After 12 years as a commuter, James Attlee became First Great Western’s Writer on the Train and was given a travel pass to explore the London to Bristol route. Newly published Station to Station is the tale of journeys unlike those of the commuters who “lifting their eyes momentarily from an e-reader or pausing in their perusal of a newspaper to stir a cup of coffee, they may notice a town flashing past that they will never visit and wonder what happens there.” Attlee visited and wrote and travelled and observed.
It’s hard to do this treasure trove of London to Bristol discoveries and anecdotes justice. He includes Brunel’s cheeky plan to turn the horse at Cherhill into a steam locomotive that included the offensive letters GWR, after the villagers there opposed the railway.
Attlee writes about a landscape’s “shifting gradations of colour, contour and light beneath the heavy sky,” on the way to the railway bridge at Maidenhead before passing the “view of the 12th century St Mary’s church at Cholsey where Agatha Christie, the author of the Miss Marple mystery 4.50 from Paddington, lies buried.”
On that journey he was on the stopping service: “No city-bound commuter ever takes this service; … This service is to an inter-city express what a ruminating cow, ambling towards the milking parlour, is to a racehorse at full stretch.”
Attlee’s Station to Station, in turn, is to the modern reader what Trains and Buttered Toast was to John Betjeman’s loyal fans. While Betjeman’s classic collection of his tales around the south of England set the tone for the middle classes in the 50s, Attlee assures that his “tone is not that of Betjeman.” He tells Bristol24/7: “I take issue with him over his poem ‘Slough’ but also talk about his life as a commuting writer. [The book] is also not nostalgic, in the Portillo mould. I argue that trains are the only form of technology that connects us to the future as well as the past and examine the regeneration already happening in Slough in advance of the arrival of Crossrail.
“Travel itself has been fundamentally changed by the new technologies that have emerged in the last 20 years, meaning we are no longer out of touch even while on the move. This is both a blessing and a curse. The ‘in-between’ state provided by the railway carriage, when you are neither at home or at work, can be a space to explore — a pause in your life, even as you hurtle through the landscape at high speed.”
Slavery is a strong theme in the book. From Brunel’s relationship with the merchants of Bristol, some of whom invested the compensation money they received on the abolition of slavery in the new technology, as well as Brunel’s involvement during the Bristol Riots of 1831 and the mysterious gap in his own account of these events. There is the poignant story of The Beautiful Spotted Boy, an Afro-Caribbean child sold to an English showman to be exhibited at fairgrounds in the 19th century, who lies buried at the end of the branch-line at Marlow. And then there is the slavery many of us find ourselves in, when it can feel as if we are working to earn enough money to enable us to commute to work.
“Today, of course, Bristol is at the heart of the Brunel heritage industry,” Attlee reminds us, “with Brunel’s papers housed in the Brunel Institute at Great Western Docks alongside the ss Great Britain and plans for a brand new museum dedicated to him well under way. His cigar-chomping ghost is ever-present, invoked whenever his blessing is needed for a new engineering project; he even appeared in the Olympic ceremony, the bi-lingual son of a French political refugee now both an honorary Bristolian and a quintessentially British hero.”
In the undulating rhythm of his writing, the life and history of what goes on from station to station makes for a rather delightful reading adventure.