Well, who knew? First Great Western has a Writer-on-the-Train. He’s James Attlee and his book chronicling his journeys from Paddington was published in mid-May, entitled Station to Station.
Having already written three books while travelling to and from a full-time job, he’s clearly seen plenty of the line between Bristol and London.
As he surveys the route, he starts from Paddington, noting that the station has “no monumental exterior, no triumphal approach”. At Paddington, passengers descend a ramp leading from Praed Street “arriving like a piece of luggage down a chute.” It is, in my view, a terrible start to any journey, made worse by the fug of cigarette smoke that a passenger must pierce before arriving on the concourse.
Attlee’s is no light travelogue as he delves under the skin of towns along the Great Western Railway’s route. He uncovers history, ancient and modern, noting for example Maidenhead’s connection to kindertransport trains of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before WW2 and contrasting this Britain’s openness then with today’s Mediterranean refugees.
Reading comes with the obvious connection between its gaol and Oscar Wilde but there’s more than this to the book. I winced at the description of attempts to retrieve a coin that Brunel swallowed during a magic trick that went wrong. I had no idea that rock-and-roll legend Eddie Cochran met his end near Chippenham having forsaken his train tickets for a car to London instead.
As with Michael Williams’ recent book, Attlee’s makes a splendid companion to any rail journey. Better, however, a late night journey when there’s no view from the window.
This article was first published in RAIL 776 in June 2015.