A Week In Books: the Asperger's School of writing

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The Independent Culture

When Tim Henman revealed in an interview that he never read "boring" books, an outraged HarperCollins sprang into action. Their ads offered a list of thrilling tomes with the obvious slogan, "You cannot be serious!". Publishers do fret about the tastes of the young(ish) male consumer. The lads don't buy enough books; and so any anti-literary ace served by a sporting icon looks like bad news. Except that HarperCollins need not have bothered. Only one belief unites all younger British males: the conviction that Tim Henman is a total plonker. If you truly want those free-spending but reading-averse blokes to take up Proust and Plato, ask tiresome Tim to slag off literature every week.

In reality, publishers who wish to lure the lads take a more traditional route. They still adhere to the Hornby gauge. Ever since Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, the fan's or buff's progress through post-adolescent obsession to hitched-up maturity has offered a template for coming-of-age narratives, in novels and memoirs alike. Critical responses to these books invariably grab such adjectives as "wry" or "rueful" and employ that scuffed metonymy, "anorak". Male development becomes the slow, reluctant shedding of a spectator's or collector's skin as adulthood - and women - supervene. The high-flying TV producer still pines for a Stockport County triumph (or a mint-condition Buddy Holly single). But, these days, he can handle it.

You might, if feeling tasteless, dub this the Asperger's School of writing. Often, it rings pretty hollow. The hobby feels phoney; the misdeeds trivial; the redemption trite. Yet it's easy to see why the genre appeals. The ruling concept helps to shape a life. A youthful pastime - at first a tyrant, later an enemy, finally a harmless companion - supplies what T S Eliot would have called an "objective correlative" for the author's emotions. Now there was a proper anorak.

Sometimes, the works do offer sufficient insight and entertainment to overcome a corny form. Parallel Lines by Ian Marchant (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is not the first themed autobiography to set off from a fixation with British railways. (Nicholas Whittaker, the Nabob of Nerd, explored his trainspotting days in Platform Souls.) And Marchant doesn't flinch from the odd crass conjunction. One chapter in this mixture of family memoir, railway odyssey and social history begins with a sentence that epitomises the post-Hornby confessional: "My parents were divorced in 1968, the same year that steam trains finally ceased operations."

Somehow, however, the trip keeps its pace and purpose, fuelled by the genial, flexible rhythms of the prose (lyrical one minute, streetwise the next) and enriched by two centuries of railway-culture hinterland. Marchant chews on his own history of delays and departures as he potters around train museums, tours the London Tube network, chuffs up picturesque steam lines in Snowdonia, and, at Carnforth, finds a spot where Thomas the Tank Engine and Brief Encounter meet. The railway is his "road of memory", switching past into present, regret into desire. For him, rail feels Romantic in a strict artistic sense: nostalgic, visionary, pastoral, opposed to Classical "cool", with its urban ironies.

Parallel Lines clanks pleasurably towards one further destination: a reconciliation between the separate tracks of the male and female minds. A subtitle confirms this goal: "every girl's big book of trains". Will Marchant ever reach that longed-for terminus where partners and (in his case) daughters grasp just what men are on about? I doubt it. Never mind: the scenic journey, not the arrival, counts.