It was the mid-Eighties, and I was under the blankets with flu in my attic room in my parents’ house on the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland. At the same time, I was nearly 4,000 miles away, sitting in a 16ft aluminium skiff with an outboard motor, alongside Jonathan Raban.
As a boy, in thrall to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Raban had turned the brook at the bottom of his road in Norfolk into “the lonely, enchanted monotony” of the Mississippi. Now, in Old Glory, he was out on the real river, heading from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico, taking the pulse of America.
As he had lived inside Twain’s book, so I did inside his, “until the world consisted of nothing but me and that great comforting gulf of water where catfish rootled and wild fruit hung from the trees on the towhead-islands”.
Around the World in 80 Trains, by Monisha Rajesh (Blooms-bury)
In the age of high-speed rail, you might think there is little to savour and less to say about long-distance travel. You’d be wrong: as Rajesh demonstrates, there is life yet in both the trip and the telling. In Thailand, swapping food with a Dutch family, she is told: “We have a word... gezellig, which means that there are no boundaries and that everyone is sharing and getting along... like we are a train family.” Gezellig resounds through her pages.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (Penguin Modern Classics)
In the Seventies, Paul Theroux reckoned, “Most travel writing was about vacations and comforts, not real journeys and ordeals.” He would do his best to put that right, in the process turning the travel book into a travelling one. Starting in London on the Orient Express, he went to Istanbul and then through Asia from country to country, bent over a rocking notebook “like Trollope scribbling between postal assignments”. Thirty-three years on, he would retrace his route for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) – but neither the writer nor the writing was as lean as here.
Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski (Virago)
What started as an anti-travel book ended up winning the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 2003. Diski, a stay-at-home in search of thinking space, went around the US by rail, intending to smoke and daydream and – initially at least – ignore a continent and its people. Her book, which moves between recollections of her troubled teenage years and observations of contemporary America, is evidence of a truth all travellers acknowledge: accidents will happen.
Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line by James Attlee (Guardian Books)
“God’s Wonderful Railway”, they used to call the link Isambard Kingdom Brunel forged between London and Bristol, and in Attlee’s hands it is indeed full of wonders, prompting passages on everything from infrared technology to resurrection as painted by Stanley Spencer in Cookham. His book is partly an exploration of places and buildings on or just off the line; partly a collection of stories about people who have been associated with it, whether as planners, staff or passengers; and partly a rumination on the nature of travel.
There are 18 transporting reads on the long list for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize (rsliterature.org/award/rsl-ondaatje-prize), for a book – fiction, non-fiction or poetry – that best evokes “the spirit of a place”. Laura Cumming, long-listed for On Chapel Sands, says the book that summons place most powerfully for her is The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd’s sensual exploration of the Cairngorms (first published in 1977). It is being studied by members of a new “#CoReadingVirus” book club set up on Twitter by Robert Macfarlane (twitter.com/RobGMacfarlane) – himself long-listed for the Ondaatje with Underland.
Jim Christy’s Rough Road to the North, a 1980 hymn to the Alaskan Highway, has recently been republished (by Feral House); the website Literary Hub has an extract (lithub.com/on-the-irresistible-lure-of-the-north-country).
Finally, here’s Peter Hughes, from 2005, on his journey from Wick in northern Scotland to Vladivostok on the Russian shore of the sea of Japan – through seven countries and 10 time zones by train (telegraph.co.uk/tt-planetbyrail).
The Daily Telegraph