During the 18 or so months that it took me to write and research Parallel Lines, I would on occasion go to parties. Sometimes at these parties I would meet girls. ‘What do you do?’, they would say. ‘I’m a writer’, I would reply, puffing sagely on my trusty old pipe. Their pretty eyes would light up, and they would take a step closer. “Really?’ they would say. ‘And what are you writing about at the moment?’ And I would say, ‘Railway trains’, and the light in their eyes would dim, and they would take two steps backwards, and quickly make an excuse to move on. Which, at least in part, is what the book is about; an attempt to find out why something so fascinating, and so vital to the development of the Western world, is seen both as romantic and uniquely boring.
I tried to evade some of the danger of railway writing being seen as dull (and 95% of it is) by avoiding too much technical detail. Railway fans have thousands of books in which they can look up the difference between Class 37 and Deltic diesels, and trying to explain the system of wheel alignment classification (you know, the bit where it says that a particular engine is 0-6-2, or whatever) would drive me to distraction. What I tried to concentrate on was the things that an ordinarily interested general reader might see from the carriage window.
I used the techniques of micro-history; I concentrated on the details, but I also hope that the book is an entry level history of the British railway system for someone who doesn’t know much about it. I also hope that the rivet counters will find it funny, that access parents looking for a fun trip for the kids will take them on a preserved railway, and that sales of Z gauge model railways will go through the roof.
Each of the chapters is centred around a railway trip that I took, so it is a travel book, as much as it is a history book. And I guess it’s a memoir too, detailing my relationship with train travel. And it’s a scurrilous polemical tract, with a bit of lit crit, a few poems and some film reviews thrown in for good measure. I loved every moment that I worked on it, and it was an added pleasure to have the photographer Paul Williams come with me on some of the trips. Eight of his photos are in the book, but there is a link here to his website, where you can see all the shots which didn’t quite make the cut.
I always intended that the book should be a rich plum pudding; that you could put in your thumb and pull out something different each time.. This has made it difficult to describe, though I still think the closest I came was in the second subtitle – ‘Every Girl’s Big Book of Trains.’
I fell in love with the railway while I was working on Parallel Lines, and I’m proud to be a member of The Lynton And Barnstaple Railway Trust. This is the most ambitious railway restoration currently underway in Britain. On our links sidebar you can find their website, where you can see the scale of this astonishing project. They are always in need of funds, and will welcome your support.