help you understand what is going on.

The shots of details are superb, whether they are of Indian embroidery or Romanian printing, and there are some lovely montages, like this one of South-East Asian traditional bags.

inside3

Perhaps I’ve been too tough on the text. It’s also acceptable where it concentrates on the textiles and dumps the ‘we saw X going to market and she said…’ gubbins. This book doesn’t go into anything in detail, though – if you want to serious information about, say, ikats or indigo, then you’re better going to a more specialist work. If you want lovely photographs and excellent drawings, you’ll get those here.

inside4So, yes, I would recommend this, and I have enjoyed getting into it – perhaps you need that grit in your oyster. Ignore what it pretends to be (especially wise in the sections of text that read like a 1950s National Geographic travelog; this tone may be partly down to translation) and concentrate on what it is, and you have something worthwhile: a collection of gorgeous photographs and illustrations of traditional textiles from some parts of the world.

Walking away…

CLEAR WATERS RISING: A MOUNTAIN WALK ACROSS EUROPE by Nicholas Crane, published in 1996

Bookcase 10, shelf 8, book 1

What a hiatus – lots of work meant that I was only reading recipe books, and they don’t make for the most exciting posts. Oh, all right, some of them do – Claudia Roden’s fabulous Jewish Food, for instance, which is as much about social history as it is about stuffing your face. But they’re outside the scope of this project – for one thing, I’d need three dice to get as far as the cookery books, and I’ve only got two. But the two dice I have got gave me a lovely read to make up for the increasing sameness of cookery books.

Clear Waters Rising is a wonderful vicarious walk from one end of Europe to the other, from Cape Finisterre and Santiago de Compostela right through to Istanbul, following the watershed over various mountain ranges as much as possible. It was undertaken in the mid-90s by a thoroughly entertaining writer, Nicholas Crane. Some people will know him from the BBC’s Coast series, always accompanied by an umbrella on his back and a TV crew. This comes from before then, and indeed starts even before the acquisition of the umbrella (though that is bought early on). When he undertook this solitary walk he hadn’t been married for long, fortunately to a very understanding person, another traveller. He’d done many other difficult journeys, but never anything by himself – and that was exactly what he decided to do in this project, which he optimistically thought might take a year.

Keeping in contact by phone – phone boxes assume a lot of importance; this is before ubiquitous mobile technology – and with some pre-arranged meetings (either with his wife or others) enabled NC to travel comparatively light in a journey that spanned the seasons. Its length, both physically and temporally, paint a changing picture. As he sets off, for instance, the mountains he travels through begin to fill with other climbers and walkers then gradually empty as the time wears on. Mountain cafés and campsites empty:

‘This is the last meal I cook at Cortalets this year,’ he announced.
‘You are going to the valley, then?’
‘Tonight…’

and rough camping (it saves him money, plus is more enjoyable – generally, except when wet, snowed upon or being thoroughly spooked in the Vercors) becomes more and more difficult. There are detours – a quick sideways trip to climb Mont Blanc, for instance – and an always entertaining commentary on the places and people he encounters. It’s a very well-written book; In some places it’s straightforwardly amusing; in others it catches a universal feeling…

‘Darkness had fallen when I walked into St Maurice Navacelles. Water shone in the light cast from a window. Inside, an elderly couple were pulling up trays of food before a fire. The warmth and sheter of their secure little haven … was on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. I was comfortable with my tramp’s life, for it brought freedom and full-time relief from restlessness, but it was still difficult to pass a lit window at dusk without wanting to be in on the warmer side of the glass.’

And the photographs are good, as well.

As Crane moves eastwards, the nature of the people he encounters changes: there are more shepherds, for instance, and fewer people walking in the hills for pure enjoyment. And if this sounds a little like Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s journeys across pre-War Europe, then that’s hardly surprising. Their tracks converged in Vienna, where Crane’s resolve really wavered for the first time. The thought of the young Leigh-Fermor was one of the things that kept him going: as he says, ‘he wouldn’t approve’. Plus, of course, there was consistent support from his family, not least his wife, and he did manage to do most of the journey by himself, except when obliged to take a companion by the authorities in the Ukraine. One was fine, a kindred spirit; the other was not, but the problem resolved itself. And there was really only one occasion (apart from the mystery sounds of footsteps approaching a shelter in the Vercors, footsteps with no apparent owner) when he felt in any danger.

Clear Waters Rising is such a good read. There’s not a cat in hell’s, or a ghost in the Vercors, chance that I would ever be able to do something like this – certainly not now, Achilles tendon injuries being what they are, and probably never. I’d have given up at the first campsite, I suspect. But books like this broaden horizons as well as entertain, and sometimes they bring you up short with a realisation about something you may have taken for granted.

(As a spinner, I had to use this double-page spread – even though I can’t spindle-spin and never wear headscarves or – phew – socks with sandals)

Ahem. Take art, for instance. I’ve known about the glorious painted churches in Romania for years, but the sheer impact they might have had on their original audience never really occurred to me. NC, however, having been on a journey ‘where “art” had been an occasional iconostasis or the pattern on a flute barrel’, was utterly blown away by them. ‘Christianity in freeze-frame covered the entire exterior and interior … saints and priests and claocked philosophers (Plato crowned by a reliquary of bones) floated in ranks above an earthly landscape of mesas and buttes, cityscape and forests…’ In short, a ‘carnival of the grotesque, the allegorical and the saintly, reaching as tall as the trees…’. It must have felt a lot like that many centuries ago, too. And without Clear Waters Rising, I’d not really have given that fact a second thought. Not just a walking book, not just a mountain book, not ‘just’ a travel book – but a damn good read, and a very thoughtful one.

Can I go back to the beginning and read it again?

A Rough Guide to the past

THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer, 2008/9

Bookcase 10, shelf 5, book 22

The subtitle is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’ – and that’s exactly what this is. When the dice ‘chose’ this book for me, I was a little disappointed; I’d read it not long ago, and was sure that I could remember a lot of it. I didn’t particularly want to read it again so soon, but the dice select what the dice select.

Re-reading it made me wonder if I’d actually bothered to read it the first time – there was so much that I didn’t remember, or only partly recalled. I don’t think that’s down to me, though (no, really). I think it is because of the fact that this is an extraordinarily dense book, crammed with interesting information. I thought I knew something about life in Medieval Britain – it wasn’t my specialist study period, but I’ve worked on medieval archaeological sites – but there is something on almost every page to surprise and entertain. And it’s written in an accessible, easy style.

I suppose it all starts with L P Harley: ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ With that in mind, the idea of a something which is almost a travel guide to the past seems logical and almost inevitable – and here it is. Ian Mortimer starts with the idea of the past ‘happening’, of walking down a road in a Medieval town, hearing people talking and shouting, seeing the sights and smelling (phew) the smells.

And that is indeed a useful place to begin, and the opening for one of the most entertaining history books I’ve read in a while. Entertaining and informative. Unlike many historians, Mortimer doesn’t spurn re-enactors: in fact, he says ‘collectively they remind us that history is more than an educational process’. I’m used to the world of experimental archaeology, where attempting to recreate something from the (extreme) past is an acceptable form of research, whether that something is a way of making beer or of moving a huge stone over hundreds of miles. It’s less common to find historians embracing this approach, at least in the imagination, and then writing a bestselling book embodying it. Mortimer selected the fourteenth century because ‘…it comes closest to the popular conception of what is “medieval”, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art…’ and, of course, with cathedrals, revolt and insurrection, war with France, famine and the Black Death.

But for me, it’s the incidental information that you pick up that I enjoy the most. Snippets. So let’s have some, picked completely at random while flicking through the book:

  • It’s a multi-lingual society – not just English. French, Latin and, depending on where you are, the Celtic languages are all in common use and likely to be overheard on the streets. And people’s English is ‘a little rough around the ages’. It’s, er, robust. That’s seen in place names like Shitbrook Street and Pissing Alley (and quite evident in Chaucer’s work, of course). In fact, there are a lot of ‘English’ people whose English is not fluent.
  • Football is popular, though not the game as played today (of course); it’s more like the semi-riots that still take place in a few villages today under the flag of tradition. There are no rules as such, though there are some which try and ban it completely. Huge numbers of people take part, there’s a vast amount of noise and fighting, many get injured and some even die. One William de Spalding, for example, managed to kill a friend during a match when they collided so violently that De Spalding’s knife went through its sheath and into his friend.
  • People caught poaching game no longer have their hands cut off, as in the previous century, ‘but loss of limb is still meted out on their animals’ – so a poacher who managed to only get a fine may see his dog lose a paw.

Medicine is a strange mix of the rational (a truss for hernia) and treatments which appear somewhat more magical – annointing yourself with fat from a roasted cat (!), and frying beheaded dung beetles and crickets in oil to treat a bladder stone. Your doctors will want to look at your pee in order to determine what is wrong with you, by the way.

  • Cow’s milk is suitable only for cooking, and for old woman and children. Each member of a monastic community is allocated a gallon of ale a day. And as for monks not eating meat – well, the monastic Rule states that they should not have meat in the refectory. So there’s another room, the misericord (place of mercy), in which they can eat meat with impunity. Westminster’s Benedictine monks manage to justify eating bacon, however, and bacon and eggs are served in the refectory as a treat before Lent.
  • If you’re a monk in an urban monastery, you’ll live – on average – about five years less than you would if you hadn’t entered the monastery but had lived outside. It’s the infectious disease risk that makes the difference. Yes, you have better sanitation and a much better diet, but you’ll also have a shorter life. And if you die while staying in someone else’s house, the goods you have with you automatically become his property.

More seriously than all of those (not that some of them aren’t serious), looking at history this way does bring up the whole issue of how we perceive the past. Traditionally, history is deeply concerned with assessing, selecting, interpreting the evidence available, and that’s generally documentary evidence. Evidence like this imposes boundaries – because all you can really assess is the evidence. Approaching history as something that was lived, and lived by people who were not that different from us, certainly makes you think. And so does this book.

Op the rigging

THE LAST GRAIN RACE, by Eric Newby, published in 1956

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 3

What a winner, getting this – one of my all-time favourite travel books. One of my all-time favourite books, in fact. And in this case I am including the actual, physical book in my remark, because this is a first edition I found several years ago at a book fair when I was on holiday on the north Norfolk coast. It replaced a Picador paperback which had been read so often that it fell apart (not always that difficult with some of those white-spined Picador titles, mind).

I remember once hearing The Last Grain Race being discussed on Radio 4, and somebody dismissed it as ‘very much a bloke’s book’. Rubbish. I am most definitely not a bloke, and I adore it, so perhaps I should explain why instead of simply repeating the fact that it’s a wonderful read.

A large part of its appeal is down to Eric Newby’s attitude and the sheer style and class of his writing, writing which is never over the top or remotely purple, writing which nonetheless conveys the wonder of the world, whether that is rounding Cape Horn on one of the last grain clippers here, hiding from Nazis in Italy (Love and War in the Appenines) or trekking through Nuristan with a maniac friend (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Lest anyone who doesn’t know Eric Newby assume he was a cross between James Bond and Richard Hannay, I’ll add that he is equally evocative describing his youth in Barnes or his work in the post-war rag trade (Something Wholesale). And of course he is also self-depreciating (the classic anecdote is one from Hindu Kush, where he and his companion encounter that legendary traveller Wilfrid Thesiger. They blew up their inflatable matresses at night, getting a predictable reaction from the Great Man: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’…) and immensely funny.

The Last Grain Race is the story of his voyage around the world as a young apprentice on board Moshulu, one of the last of the great windjammers, in 1938-9.

(Moshulu, incidentally, has a brief role in Godfather II, where she carries the young Vito Corleone to America – watch out for it, as it gives an idea of the scale of these huge but lightly crewed grain ships.)

Newby had always been tempted by the sea and finally gave in to romanticism, bad influences (Mountstewart, an elderly friend and possibly certifiable lunatic), heredity (his father ‘had once tried to run away to sea and been brought back from Millwall in a hackney cab’) and the growing realisation that this was an opportunity which was about to disappear from the oceans of the world for ever. He kept a meticulous record during the voyage, as well as writing letters and taking many remarkable photographs, all of which enabled him to write Grain Race so evocatively nearly 20 years later.

After a laborious attempt to locate a caribou-skin sleeping bag – ‘it took up a great deal of time which I could have spent more profitably in eating’ – which he had become convinced was necessary (the salesman: ‘The last one gave the man who slept in it anthrax’), and lugging the second-hand Louis Vuitton trunk found in a lost property shop, Newby set off for Belfast, Moshulu and – eventually – the Southern Ocean. All in all, for a voyage of some 30,000 miles.

The ship finally left the unappealing docks of pre-war Belfast on 18 October, and EN began a steep learning curve in everything from getting on with his variously eccentric shipmates to climbing the rigging in all situations (above a dock, in a storm, when someone is throwing up on your head), to what happens if you lose a hammer over the side and how bad a dead dog smells when you excavate it from the ballast four months after the Belfast stevedores have amusingly placed it there.

There is a lot of detail about the organization of a sailing ship, but it can easily be skipped; in fact, Newby tells readers where to jump to at one point if they don’t want to follow his ‘technical interlude’. Even without reading that, though, you inevitably pick up a lot of vicarious knowledge – how slippery the ratlines could be, and how dangerous; how to clean the revolting heads; how to set a course in Swedish, the working language of the ship.

And so the outward journey to Australia continues, Moshulu crossing the equator (with a horrible initiation ceremony for those who had not done so before, including EN) about a month after sailing.There is some wonderful writing about the sea, evocative in the extreme:

‘On Christmas morning the weather was cold and brilliant. Big following seas were charging up astern in endless succession. They surged beneath the ship, bearing her up, filling the air with whistling spray as their great heads tore out from under and ahead to leave her in a trough as black and polished as basalt except where, under the stern post, the angle of the rudder made the water bubble jade-green, as from a spring. From the mizzen yardarm, where I hung festooned with photographic apparatus, I could see the whole midships…’

Now is the time to mention the photographs – the extraordinary photographs. They are so good, and so comparatively rare, documenting life on a windjammer, that at least one commentator has described them as the most important aspect of Eric Newby’s work. They are indeed excellent, and in my edition are reproduced particularly well. In fact a book entirely devoted to them was published in 1999 – Learning the Ropes.

The ship arrived in Australia in early January, loaded and left in March 1939, and arrived back at Queenstown (now Cobh) in June, 91 days out. Moshulu was the winner of the ’39 grain race. But this was just before the outbreak of war and everything was to change, and change extremely fast, just as EN had anticipated. One of the other ships in the race, the Olivebank, hit a German mine in early September, but Moshulu herself survived, and is now – wait for it – a floating restaurant. And occasional film location.

Throughout The Last Grain Race, as with his other books, Eric Newby’s essentially genial and humane personality comes through. Yes, he’s a romantic, but he finds that characteristic amusing and gently pokes fun at his younger self (as in the affair of the wretched sleeping bag). He genuinely likes people and finds them interesting – and that’s not something you can say for every travel writer, or indeed every writer. There’s no need to explain away undesirable attitudes as being ‘common at the time’ or ‘simply reflecting the times in which the book was written’ because there aren’t any such attitudes in evidence. Having met the man himself when I was a baby bookseller, I can testify to his genuine niceness – an often under-esteemed quality.

A wonderful book, and a wonderful author.

Riding into the recent past

STOPPING-TRAIN BRITAIN, A RAILWAY ODYSSEY by Alexander Frater, photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur; published 1983

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 8

I have to confess a weakness for trains.

No, nothing truly embarrassing like a tendency to fondle steam engines or collect large pieces of railwayana: I just like trains. Admittedly not the 7.15 to Blackfriars, but happily those commuting days have gone since I upped sticks and left London with cries of glee and a big party. Now, when I use a train, it’s the Cambrian Coast Line. By a curious coincidence that is one of the railway lines featured in this book, which I encountered years and years before I ever dreamed of actually using the line myself.

This book grew out of  a series of articles in the Observer. Alexander Frater wrote for them and, trains or no trains, I would have picked this book up anyway because he had written it. I often reread his Beyond the Blue Horizon – following the route of Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – and Chasing the Monsoon, which does just what it says on the tin. He’s an excellent travel writer, curious and sympathetic, and his style is one I find clear and equally sympathetic.

Stopping-Train Britain was written at a time when many local railway lines were still under the shadow of more Beeching-like cuts. Cars were dominant; by and large you only used a train if there was no alternative, or if you needed to commute to school or work. Green issues were not a factor and oil would last for ever or, if not forever, for the foreseeable future. Local railways either had no future or only a limited one, and an elegiac note pervades the book. ‘Many rural railwaymen,’ says Frater in the introduction, ‘are convinced that within a decade or so, they will have no trains left to operate.’ Now, three decades on, the Settle to Carlisle line is secure; the Cambrian Coast Line is busy with people going to the doctors or out to a celebratory lunch or visiting the market in Machynlleth…

This is a journey back into a recent past.

Frater started off rather romantically – he always does; it’s one of the things I love about his writing: a realism, but a romantic realism – with Edward Thomas’s Adelstrop ringing in his ears. (‘When the country trains have finally gone, that, I suspect, is how many of us will choose to remember them – the last survivors of an age of innocence,’ he adds.) He also started rather haphazardly, which is why the lines he and Alain Le Garsmeur took are somewhat random, both the famous and the more obscure. And they’re not spread across the country either; there’s a collection in the north-west, a couple in Scotland and here in Wales, one in Norfolk and one looping around north London.

But the lines they followed weren’t always like those of Seigfried Sassoon’s or Edward Thomas’s pre-WW1 journeys. A surprising amount remained of those rural lines alive with birdsong, of small trains pottering through woods or over high moorland, but the more modern world had intruded. One line largely owed its survival to the transport of nuclear waste from Windscale (aka Sellafield); another ran though a bleak landscape of abandoned mills and dilapidated housing. And whatever the landscape, the photographs are just right.

Each journey is much more than a simple record of a trip from A to B. It’s the people as well as the lines, the people who both work and travel on rural railways.

Travelling by train gives you time to observe, time to reflect and time to chat, and it’s particularly the latter that brings this book to such vivid life. Frater discovered a community of railway people he liked and admired, people with ‘a strong sense if identity … They had good stories to tell. Patagonia? Who needs it? For a writer there are equally rich veins waiting to be worked in East Anglia or the Western Highlands.’ The other thing he discovered was a deep admiration for the railways:

‘And the more they talked, the more I became aware of the astonishing complexity and richness of railway history, lore and language. It slowly dawned on me that the little diesel rattling along between, say, Shrewsbury and Hereford, is only doing so because for a century and a half generations of engineers have been obsessively solving millions of problems in the cause of a single principle. Every artefact … has been considered, reduced to its logical elements and then resolved, often with surprising elegance and simplicity.’

Maybe I should start collecting railwayana (the spellchecker keeps changing that to ‘railwayman’ – now there’s a thought)… or maybe I should simply celebrate the fact that those railwaymen were wrong when they predicted a fairly swift end for rural rail. Thirty years on from the publication of  Stopping-Train Britain I can take a ten-minute walk down the hill, raise my hand to stop the train and go and do my shopping.

Hooray!