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Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the…
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Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper

by Andrew Martin

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I met Andrew Martin by chance a few years ago when I happened to be drinking in one of the very welcoming pubs in Highgate, North London, and was introduced by a mutual acquaintance. I was rather the worse for wear and my contribution to the conversation was simply to tell him, probably more than once, that I had enjoyed his novel ‘Bilton’ and was disappointed that it hadn’t achieved greater commercial success. He was suitably gratified by this genuine assertion, though he politely but firmly indicated that he would prefer to return to reading the book he had brought in with him.

‘Bilton’ is indeed a great novel, and it has had far too little recognition. Martin is, therefore, perhaps best known for his series of crime novels, set on the Victorian railway network and featuring Jim Stringer. Comprehensively researched, they clearly show that he is a man who knows his railways, and that interest comes into its own for this book, a history of the heyday and subsequent decline of Europe’s sleeper trains.

The sleeper first established itself as a viable concept during the late nineteenth century, and most countries in Europe had flourishing networks to support them. During that period, the most prevalent travellers by sleeper trains were affluent Britons or Americans, and that was to continue throughout most of the twentieth century. Sleeper trains have always evoked a certain frisson, not least because of their portrayal in fiction and in films. Agatha Christie set two novels (‘The Mystery of the Blue Train’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’) and a short story on continental sleepers, and Graham Greene’s commercial breakthrough came with his thriller, ‘Stamboul Train’. These were, however, merely the slightest tip of the iceberg.

Martin’s book looks at the popularity of these fictional versions of the sleeper journey, and compares them to the modern reality. Sadly, the sleeper is an endangered species, with most of the recent services being under imminent threat of termination. To understand why this might be, and how dreadful a loss their cancellation might be, Martin travelled along the routes of the most famous services.

He also touched on Lenin's journey in the 'sealed train' that conveyed him back to Russia following the first wave of the Russian Revolution in 1917. As I had so recently read Catherine Merridale's high;y entertaining account of that journey ['Lenin on the Train'}, i found his summary of it unnecessarily trivial. He might have been wiser to avoid any reference to it at all.

I found this slightly disappointing. While he showed a tendency to slump into Paul Theroux’s relentless moaning and resentment, he lacked Theroux’s capacity for glorious observation. Even at his most deprecating (and he can be exceedingly deprecating when moved) Theroux can always captivate his reader with a pellucid description of his locale. Martin does not have, or at least does not deploy, that facility. As a consequence, while I found the subject matter interesting, and did enjoy the book overall, it was not the unalloyed joy that I had expected. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Apr 30, 2017 |
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Night trains have long fascinated us with the possibilities of their private sleeping compartments, gilded dining cars, champagne bars and wealthy travellers. In Night Trains, Andrew Martin attempts to relive the golden age of the great European sleeper trains by using their modern-day equivalents. The night trains have fallen on hard times, and the services are disappearing one by one. Whether the backdrop is 3am at a Turkish customs post, the sun rising over the Riviera, or the constant twilight of a Norwegian summer night, Martin rediscovers the pleasures of a continent connected by rail.… (more)

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