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Andrew Martin is not easily discouraged. Setting out to write a lament for Europe’s international sleeper trains, he sees his first train cancelled, is robbed on another and wakes up in a third to find a stowaway in a grey hoodie leaning over his bed. Yet still he goes on – unlike the sleeper, which looks as though it’s about to disappear into permanent darkness. It’s being killed off by low-cost tourism and high-speed trains, which are doing away with any need to have a bed on rails.
Night Trains is partly a history, a reminder of the days when trains such as the Orient Express promised passion, murder, revolution and intrigue – or at least a setting for them in the novels of Agatha Christie and Graham Greene. It’s also partly a travel book, recounting Martin’s attempts on modern-day trains to shadow the services of the Wagons-Lits company, whose glossy blue sleeper and dining cars swept across the Continent between the 1880s and the Seventies.
Maps would have helped the reader, just as a bit more integration in Europe would have helped the writer: on a journey from France through Switzerland to Italy, locomotives needed changing because each country requires a different in-cab safety system. Though aviation is 10 times more polluting than conventional rail, the EU and its predecessors have done more to encourage planes than trains.
The regular sleeper (as opposed to tourist services run by companies such as Belmond) is inherently uneconomic. Where it traverses one territory, it is sometimes kept going for social and patriotic reasons; where it crosses international frontiers, it comes under the cold eyes of too many bean counters. Deserted by the middle classes, it is, the author is told, now the province of students and sentimentalists.
Martin, in his early 50s, is mature for a student (he notes, tellingly, that the toothpaste he’s given in a toilet bag is “about the size of a tube of Airfix glue”) and, while an enthusiast for the railways, is far from sentimental. He points out that his one-way journey in a three-berth compartment from Paris to Venice cost a total of £170 (including Eurostar ticket from London) – more than twice the price of a return flight.
The trains he takes are ghosts of what they were. In the heyday of the Wagons-Lits, he could have looked forward to the “musical tinkle” of crockery, cutlery and glass and to a nine-course spread on starched linen. When he doesn’t have to bring his own food and drink on board, he’s handed shrink-wrapped snacks with shrink-wrapped plastic knives and forks.
The Orient Express provides a classic sleeper experience CREDIT: THIS CONTENT IS SUBJECT TO COPYRIGHT./ELLIOTT VERDIER
He’s four journeys in before he has his first properly cooked dinner. On the Nordland Railway to the Arctic Circle, he enjoys both “the thrilling proximity of rail and sea”, which lasts for 100 miles along Trondheim fjord, and a delicious pork stew called lapskaus, admittedly on a bendy paper plate. Elsewhere, provisions are thinner. At St Pölten, in Austria, on the route of the old Orient Express, his breakfast cup of instant coffee comes with a jam-filled croissant in a sealed wrapper labelled “7 Days”. At one stage, his choice is “between the bleakness of the dining car… and the bleakness of my compartment”.
The book, then, succeeds better as a lament for what he and we have missed than for what we are about to lose. He declares that even the journey during which he was robbed was memorable, which is more than he can say for his flight home on a no-frills airline. I’m with him on the superiority of trains. His wife will be harder to convince: while he was retracing the route of the old Sud Express from Paris through Spain to Lisbon, she flew, “having no interest whatsoever” in taking a sleeper.
Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper by Andrew Martin is availble from Profile Books (£14.99)
The wonders that never ceaseFor many, travel is a way of recovering the wonder we felt as children. Dillard, one of America’s most brilliant essayists, has never lost it. She combines a childlike curiosity with lightly worn learning and pared-down prose, and can make the boy in the next field as compelling a subject as the tribesman by the Amazon. This collection has pieces that draw on travel, including one on the Galapagos Islands and one on the Ecuadorean jungle – where she and her fellow North Americans stayed up for a whole night talking and murmuring, “as though we rocked on hammocks slung above time”.
Galapagos is never short of wonder
Her work is far from what would conventionally be described as “travel writing”. There is an extraordinary piece, for example, in which she segues between an account of ill-equipped Victorian explorers, setting out in search of the Pole, and of a congregation at Sunday Mass, intent on an encounter with God. “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand – that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”
Dillard is a writer who is wholly attentive to the world and who, at least while you’re reading her pages, makes you feel as though you are, too.
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard is available from Canongate (£9.99)
'Ghastly, beautiful, supernatural'On August 21, up to 200 million people are expected to gather in a narrow belt across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina, to see what for many could be their first (and possibly last) total solar eclipse. Frank Close, physicist and award-winning science writer, saw his first in 1999 – 45 years after witnessing a partial eclipse from his Peterborough primary school that was turned by his teacher into a life-forming lesson. He has since been to the African bush, to a war zone in the western Sahara and to the South Pacific to experience a phenomenon he describes as “simultaneously ghastly, beautiful and supernatural”.
Bill Kramer, a leading eclipse predictor, says that you take from an eclipse what you bring to it. Close’s book, combining the rigour of a scientist with the excitement of a layman, is the perfect primer.
Eclipse: Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon is available from Oxford University Press (£12.99)
William Morris sought refuge on the shores of Iceland CREDIT: FRED MACGREGOR
Escape to Iceland: a Victorian's taleIn July 1871, the Victorian polymath William Morris, whose interests had recently embraced the Norse sagas, left behind a new home and a troubled marriage to travel to Iceland, a journey that would shape his later radical social ideas.
From his account of the trip (published two years later as Icelandic Journal), the poet Lavinia Greenlaw has teased out universal questions about why we travel and how we’re changed by it, in such a way that, as she puts it, “the document of a journey becomes a description of all journeys”. First published in hardback in 2011, it’s now appearing in a smart paperback with French flaps that even the demanding Morris would have surely approved.
Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland by Lavinia Greenlaw is available from Notting Hill Editions (£9.99)
This article first appeared on www.telegraph.co.uk
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