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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 9 December 2019

"The Incredible Mile" by Harold Elvin

In 1968 Mr Elvin decided to travel from St Pancras to Euston, mostly by rail, via Newcastle, Bergen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscow, Irkutsk, Nakhoda (near Vladivostok), Ulan Bator, Taskkent, Samarkand, Sochi, Odessa, Istanbul and Paris. This is a travelogue about his experiences, mostly aboard the trans-Siberian express.

He has a fascinating way of writing with many more sentence fragments than usual. For example, "I went with a driver so mad for speed and so uninterested in pot-holes, chickens, sheep, barriers like road repairs, that my only excuse for remaining alive is that I must be a cat." (C 76) This misses out an 'and' in the list which makes it sound more clipped and urgent. This can be quite poetic (and occasionally irritating).

More urgency is added by the device of using 93 chapters (on average each chapter is less than three pages long).

On the other hand, I wanted more. Much of what he writes about are his experiences with the people aboard the train and in the towns he gets to. I wanted more, much more, about the places he visited. This book is a taster to an incredible journey but I wanted the main course ... and spuds.

There are some wonderful moments:

  • "Instead of signals, at hundreds of points down the line, were the frailest little women with sad little flags." (C 16)
  • "We finished the last of the toilet paper at Omsk. After that it was each man for himself." (C 16)
  • "All seemed convinced that the communist countries were a bastion of goodness surrounded by a sinister war-mongering ferment of degradation against which a constant alert was needed." (C 36)
  • The Tsatangs of NW Mongolia herd white reindeer and build tents just like the Lapps
  • "Most countries have come in from the out-of-doors, got snug in houses and created an art which is part of the snugness. Chopin is drawing-room matter, not steppe and desert matter." (C 49)

There are some brilliant descriptions:

  • "The man so thin he'd have to try twice to make a shadow" (C 3)
  • "We were a blood cell running down an artery, our train down our railway track was the one live contact all these lands had with the outer world." (C 5)
  • "The festers that men create by beauty spots." (C 17)
  • "A croaky voice as if a frog with a cold lodged in her throat." (C 26)
  • "For the irreligious ... these churches were living theatres at their richest." (C 35)
  • "Our waitress has an early-Bardot walk. She was seventeen. Where her top lip joined her lower lip were two wells the breadth of sixpences out of which smiles radiated in ever-increasing circles across her face lighting up anyone's spirit who happened to be noticing. Her smiles' timetable was two per minute. Any suitor must have only one ambition: to keep that time-table up to scratch." (C 39)
  • "A man, looking as if he had been poured into his clothes and someone had forgotten to say 'when'" (C 86)

There are some great sayings:

  • "All girls are good, so where do the horrible wives come from?" (C 7)
  • "In the city the man is master. In the country the land is master." (C 12)
  • "It is a law that what an individual or a public asserts for itself can usually be taken as the opposite. Whoever heard of a generous man saying he was generous, or a brave man acclaiming his bravery: yet the mean and the coward do nothing else." (C 27)
  • "Anything faster than walking is an insult to the territory you pass over." (C 41)
  • "How can a man with a full stomach pass judgement on a hungry thief?" (C 69)
  • "Like trying to smuggle day in past a rooster." (C 86)
  • "As worn out an an old woodpecker in a petrified forest." (C 86)

A fascinating journey at a fascinating moment in Cold War history; while the author is in Siberia the Russians tanks entered Czechoslovakia.

December 2019; 255 pages

Other great travel books in this blog:

Travelling in Britain:

And others:

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

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