Books and trains

Books and trains go together like Anna Karenina and, well, trains.

As a highwaywoman of hep, scouring the kingdom for cutting-edge cultural coffers from which to raid artistic pearls of wisdom, legion are the air-conditioned hours I spend nestled upon violent Virgin upholstery with a Ginsters beef bap in one hand and a weighty tome in t'other.

It's the journey wot counts, a truism borne out beautifully by the no-man's-land of a railway ride; a sacred space of enforced inactivity, the hypnotic rhythm proving the perfect cradling for a quietly ticking brain. I long for the days when trains were really trains, when sliding-doored carriages shone shabby and proud with varnish, leather and plush, when shifty-eyed nuns with bottles of whisky under their habits were cocooned alongside spinster governesses picnicking on potted shrimp and shifty mustachioed foreigners clutching valises and wearing false noses. Sigh.

It's not surprising that, from the Hogwarts Express to the 4.50 from Paddington, authors love an engine. It provides a transitionary, defamiliarised democracy where stranger must rub knee with stranger, suspended in a vapour of secrets and trysts, goodbyes and germs. The movement lends a sense of urgency and inevitability, the confinement a clench of claustrophobia - the ideal stage for a thriller or a mystery. The utter weirdness of trains is best captured in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; Christopher's train journey to London is a wonderful double-disorientation of public transport and autism.

I am both listening to and reading trainlit at the moment. In the Murder On The Orient Express audiobook, Suchet picks his way through Christie's almost cruelly real characterisation with joyful relish. Bizarrely, on CD he sounds exactly like Martin Jarvis, but I suspect that is because every audiobook produced is now in fact read by Martin Jarvis and they've got embarassed and are just putting other people's names on the covers. The extraordinary Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson centres around both the train that brings the engimatic transient Sylvie to two orphaned sisters living in the small American town of Fingerbone, and the ghost of the one that plunged into the lake years ago with their grandfather on board. The whole novel feels like a train journey in winter, shrouded in fog and water, and tinged with uncertainty, dread and hope.

And so to the public announcement. Ho, you! You know who you are, you heathen. You unenlightened boors. You travellers who use your precious train time to chat in staccato snatches on your mobiles, to interfere with your iBook or to argue with your fat ADHD children. You veritable leaves on the line, to you we say: Bah.