Belles & Whistles by Andrew Martin, book review: A journey of past and present


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The Independent Culture

When HS2 is built, the line will run 500 metres from my house. It won't do me any direct good, since it won't stop between London and Birmingham, but it will obviously be good for the country. Locally, we can look forward to the restoration of the line, victim of Beeching, between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, and the prospect of being able to get a cross-country train to Oxford or Bedford.

Railways, generally, seem to be looking up, after nearly a century of decline. Can railway nostalgia, as an art form, survive such a cheerful prospect? Maybe not, but there is plenty of mileage in it yet, as Andrew Martin shows in this account of his journeys, by today's railways, along the routes of five great defunct British trains: the Golden Arrow, the Brighton Belle, the Cornish Riviera Express, the Flying Scotsman and the Caledonian Sleeper.

So this is not the usual railway book about locomotives and who invented which coupling-rod flange. It is about railway journeys, and the experience of being a passenger, then and now.

Here is Martin on the replacement of traditional trackside signal boxes by remote Rail Operating Centres: "The romantic appeal of the lonely signalman, in his lighthouse-on-the-land, with his crackling fire..., his bicycle propped against the box, the musicality of the tinkling bells, the wooden cross in the garden indicating the grave of his dog ... All that has gone, to be replaced by something technologically impressive but ugly and incomprehensible to the lay observer. The net gain is the impossibility – we are told – of accidents."

Thus might a traditionalist about the year 1840 have lamented the replacement of the romantic stage-coach with the technologically impressive but ugly steam railway. But one thing is obvious: Martin, author of a string of railway-based crime thrillers, can write. And he comes across as a genial sort of cove. Here he is setting off in the wake of the Brighton Belle: "I was taking my wife to Brighton. This is bad form, I know. You should take someone else's wife to Brighton."

He is engagingly ready, as well, to admit that the railway enthusiast is a weirdo who suffers the blank contempt of the sane: "The train was an Electrostar, like the one that took me to Dover, but whereas that had been a 375, this was a 377, a distinction unlikely to be of any interest to my wife, or any normal person."

Plenty of normal people will be glad they joined him for this engaging journey this way and that, across Britain, and through time.