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Seduced by Trains

1.

Sometime during the mid-nineteenth century, writers discovered that traveling could be a lark. Disease might prevail in the tropics, but many of travel’s other hazards had disappeared: reliable marine engines protected ships against currents and capricious winds, railway companies built sanitary hotels, rooms could be booked by wire, banditry was on the wane, and there were far fewer postillions to be struck by lightning.

Nobody had more success with this idea than Jules Verne in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873, in which Phileas Fogg circumnavigates the globe at unprecedented speed to prove to his wagerers in the Reform Club that “the world has grown smaller.” Verne himself was not a great traveler—apart from a week in New York and a few European excursions he never left France—but he wrote the book at a desk facing the railway tracks at Amiens and the dreamlike promise of passing trains excited him, as it still excites strangers to the great European terminals who see expresses pull out with destinations such as “Praha” or “Brindisi” pasted to their windows. Fogg leaves London with very little luggage other than a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental Guide under his arm, as though that preeminent railway and steamboat timetable would be enough to see him safely across every sea, desert, swamp, and ravine.

The world’s first passenger railway opened in Britain in 1830. By the end of the century trains reached almost everywhere. No physical challenge seemed insurmountable. Lines looped up the Alps and the Himalayas and drove straight across the Florida Keys. Faced with unbridgeable water—the English Channel, the Kattegat, Lake Michigan—engineers devised ferries equipped with railway tracks so that whole trains could be shunted on board. There seemed no limit to the railways’ advance, the luxury of their trains, or the grandeur of their architecture. Trains brought British troops to the mouth of the Khyber Pass and hauled coal across the Arctic ice of Spitsbergen. In England, village stations charmed gentlefolk with flourishes of Gothic stone and Tudor brickwork; in America, majestic city terminals reminded the commuter of cathedrals.

And then the fever abated. Automobiles and aircraft broke the railways’ monopoly on land transport. The years of decline began in the 1920s, and though the decline was not universal (railways continued to expand in India and China), by the 1960s the passenger train was widely regarded as an outmoded means of travel other than for shuffling commuters in and out of cities. Nowhere was its fall steeper than in Britain and America, the countries that had once embraced railway travel more fervently than any other. The railway maps of both countries (but especially that of America) shrank from a dense summer thicket to the branches of a winter oak. New York’s Penn Station, a monument to neoclassicism spread over eight acres, was demolished in 1963 after only sixty years of useful life. Two years earlier, the wrecker’s hammers had broken down London’s Euston Arch, also Doric-columned and, with 1838 as the year of construction, the oldest great architecture of the railway age. Public opposition was fierce in both places—in Britain it reached the prime minister, Harold Macmillan—but the demolitions went ahead regardless. No matter its architecture, train travel was seen as a dying cause.

It was during the long Western slump in the fortunes of railways that a hard-pressed novelist, struggling to make ends meet by book reviewing, saw a literary opportunity. In 1972, when he was briefly writer in residence at the University of Virginia, Paul Theroux read Mark Twain’s Following the Equator (1897). As he explained to his then friend V.S. Naipaul (at least according to Theroux’s intermittently reliable memoir of their friendship, Sir Vidia’s Shadow1), Twain’s “obscure and out-of-print travel book” had give him the idea for a similar journey. Twain’s book appealed to Theroux because of its “geographical non sequiturs…incidental mishaps…spirited jokes.” Twain hadn’t pretended to be knowledgeable about the countries he passed through. “It was about nothing but his trip. A lot of it was dialogue.”

Theroux set off the next year on a journey that took him from London to Istanbul, and then onward to Tehran, Delhi, Madras, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan. He returned on the Trans-Siberian. In the industrial Indian city of Kanpur, he saw a street sign, “Railway Bazaar,” and remembered its potential. The Great Railway Bazaar was published in 1975 and became an immediate best-seller. It was Theroux’s tenth book and despite thirty books since it remains his most popular, the title most frequently associated with his name. After Bruce Chatwin published In Patagonia in 1977 critics began to talk of a renaissance in English travel writing, with Theroux and Chatwin leading the field.

Many other writers were inspired to follow a similar career—London publishers were eager for travel books—but Theroux’s influence was more than literary. The Great Railway Bazaar re-invested railway travel with the interest and romance of Twain’s day, replacing that age’s thrill of the modern with the appeal of the neglected and quaint. Soon British television was making series after series devoted to “great railway journeys”; a fashionable new travel company, Voyages Jules Verne, promised old-fashioned travel with none of its discomforts; a rich American, James Sherwood, refurbished the defunct Orient Express and set it running again (though only as far as Venice and not to Istanbul). Theroux himself reprised his success with further accounts of travel by train through Britain, South America, and China. Now, in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he revisits the scenes of his original great railway journey thirty-three years earlier, intending then-and-now comparisons, not least between his younger and older selves.

Theroux discloses that the jaunty tone of the first book was not true to his experience; rather its mood was confected as a therapeutic device. He was often lonely and miserable during his travels in 1973, in that different “age of aerogram letters and big black unreliable telephones” which made communication with his wife in London difficult and bred the suspicion that all wasn’t well. Sure enough, on his return he discovered that his wife had taken a lover.

Though unfaithful himself, he became “an angry brute” and threatened to kill both wife and lover in a fury that more than three decades later seems not to have completely ebbed: “…and as they belittle you [the absent Theroux] for having been an overindustrious drudge, they spend your money.” But he had a book to write, more money to earn, and he wrote himself out of his misery:

I made the book jolly, and like many jolly books it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking the trip I had lost what I valued most: my children, my wife, my happy household.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s invaluable manservant, Passepartout, has no sooner joined the train at Charing Cross than he remembers—too late!—that he has left the gas burning in his master’s house. It may be the most celebrated instance of the neurosis that has haunted millions of travelers before and since; but Theroux’s are better reasons never to leave home.

2.

What is it about trains? Why do they seduce us? The Great Railway Bazaar has a fine opening sentence:

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.

Perhaps children who live under the flight paths of busy airports feel the same, but to a certain generation (the same or older than Theroux’s and this reviewer’s) no other transport can match the sight or sound of a train going by. The same thrill has run through almost every culture. A marvelous instance of it can be caught in Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali (1955), when the boy Apu and his sister Durga wander far from their Bengali village and unexpectedly see a train rushing through the fields, perhaps their first sight of the route to the world beyond, the route that in later films Apu takes. (Ray never forgets the railway motif and near the trilogy’s end the adult Apu gives his son a clockwork model of an engine.)

In England, E. Nesbit’s novel The Railway Children (1906) has been adapted for film and television so often that people now in early middle age, for whom steam locomotion is folk history, feel that they too in their childhoods heard a whistle moan and saw coal smoke drifting from a tunnel. When new, railways disturbed people as well as excited them. Dickens’s Mr. Dombey, traveling north from Euston in 1848, imagined that his speeding, clattering, shrieking train was following “the track of the remorseless monster, Death!”

By the twentieth century, they could no longer be characterized as noisy examples of the modern. The artists of the Futurist movement preferred airplanes and automobiles, and though the railways tried to catch up with fashion (there was an outbreak of aerodynamic design, or “streamlining,” in the 1930s), most writers and filmmakers saw trains as fond and familiar objects, a steamy site of romance that could provide a film’s setting or a novel’s plot device. Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock: it would be hard to envisage their work without trains, and the probability is that the seeds of their enthusiasm were planted, like Theroux’s, in an early glimpse of hissing cylinders and childish dreams of escape.

In The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux emphasized the attractions of the trains as things in themselves. He was, in his own word, jolly about them. Trains had bewitching whistles (in 1973 many were still powered by steam); they never upset your drink; they didn’t promote “the anxious sweats of doom” that air travel inspires. Like Verne and Hitchcock before him, he realized that “anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”

In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux advances a worthier reason for a writer to travel in them: what they reveal about the true state of the world. As Ford Madox Ford wrote, the view from the train window offers “so many little bits of uncompleted lives.” The train, says Theroux, “offers the truth of a place” by showing a country’s “dark, simple, and primitive” hinterland and the way many of its poorest people travel. On a Romanian train his spirits rise at the “filth and disorder” of the restaurant car. “It was easy to prettify a nation in an airport, but on this train…I felt I was seeing the real thing, a place with its pants down.” In India, rattling through some impoverished countryside, he thinks how much air travelers are missing—“the immensity, the destitution, the emptiness, the ageless solitude”—and how they would “know nothing of India.”

  1. 1

    Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

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