'Daniel Defoe's Railway Journey, a surreal odyssey through modern Britain,' by Stuart Campbell (Sandstone Press)
Time to get on with my next book. But what should it be? Another novel? No, I'm not ready for that. 'Boswell's Bus Pass' turned out pretty well didn't it? Even if I did have to use buses to follow Boswell and Dr Johnson on their tour to the Western Isles. Wait a moment though. Maybe another tour is possible. And this time not just to the Highlands. Wasn't it Daniel Defoe who claimed to tour the whole island of Great Britain? I could follow him and do that too. Great. And having done buses, this time it could be trains. There you are: the whole of Great Britain by train. Terrific. But wait, even better. Not just all of Great Britain by train, but all the trains in Great Britain. Why not? There it is then. My next book will be about how I travelled on every single railway line in Britain, accompanied by Daniel Defoe.
So here it is. Stuart Campbell's new book is out and indeed it's called 'Daniel Defoe's Railway Journey.' In the epilogue the author tells us exactly what he's done. 'We had travelled over 15,000 miles of railway track, we had passed through over 3,000 stations.' ('We' are the author, a friend called John, and the eponymous Daniel Defoe.) 'We had poked our noses into every part of the kingdom,' he continues. 'I had the privilege of speaking to cleaners, ex-soldiers, surgeons, social workers, rat-catchers, poets, students, security guards, builders, bouncers, tax lawyers, house painters, landscape painters, folk singers, clock makers, rubber testers, holidaymakers, printers, welders, equine therapists, fishermen, the retired and the unemployed.'
So on his multiplicity of trains he 'spoke to at least 250 strangers, only two of whom chose not to speak to me. With hardly any exceptions, people were open and friendly. I was privy to their thoughts about family and work; I was granted insight into their enthusiasms and obsessions; I was given a sense of what worries them, and equally what sustains them; I was granted privileged access to a raft of memories and regrets.'
What does Stuart Campbell make of it all? Well, he tells us that 'although it would be arrogant to pontificate on the wellbeing of a whole nation on such scanty evidence, I would be less than human if I had not emerged with some new perspectives.' Among the 250 he spoke to, a handful were vulnerable or unwell, some were anxious or sad, but the majority 'showed an enviable, life-enhancing resilience, humour and a sort of quirky stoicism that will stand them in good stead.' Back home then, Campbell is sure it's all been worth it. The 'monstrous task' of covering 'every mile of railway in mainland Britain' has been achieved, and Defoe's 18th-century tour of the whole island of Great Britain has been matched in the 21st century.
The critical question, however, is whether the reader of these 320 pages finds the experience equally satisfying. What do we as readers of the author's travels and encounters make of it all?
The book is divided into nine journeys (or chapters) defined geographically. Thus we begin in 'The North East of England,' reach 'West Midlands and South Wales' in the middle, and end in 'The Scottish Borders and Fife.' Locations change, but not much else does. We look out at passing scenery; occasionally between trains we walk in streets near the station, and we get the author's report of the conversations he struggles to have with random fellow travellers. Journeys then often prove to be pretty dull. And Campbell is honest enough to admit this. On day four of the first chapter, he decides 'this is a silly venture. A nonsense.' (I'm not sure it was wise of him to allow such a possibility at so early a stage.)
Then in Journey Three, he and Defoe argue over whose tour is the more boring. Defoe's account of Windsor Castle amounts to 20-odd pages 'describing the building in tedious detail.' 'You too Sir,' retorts Defoe, 'as this tome amply demonstrates, are more than capable of describing the mundane and trivial in great and unnecessary detail.' Quite so. And only a few pages later, Canpbell concedes that 'if we were to travel on every line in the United Kingdom then we had to poke our noses into some obscure and profoundly uninteresting places.' Which is exactly what they do: 'As these pages testify, we had endured some astonishingly ugly journeys through the industrial heartlands of England, across dystopian landscapes, and through endless nondescript suburban sprawl.'
The presence of the person of Defoe in the text is one way in which Campbell tries to liven up his account by adding a touch of the surreal to its telling. However, this turns out to mean little more than frequent quotations from Defoe's tour concerning scenes or locations that today's travellers are now passing through. No great insight results from this juxtaposing of past and present, and Defoe's own character is hardly explored.
Campbell does, however, describe Defoe as a man 'after his own heart.' What he means is that Defoe's 'Tour thro the whole island of Great Britain' is not exactly what it purports to be. There is a fictional dimension to this apparently realistic account. Defoe had not personally visited all the places he describes, and when he had, it had actually happened years before the time of writing.
Campbell tells us that this emboldened him to 'do something similar' on his own account. Perhaps, after all, every mile of railway track in the UK has not been covered, while in recording the conversations he has had, his mind may sometimes have wandered in the direction of fiction. And then there's the issue of the status of his travelling companion about whom we learn very little. He's a retired head teacher who seems to spend most of the train journeys sleeping or drinking, while occasionally inflicting upon us catalogues of abstruse details concerning locations we are witnessing.
The author agrees that most of this information is boring. Then it turns out that most of the responses that the author gets when he confronts fellow travellers and tells them what he is up to, do indeed prove to be less than exciting. The result is that how far readers are ready to accompany Stuart Campbell on his exhausting odyssey depends entirely on his ability to win them over. Are his insights, observations, descriptions, concerning the world inside and outside all these UK-touring trains, sufficiently compelling to keep them on board? Well, I did make it back to Glasgow Central, but I'm not sure I stayed awake through every journey.
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