Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2012
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: The romance (and geekiness) of rail travel as well as a book of macho yet troublingly juvenile adventures across Canada.

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".


On the Slow Train Again: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys
By Michael Williams

Another book of railway journeys reinforces the adage that it is "better to travel than to arrive" and that while cocooned inside a train carriage, the ticking of the clock is temporarily stilled. The dozen trips in Britain, literally off-the-beaten-track, might seem a little tame after Mongolia and Patagonia, but are nevertheless full of pleasure and romance. For example who would not be tempted to board a train on the single-track line to the most northerly town in Scotland which is described as meandering past beaches, firths, sea lochs and remote rivers, wild and eerie moorland and isolated villages?

More than a hint of nostalgia permeates this book, as is often evident in the literature of train travel. The main villain in British railway history was a man called Dr Richard Beeching whose famous "axe" closed hundreds of picturesque branch lines in order to save money. The author informs us that before the Beeching cuts that started in 1963, no one in Britain lived more than five miles from a railway station, which is astonishing. This book unearths quirky facts in various forgotten corners of England, Scotland and Wales. For example one of the stops on the "charming and obscure" Marston Vale Line within commuting distance of London is Aspley Guise, where a nondescript building houses what was once the HQ of the Psychological War Executive that beamed negative propaganda into Germany and its allies during World War II. (I can testify that this line is obscure because I live less than an hour away and had never heard of it.)

Like many railway enthusiasts, Michael Williams doesn't always manage to suppress his nerdy side. A sentence such as "Hurrah, it's a class 158 diesel multiple unit" may not make the reader's heart sing. There is a class of individual, invariably male, in Britain dubbed a "train-spotter" or "anorak" (after the jackets they favored in 1984 when the term was coined) who obsesses about transport (and other) trivia. Fortunately the author is not one of those. He is a devotee of "slow travel" (hence the title of this volume and its predecessor) who happens to have more technical expertise than most of us.

Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada from Newfoundland to the Rockies
by Charley Boorman (as seen on Channel 5; Sphere 2012)

After gently clickety-clacking along in imagination on these many enjoyable railway journeys, this next book of helter-skelter adventuring comes as a dreadful shock. We readers feel as though we have hit the buffers, at least from a literary point of view. Despite the assistance of a ghost-writer, the aptly named Mr. Boorman has produced a monumental clunker of a travel book. Made-for-television travel — where minders arrange for the celebrity traveler to "play hockey with a legend of the game", spend a day with the Mounties, test himself to the limits — might not by definition be yawn-inducing. But a book as badly written as this completely fails to engage.

We are told that being back on his beloved motorbike is "poetry" which he promptly contradicts with a sentence that hardly qualifies as prose let alone poetry: "I was really enjoying this opportunity to mess about on the bike". The boat of two hard-bitten Newfoundland locals is described as "really pretty". The writing is crushingly banal and even descends to toilet humor. Charley waxes as lyrical as he is capable when, exhausted from all his heroics, he collapses onto a Rocky Mountain train: "What makes the Mountaineer so special is that it has these fantastic panoramic domed roofs so that you can really enjoy the scenery. I was excited by the thought of sitting back and watching some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world go by". Compare this with the evocative description in the Telegraph anthology of a similar journey in British Columbia: "The train panted on. I slouched in the dome car, scanning the glum marshes, the khaki rivers, the lakes discolored an alien turquoise by glacier silt. At intervals stood fishermen in waders, an abandoned tractor rotting in a field, a pair of deer, a cluster of mobile homes, an ancient Indian village with totem poles hard to glimpse through the trees."

Extreme Frontiers arrogantly claims to get under the skin of Canada. Near the beginning we read "Canada, the second biggest country in the world and one… I'd wanted to explore in more depth one day… We'd be crossing a continent… and we'd have enough time to get to know not only the place but the people properly as well." NO YOU WON'T, you want to scream. LOOK AT THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK. You can't get to know anywhere or anybody when you're racing and you're posturing for the cameras.

One of the writers in the Sunrise anthology postulates that modern tourism involves a kind of gliding through places without really engaging with them, and that a long train journey is a distilled version of this. But for superficiality Extreme Frontiers takes the cake. The author's knowledge of paleontology (he stops at the famed dinosaur valley in Drumheller, Alberta) seems to derive from the movie Jurassic Park and his knowledge of marine behavior from Jaws. After diving among Great Lakes shipwrecks, encountering a black bear alongside the Icefields Parkway and being taken out to sea by an Inuit fisherman, guess what he nominates as the highlight of his entire Canadian trip: driving a "really cool" souped-up Dodge Prospector pickup. Throughout the book, there is always an eye on the TV series that is being filmed. Boorman is like a little boy who is taken up to the cockpit and allowed to grasp the controls. It is all play-acting and dressing up: yes he literally dresses up as a Mountie for a day, as a cowboy when he rides a steer (briefly) at the Calgary Stampede, and as a chef when he is let loose in a train galley.

Every one of his adventures seems to follow the same pattern — jittery nerves are overcome by manly grit and determination coupled with a native ability to ride, dive, climb, brag, etc… I am sorry to say that if these are the extreme frontiers of my native country, they leave me feeling extremely bored.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper

Buy Sunrise on the Southbound Sleeper in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

On the Slow Train Again

Buy On the Slow Train Again in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Extreme Frontiers

Buy Extreme Frontiers in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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