Book review – Tales from the Fast Trains

I liked the idea of Tales from the Fast Trains. It’s an exploration of how far you can get from London in a weekend (or not much longer) by train. It covers a range of interesting western European cities and it’s by an established travel journalist who appears to have quite a lot of experience of writing about rail journeys. That said, by the end of it I was struggling not to conclude that the succession of local tourist offices and their staff that appear in the acknowledgements had been a key factor in shaping this book.

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(Photo from amazon.com)

There are definitely some engaging aspects to TftFT. Chesshyre certainly doesn’t glamorise the business of getting trains: his refusal to exclude the early starts, dirty buses and other indignities of domestic travel that tend to precede an international journey will endear him to many people, and I enjoyed his focus on cities that aren’t normally recommended to those in search of a continental weekend break that begins at St Pancras. I’d never have thought of Dijon for a short holiday from the UK, and to get off a London-Brussels Eurostar and on to the scenic but slow SNCB service to Luxembourg suggests that here is a man who is determined to explore this corner of Europe to the fullest. His descriptions of each destination are certainly detailed and at times evocative, and he has a pleasing willingness to report in detail what he and (usually) his travelling companion are eating: his account of a multi-course breakfast in a Lille B&B (chocolate cake, cheese, croissants, ham, baguettes and jam, dark chocolate and finally pecan pie) is especially memorable. I mean that: most of us enjoy food, many of us enjoy trying different food abroad, and such descriptions are a wonderful way of sharing the more human side of a trip.

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(Luxembourg City)

Often, though, his descriptions read as if they are straight out of a guidebook. Readers are informed at some length about the early history of railways in the UK, the chateau near Tours occupied by Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor, key facts regarding the German town of Aachen (where Chesshyre doesn’t actually stop), and the dukes of Burgundy, as well as a number of other topics. Obviously it is good to know where he has been and his impressions of these places, but very often his writing lacks any personal touch or original observations.

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(Girona)

Moreover, we are told exactly where he stays in each time – his report is not always positive, especially in the case of the Antwerp hotel where nighttime noise and unhelpful reception staff leave him checking out early in favour of the sanctuary of the Radisson Blu, but I would have preferred fewer potted accommodation reviews (and while the hotel in Girona with its ‘erotic rooms’ is gently mocked, he devotes a third of a page to quoting the claims the hotel makes for them without much irony). As I said, I suspect that behind all this are the tourist offices, in addition to PR and travel agencies, who are thanked at the end. I realise that it’s very hard to be a travel journalist nowadays without accepting press trips and other freebies, but I didn’t expect this from a book that surely would like to be part of the Travel Literature genre. Inevitably, Chesshyre is at his best when not playing the standard tour guide – one of the most striking and indeed moving sections in TfrFT is a short passage describing the sad lives of drug-addicted male and female prostitutes amid the wealth of Frankfurt. I would have liked to read more of his impressions of today’s Europe in all its facets.

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