Monday, April 30, 2012

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Cover image from Harriet Devine

In the introduction to the 2006 Constable edition of The Slaves of Solitude (originally published 1947), the well-known literary biographer Michael Holroyd calls this last of Patrick Hamilton's novels "the most sombre of all." He characterizes the book as a "black comedy of manners," and indeed it has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Holroyd also quite rightly calls this work a "powerfully redemptive novel." It was engaging too; I stayed up half the night to find out what was going to happen.

"This was war late in 1943," reports the impersonal narrator, setting the scene of the novel. Before introducing his protagonist, Hamilton describes London as a "crouching monster" that sucks up suburban people through the train system each morning and and "violently" exhales them back out at day's end.

Very early, we glimpse of the scene of the main action: a boarding house called the Rosamund Tea Rooms in Thames Lockdon, which is a nice pun for the name of the fictitious London exurb.

Miss Roach, a publisher's assistant and former school teacher, is first seen enroute home to the boarding house in the blackout. She has just got off the train after a day's work in London. Leaving the dark station, she hears others "blundering" along in front of her and behind her, using weak torches to light the way.

We get to know this woman well, but do not learn that Miss Roach is called Enid until much later. Her name, when finally uttered, has been shortened to Eeny by "her" American Lieutenant.

Hamilton described his book as a war novel, but he features neither politicians nor generals nor wounded soldiers. Instead, the story is a merciless and clear-eyed portrayal of the insidious psychological effects that war has on ordinary people as it erodes and demeans the human spirit through small but cumulative attritions, privations and losses.

Miss Roach is an intelligent, decent and patient woman. She is educated, and she understands how the war is taking its psychological toll even on those who hear nothing but "the planes going out" night after night. All through the book she is unaccountably bullied and needled by a fellow boarder, an old man with the psychological profile of a mean and immature schoolboy.

Day after day, Miss Roach absorbs his rude and malicious treatment with forbearance.  It is only when she is subjected to further pointless attacks from a completely unexpected quarter that she reaches the end of her rope. By the end of the book, our protagonist has been betrayed by one she befriended. She has also lost control of her temper, and experienced a passing glimpse of romance.

On top of this, she has been obliged to confront two deaths, one of them shockingly sudden, and absorb some unexpected and life-changing news.

Finding herself back in London, with her immediate future uncertain, she checks in for a night at an expensive hotel, then salves her conscience for spending the money by looking with delight at the private bath. She decides to use the tub night and morning to "bathe some of the money back."

Thus washed clean, Miss Roach lies in her comfortable bed at Claridge's. As she composes herself to sleep, the fully omniscient narrator returns to remind us that she knows, "nothing of the February blitz shortly to descend on London, ...nothing of flying bombs..of rockets, of Normandy, of Arnheim, of the Ardennes bulge, of Berlin, of the Atom Bomb."

Meanwhile, now that the immediate causes of her distress have passed, our protagonist finds within herself a vast tolerance. Willingly, she forgives her tormentors, though she is not quite noble enough to regret her small and measured acts of revenge. Before sleeping, this "slave of her task-master, solitude" utters an all-encompassing prayer that is also a plea, "God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us." And so she sleeps and the book ends.

In her introduction to this edition, Doris Lessing also weighs in on Patrick Hamilton, saying he was much read in his lifetime, and forgotten after his death, as even good writers often are. She characterizes his work as an absolutely faithful rendering of the time and place he wrote about.

Hamilton also wrote for the theatre. He was only twenty-five when Rope was produced in the West End. This, along with his story Gaslight, was later made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.

Sadly, the talented Patrick Hamilton was an alcoholic. He died in 1962, aged fifty-eight.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

John Soane's Museum on Lincoln's Inn Fields

Photo: The Soane Museum is currently under renovation. No indoor photography. CT 2012

Between 1792 and 1824, the great neo-classical architect Sir John Soane rebuilt a series of three interlocking houses on Lincoln's Inn Fields, the largest public square in London.

This became a show home for himself, his family, and his huge art collection. Soane was the designer of the Bank of England, one wall of which survives in the Bank Museum. Another of his creations was Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone Road (now gone). He also designed churches in Portland Street, Bethnal Green and elsewhere.

A friend of the romantic landscape painter JMW Turner, Soane used "Turner yellow" paint and draperies in his gorgeously appointed second floor parlour. This lovely room is lit by recessed skylights as well as front windows that stand away from the main house wall in their own alcoves. The furnishings reflect the fashion of the times, but also include two leather armchairs with matching footstools in a memorable dark purple -- and no, I do not mean the relatively common leather chair colour, burgundy.

The museum area stretches across the back of the three attached houses and soars from the basement through all three storeys. Although Soane's art collection is wildly eclectic, it is beautifully arranged in this purpose-built space. A few examples include a collection of Peruvian pots, several pieces of fifteenth-century Flemish stained glass, a black-skinned statue of Artemis of Ephesus, and two pairs of eagles from the demolished Carlton House, once the London home of the Prince.

A unique piece is a statue of Apollo Belvedere, mounted on a pedestal which contains a recessed desk that can be pulled out. At this desk, Soane worked, using his vantage point to glance from time to time at his apprentices, as they beavered away in a glass-fronted work room on the floor above.

According to the docent, Soane, like many powerful men of his day, was a deist and a Mason, and much of the collection contains references to Masonic symbolism. The ancient Egyptian marble sarcophagus and the statue of Asclepius fall into this category. He is also believed to have financially supported abolition of slavery, though he did not vocally espouse it, most likely because it would have threatened his position as Architect and Surveyor of the Bank.

At the time Soane displayed his treasures for the public to see, the only other museum in London was the British Museum. Soane wanted to share the enjoyment of his collection with those who wanted to see them; visitors were charged no fee, and indeed, the museum is still free.

One touch I particularly enjoyed while visiting was a modern innovation: the strategic placement of teazels on the velvet chairs all over the house. This would definitely discourage visitors from being tempted to sit on the delicate antique furniture.

Though part of Sir John Soane's Museum is under restoration, it remains open to visitors. Located near Holborn Underground Station in central London, this small museum is decidedly worth seeing.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Underground at Bletchley Park

Photo: BP Ops Room as it was during WWII

Less than an hour's journey north by train from London Euston is a small railway station called Bletchley. A few yards along across the road, we  found the entrance to Bletchley Park past the Enterprise Car Firm. Open to the public and run by the Bletchley Park Trust, it's now a museum. All through World War II and for thirty years after, this astonishing place remained unknown to all but those who lived and worked there.

For a code-breaking centre, the location was ideal. It was safely away from London, and nobody knew it existed. Located on a north-south railway line, it could bring people from as far north as Scotland, and at the time, an east-west rail line called the Varsity passed through Bletchley en route between Oxford and Cambridge.

New recruits were not told what work they would be doing before they arrived; they only knew that their country needed them, and that they were required to sign the Official Secrets Act before they could begin.

From 1939 to the end of the war, this was where a motley crew of academics, military people and civilians worked in secret. Called by Churchill "the geese that laid golden eggs but never cackled," the codebreakers challenged and succeeded in unlocking the the formidably difficult Enigma code used by the German High Command, as well as Italian and Japanese military codes.

Many of these people were still in their late teens; however, their dedication to a gruelling daily round of accurate and detailed work in code breaking, as well as indexing mountains of decoded messages was legendary. It was also crucial to the war effort.

Recruits were drawn from pools of people who were considered well-suited to the task. Many were scholars, including Oxford and Cambridge professors and their most promising students. Others were linguists and Egyptologists, people skilled in translating ancient languages. Many were mathematicians, and still others were engineers and crossword buffs. A great many were young women.

From a handful of codebreakers at the beginning of the war, the Bletchley Park contingent grew to 9000 people. Among those who worked there were novelists Ian Fleming and Angus Wilson, along with WWI codebreaking veterans Dilly Knox and Frank Birch, and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

One mathematical genius was Alan Turing, who developed the "bombe" machine to help the codebreakers. This brillliant man, a founding father of computer science, was the first to raise the question of whether machines could be made to think. According to Andrew Hodges, he was also "a philosopher... strange visionary, and a gay man before his time."

Sadly, after the war, far from being appreciated, he died young after being punished under the law for his homosexuality. A limited edition stamp to commemorate Alan Turing was issued in 2012, and can be purchased at Bletchley Park.

At Bletchley too, Dr. Thomas Flowers designed Colossus, the first programmable computer. This was broken up after the war, but has been re-created as part of the computing museum.

As we learned on a very informative tour, none of the cryptographers or other denizens of Bletchley Park went near a post office. They had their mail delivered to them c/o Box 111 Bletchley. Outgoing mail was taken round the district and dropped randomly in post boxes over a wide area.

Many couples met and married while working at Bletchley; however, the security was so tight that they were unable to discuss their work, either while there or for more than thirty years after. Told to describe their work as "secretarial," many of the young people who did the crucial decoding that saved lives by shortening the war were never known, even by partners, parents, and children, to have made such a dramatic contribution to the war effort. Obviously, it was a long time before they could meet their old colleagues for drinks too.

All in all, the visit to Bletchley Park was fascinating look at a lot of history that I had known absolutely nothing about. Sinclair MacKay's book The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (Aurum Press 2010), one of many written since the silence ban was lifted, also provides a fascinating glimpse into the time and place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Underground in London: the Tube

The first escalator was installed in the tube in 1911, over a hundred years ago. Since then, the system has undergone a lot of changes and improvements. In preparation for the Summer Olympics 2012, the transit system is being upgraded to improve speed and efficiency.

Meanwhile, the Victoria Line, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1968, has been replaced by a state-of-the-art system, and the old and new lines still run side by side while the old system is slowly being dismantled. It will be phased out when the new one is fully operational.

The Victoria line trains are new, and there are more of them. According to John Doyle, the Line Manager, there will soon be 30 trains an hour rather than 28, and eventually, in peak hours, 33 trains per hour will add 10,000 more passengers to the current capacity.

It's all part of a huge upgrade plan that will continue for another ten years. King's Cross St.Pancras Station has had its capacity quadrupled, and Wembley Station has been upgraded to relieve congestion for visitors to the stadium. At Heathrow, the Piccadilly Line has been extended to Terminal 5, and a brand new station has been opened at Wood Lane, the first new Tube Station in 70 years. When the work is complete, it will mean a thirty percent increase in capacity, says Transport for London.

The old protocol of "stand on the right, walk on the left" still obtains; so too does the posted exhortation that "dogs must be carried." Recalling my first Tube rides in 1973, I noticed that there was no longer an instruction specifying that "pushchairs must be folded," a source of mirth to me then, as the word was unfamiliar, and it would be quite some time before I had need of such a device. Clearly, stroller technology has moved on, along with that of the telephone.

Contemporary Londoners hurry down and up the left sides of the escalators, talking on their mobiles. Blocking the left lane causes annoyance, as I rediscovered after staggering bag and baggage off the Gatwick Express and onto the Underground. The cool "Excuse me" darted in my direction by a commuter sounded unmistakeably displeased.

Begun in 1863, the London Underground is the world's oldest below-ground rail system, with almost double the length of track of the Paris Metro and more than quadruple that of Singapore. Considering its size and complexity, along with the fact that it is older than the nation of Canada, the Tube, backbone of London's unique transit system, functions very well indeed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Cover image from Khaled Hosseini website

Khaled Hosseini has surpassed himself in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books 2007). This has been on my to-read list for some time. After I began it on a flight to London and finished it in a long queue at Gatwick Airport, I felt suffused in its atmosphere.

Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003), made into a movie in 2007, was a sensitive portrayal of a sundered friendship between two boys. It began with an irreparable loss in a moment of childhood betrayal and portrayed the long and arduous journey through experience to right action and the peace that follows.

This novel also takes place in Afghanistan, but the main protagonists are female, seen first as girls and later as women. Maryam, who is named for the fragrant tuberose, is a harami, an illegitimate child of a wealthy man who has two other wives and several other children. Because her mother was a low-born maid, her father Jalil does not take her into his household; instead, he visits his little daughter where she lives with her embittered mother in a small hut on a hillside away from the town.

Maryam's mother distrusts men and warns her against them, even as she loves and cares for her little girl, who grows up quite happy. Jalil visits once a week, and Maryam loves him to distraction. She does not understand her mother's distrust of her father, or her dark prognostications that whatever goes wrong, a man points the finger of blame at the closest women.

When she is fourteen, Maryam makes a small but tragic mistake that turns her life upside down, forcing her into a marriage with a man nearly three times her age. In spite of her efforts and through no fault of her own, this union turns bitter, and Maryam lives shut up in her house until fate brings her in contact with a neighbour girl, Laila.

As rockets fall on Kabul and refugees stream out of the city, Laila loses her childhood playmate and best friend, whose family flees to Pakistan. When just days later, she loses her parents to a rocket, she is thrown into contact with the reclusive Maryam. Tentatively at first, the women share their stories; in the end, they form a bond as strong as life itself.

This novel is a paean to the human spirit. In spite of the cultural and historical forces that beat upon these two women and make them old long before their time, Maryam and Leila persist in their innocent refusal to give up on the possibility of love.

As well as being a lesson in the culture and history of Afghanistan, including the parts played by Western nations in its dire fate, this is a story of redemption. Told with resplendent light as well as horrifying shadow, A Thousand Splendid Suns rings absolutely true.

Be prepared to weep but don't be afraid to read to the end. In this novel, a reader can find the human truth and the moral solace that make good fiction so satisfying.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Hiram Bingham from Cuzco to Machu Picchu

Photo: IRT Society

Operated by PeruRail, this train is an easy way to travel between the Peruvian city of Cuzco, a World Heritage Site, and the spectacular Andean aerie of Machu Picchu.

Named after Hiram Bingham, who in 1911 discovered the Incan city and brought it to the attention of the world, the train is luxurious and elegant.

Going up from Cuzco, one can enjoy spectacular views of the Andes while drinking aperitifs and listening to music, and to the guides who explain the area.

Nearing Machu Picchu, visitors enjoy lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge, and on the return journey, a gourmet dinner is served on the train.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rocky Mountaineer evokes travel memories

Photo: Rocky Mountaineer arrives at Jasper
Carol Tulpar


The Rocky Mountaineer leaves the Pacific terminus of Vancouver and travels up through the Fraser Canyon into the high, dry country of the Cariboo before heading into the Rockies.

There are different itineraries to choose from: Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are the most famous places to visit. The views of the Rocky Mountains are spectacular; bighorn sheep and mountain goats are often seen from the train.

For a hundred years after the railroad was completed in 1885, passenger trains crossed Canada regularly. In 1976, my mother and I took the transcontinental train trip, first from Vancouver to Toronto, where we changed to the Ocean Limited for Sydney, Nova Scotia. The overnight ferry then got us as far as Port Aux Basques on the west of Newfoundland and after a final long bus trip across "the Old Rock," we arrived in St. John's.

Now the shorter journeys on luxurious tourist trains through the most spectacular scenery provide a reminder of the days of slower and more relaxing travel along the old rail routes that once tied Canada together from east to west.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Blood brothers and their shared destiny

Image from pri.org

It's a cliche that truth is stranger than fiction, as demonstrated in this true story penned by Vancouver writer Timothy Taylor. Until I read this article, I thought of him as a novelist. This is the tale of two the strange destinies of two men. The interlinked fates of two ex-soldiers, one Iranian and one Iraqi, is a bizarre, fascinating and inspiring true story.

"Blood Brothers" was published originally in March 2011 and was later reprinted in Reader's Digest as the Editor's Choice in January 2012. On his website, Taylor thanks Vancouver Magazine Editor-in-Chief Gary Ross for assigning it to him, calls it "one of the most affecting stories" he's ever worked on, and expresses his "honour to be sharing it more widely."

Taylor interviews Iranian-born Zahed Haftlang in a car repair shop on East Esplanade in North Vancouver. Haftlang built this business after he arrived in Canada in 1999, a 31-year-old refugee and survivor.

One 0f fifteen siblings, he ran away from home at age twelve and volunteered as a soldier during the Iran-Iraq war. In the army, he became a paramedic. During the re-taking of the Iranian city of Kharramshahr in 1982, previously captured by Iraq, Haftlang was part of a group detailed to kill survivors after the battle.

For some reason, when conscripted Iraqi soldier Najah Aboud asked for mercy, he spared his life. Even though this meant going against orders and putting himself at risk, Paramedic Haftlang kept the Iraqi alive, got him to a field hospital and persuaded the medics to treat him. Having known one another only a few days, the two parted as brothers, wishing one another God's protection and assistance.

For the next seventeen years, Aboud remained a prisoner of war in Iran, where he learned the language of his captors. Finally freed, he decided to join his brother in Canada.

Haftlang fought on, was captured and spent time as a prisoner of war in Iraq. When he was freed, even though he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, he fell in love and had a child, then became a sailor. In Vancouver, he jumped ship after flying off the handle and getting in bad trouble with the ship's officer.

This is where the really astonishing part of the story begins. The denouement reads like a novel and offers a reminder that life is both simpler and more mysterious than we sometimes think.

Well-done, Timothy Taylor, for sharing this amazing story, which can be read here. And thanks to B, for giving me a copy of the article.

Kudos to VAST as well. Both men were helped by the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Book cover image from Julian Barnes website

Are readers now expected to deconstruct novels as they read them? That's not what I want from a good book.

The sense of an ending is exactly what was missing when I finished this year's Man Booker winner by Julian Barnes. Although the opening didn't really pull me in, I did my part and read attentively, more by habit than because the book was suspenseful or exciting.

For me, the characters never came fully alive, and that was disappointing. I formed no clear image of Tony, even though he described himself.

Indeed, it was telling that he described his own hairless head; to see someone else's baldness -- Jack's, for instance, through Tony's eyes, would have been far more revealing. Likewise, ex-wife Margaret seemed bland, and all through the book Veronica lacked credible motivation.

To cope with an unreliable narrator like Tony, the reader needs some plot development, and this novel has little. Dutifully, I followed Tony as he followed Veronica, his long-ago girlfriend, trying to extract from her his dead friend's diary, which had inexplicably been left to him along with a small financial legacy, by Veronica's mother.

As we wandered around North London, a few more sensory details would have been welcome; instead, we got more of Tony's cerebral self-doubt. The grotesque but mysterious cast of characters that Veronica showcased never really captured my interest.

Upon finishing, I was surprised that this book won such a respectable prize, and I looked at a number of reviews to see what others had made of it, sampling views from readers in The U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Canada.

Apparently, I was odd woman out. Most reviewers praised the book, though some wrote about having to look back for clues. But why should a novelist expect a reader to do this? It interrupts the forward momentum of the story, and indicates that the writer has failed to reveal what the reader needs to know, the next tantalizing tidbit in the slow accumulation of information that gives the reader a stake in the eventual payoff.

In the end, I looked back for clues too, but I found limited satisfaction. Much remained unexplained. While that may be true in life, it's uninteresting in a novel. On the whole, I felt there was little room for this reader in The Sense of an Ending (Random House Canada, 2011).

There were some good observations. "The reward of merit is not life's business," says Tony, and that rings true; our purpose on earth is certainly far less obvious than that simple formulation.

My main issue with this novel was that failed to deliver the moral solace that I have learned to expect from good fiction. Without The Sense of an Ending, of closure, a novel does not satisfy. Yes, memory is flawed and mutable, and yes, people want to think the best of themselves.

But what about these specific characters and their struggle? I could never identify with them, even with Tony when he had to revise his memory of Adrian. It felt frustrating to be unable to get to know even the main characters, and as for plot, the incomplete payoff didn't feel worth the effort of reading.

Veronica tells Tony in the novel, "'You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.'" (144) Good advice about the book, Veronica.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Ghan

Picture from Flight Centre

Those who prefer to cross Australia from south to north rather than along the east-west corridor, the route of the Indian Pacific, may choose to ride the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin by way of Alice Springs. The journey is nearly 3000 kilometres. Regardless of the direction of travel, it requires two nights on the train.

The route followed by this train is named after the Afghan cameleers who originally laid out the travel routes for the railways, helping to construct these as well as telegraph lines across the arid "Red Centre" of Australia.

The climate zone of the area where this train travels as it moves north is hot, hot, hot, and also can be humid. Thus the most comfortable time to travel is Australian winter, between May and July.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Sunlander and the Gulf Coaster

Picture: Australian Trains

The Sunlander follows the northeastern coast of Australia from temperate Brisbane to tropical Cairns. Travelling Queenslander Class is the height of luxury.

Along with the drinks the fresh local produce and the famous seafood buffet that is served as the train nears Cairns, the service includes bathrobe and slippers, as well as informative commentary about the local area. The views are spectacular. This 32-hour journey leaves Cairns or Brisbane one morning and arrives in the other city the following afternoon.

After seeing the Great Barrier Reef at Cairns, rail buffs who want a contrasting experience can travel on from Cairns to Croydon (fly or drive the 500+ km in 8 hours or so) and ride the historic Gulflander, familiarly called the tin hare, to Normanton. This first train ran along this line a hundred twenty years ago when the last portion was completed in 1891, during the Gold Rush. The challenging terrain made building this railroad a remarkable engineering feat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Indian Pacific

Picture from Flight Centre

The Indian Pacific is the last trans continental train in the world. Its unique 4352-kilometre journey covers the breadth and variety of the Australian continent between Sydney and Perth.

In either direction, the traveller spends three nights on board, passing through varied geographical terrain. The Blue Mountains are lush and spectacular and the wide Nullarbor plain is bleak and treeless -- the classic Australian outback.

Throughout the train journey, travellers can spot a huge variety of Australian wildlife, including kangaroos, through the windows. Off-train tours are available for visitors who want to see the outback from close up. These side trips leave during scheduled train stops at Adelaide, Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie, a gold mining town since the Gold Rush of the 1880s.

The symbol of the Indian Pacific is the endangered wedge-tailed eagle. With a wingspan of two metres, this impressive bird is easy to spot from the window of the train.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bernina Express

Photo: Hotel Bernina

Having seen Switzerland only in transit, I just learned about the Bernina Express.

The name made me think of my Bernina Record sewing machine, also red and likewise a product of Swiss engineering skill. I bought it at the PNE, and for more years than I care to say. I've sewn and mended on it without ever having to do more than clean and oil it now and again.

The Bernina Express train, run by the Rhaetian Railway, travels though the scenic route that begins in Chur, Switzerland, and travels across the Alps over the Bernina Pass and down into Italy. In the four hours it takes to cover the lines through the Albula and Bernina World Heritage site, the train crosses 196 bridges and passes through 55 tunnels. The spiraling viaduct seen in the picture is at Brusio.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bertie Plays the Blues, by Alexander McCall Smith

Image from New South Books

"Sandy" Smith has ramped up the comedic charm in this latest book in the 44 Scotland Street series (Polygon, 2011). Even the image conjured up by the title, that of a seven-year-old playing the blues on a saxophone, is faintly ludicrous. Reading on the Sky Train, I caused fellow passengers to glance over when several times I found myself unable to contain the chuckles inspired by this book.

Where else but in the works of this author could we overhear a conversation between an infant and a Danish ventriloquist about English grammar? In who else's work could we learn the plans of an Italian driver employed by a prominent politician who is learning German in order to get a job in Germany driving dangerous mental patients, confident that the skills needed will be the same.

And how else would we learn that at an Edinburgh dinner party, it is reassuring when there are no new faces?

Looking in on Domenica's flat, we are astonished by the adventures of her neighbour Antonia, (of the infamous blue spode teacup.) Then Domenica almost makes a mistake more serious than the teacup caper. Upon repenting, she finds that she can blame herself for foolishness only "until the vocabulary of reproach runs out."

We wander through Smith's Edinburgh, known from previous books. The proprietor of Big Lou's coffee shop has a spat with Matthew and bars him from the premises until he sends an emissary with an apology. Later, in the Cumberland Bar, we watch the gold-toothed dog Cyril -- he of the "personal hygiene problems," lap his customary bowl of beer under the table while his owner, Angus Lordie, takes a moment to listen to the troubles of his friend Matthew and vouchsafe his help and advice.

The antagonists are the same familiar folk. The vain and self-satisfied Bruce is momentarily mistaken for a spy when he signals that his property development schemes are hush hush. Bertie suffers once more at the hands of the officious and overbearing Irene, as well as other nemesis, the bossy and spiteful Olive. However, though Olive has followed Bertie to Scouts, she has been demoted. The post of Sixer now belongs to Bertie's new friend Ranald. These two have a brush with e-Bay and undertake an impulsive journey in a misguided attempt to improve Bertie's family situation.

In this uplifting and hilarious work we are treated to the flawed human thoughts of the protagonists, who are imperfect, like us, but just slightly zanier. Through the mouths of these ordinary well-intentioned people, the author whispers gently in the reader's ear, reassuring us that innocence is not dead, and that practicing the virtues does decrease existential loneliness and increase the sum total of happiness in the world, at least a little bit.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cape to Cairo with Rovos Rail

Picture: Society of Inter-
national Railway Travellers

The journey begins in Cape Town. Four nights on the train, the Pride of Africa, and the traveller arrives at Victoria Falls.

Here the luxurious rail portion of the journey ends, and the traveller flies to Zanzibar, then on to Tanzania to see the Ngorongoro Crater.

The remainder of the journey includes a visit to chimpanzees (Entebbe and Ngamba Island, Uganda), Khartoum, Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel, Luxor, The Valley of Kings and Queens, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Grand Egyptian Musuem in Cairo.

The Cape to Cairo railway idea and project began at the end of the nineteenth century, when rail was rapidly expanding. The originator of the vision was, of course, none other than Cecil Rhodes. He was joined in his dream by Sir Charles Metcalfe.

The railway project began in Cape Town in 1857 and the line reached Worcester (120 m away) in 1876, where it paused for four years because the next section required a tunnel through a mountain. A British engineer named George Pauling built this first tunnel in 1880, and in 1885 the first train arrived in Kimberley from Cape Town.

Like the Rovos Rail tourists of today, the railway builders at first got only as far as the Zambesi River. But the work continued and by 1910, branch line builders Pauling and Company had laid almost 2500 k of track, and had reached Elisabethville (Limbubashi), practically in the centre of the continent. However, the original Cape to Cairo railway plan was never completed.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Blue Train

Photo from The Blue Train site

The Blue Train that runs between Cape Town and Pretoria is a legend. The journey has been undertaken by wealthy lovers of luxury as well as kings and presidents, and the focus is on a level of personal service almost unheard of in the present era.

Each suite is served by a butler; to ensure availability, no butler is assigned to more than four suites at a time. Remember to dress for dinner: men are to wear jackets and ties and ladies are expected to appear in elegant evening wear.

The cost still excludes all but the well-heeled or the self-indulgent railroad buff. In 2011, the price per person sharing a De Luxe suite (one step down from the Luxury suite) in low season began at R 10,930. To travel alone in a luxury suite in high season cost R 21,830. In Canadian currency, that translates into a range of $1420 to $2840 at current rates of exchange.

The trip, however luxurious, is short-lived; the journey takes just over two days. It departs Cape Town or Pretoria before 9 am and arrives in the other city around noon. The itinerary includes a tour of the Railway Museum in Kimberley, of diamond fame, as well as to the Open Mine Museum.

This museum features the world's largest hole dug by hand -- at the cost of great suffering. While Cecil Rhodes made money from the de Beers Mining Company (est. 1880), black labourers dug up the diamonds that made him rich.

The history of the Blue Train began in 1923 as part of the Union Limited and Union Express, linking Johannesburg with Cape Town. Articulated saloons first made the 30-hour run in 1927, and ten years later, twelve all-steel air-conditioned sleeping coaches were ordered from Birmingham. During the war, service was suspended; it was re-started in 1947.

In 1997, a new train was put in service and routes were expanded. Now visitors could also enjoy seeing Victoria Falls, Kruger National Park, and South Africa's famous Garden Route.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Royal Scotsman

Photo: The Royal Scotsman

On the first day of its 7-day tour of the British Isles, the Royal Scotsman departs Waverley Station in Edinburgh bound for Perth.

The cost is a mere $14,230 USD per person for a twin cabin. This covers meals and alcoholic beverages, including whiskey, of course, along with all the associated sightseeing excursions that form part of the package tour.

The Scottish portion of the journey features afternoon tea on the Highland Line to Aviemore, a visit to the battlefield of Culloden, (Diana Gabaldon fans, anyone?) and a tour of a whisky distillery.

In England, the tours include Chester Cathedral, York Minster, the York Railway Museum, the Roman baths at Bath, and Alnwick Castle. A tour of Cambridge is also featured, as well as a luxurious manorial dinner in Oxford.

The Welsh leg of the journey features a visit to Gwydir Castle, the walled town of Caernarfon and a ride on a heritage railway.