The Great Railway Bazaar
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the tracks of ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’
I am not that man any more, nor do these places exist any more.
In 1973, Paul Theroux journeyed from London across Europe, through India and Asia, and then back again – travelling on evocatively named railways such as The Orient Express; The Khyber Pass Local; the Delhi Mail from Jaipur; the Golden Arrow of Kuala and the Trans-Siberian Express. His experiences were published in The Great Railway Bazaar, which I read way back in March.
Thirty years later he repeated this journey, as near as political circumstances would allow, writing about it in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I was interested to read both travel books, to see how things had changed in the intervening years. I am old enough to vaguely remember 1973 and certainly remember 2003, and it seems to me that the world is so altered that it would be almost unrecognisable to someone transported by time machine between the two eras.
I imagined someone asking, What’s the biggest difference between then and now? I knew that it wasn’t all the changes, big and small, in Turkey or India or Singapore or Vietnam. It wasn’t computers or the Internet or high-speed trains, not fast food or cheap wristwatches or everyone wearing blue jeans. The greatest difference was in me.
Theroux’s assessment seems very accurate; as there is a marked difference in tone between the two accounts. Theroux writes his 2003 account as a mature and happily married man, but the background of the 1973 journey, was that he was aware that during his absence another man had taken his place in the family home.
That I enjoyed The Great Railway Bazaar is probably obvious, as why else would I read the sequel. Ghost Train is also well worth reading, although it seemed less romantic, due to the absence of steam trains and it being more recognisably the world I have travelled around myself (although nowhere near as widely as Theroux).
Occasionally, Theroux witnesses things that I would find shocking or heartrending, yet he remains emotionally detached. A striking difference between the two books, is the marked increase in prostitution involving very young girls. These are often kept as sex slaves, locked in sheds by their pimps or owners. Theroux perhaps leaves the reader room for their own feelings, but his emotional distancing gives the effect of his being indifferent. Certainly, he steers clear of moral judgements regarding the exploitation of women and girls in this way.
In Ghost Train, the most illuminating sections are where Theroux visits other writers or friends. The short exchanges with fellow passengers sometimes seem superficial; this is what you would expect from train travel, I know, but I feel that some of the meetings could have been omitted. As could Theroux’s constant comments on women’s looks, which have the effect of rendering them one-dimensional eye-candy.
I particularly liked the section on Japan, where he met with the author, Haruki Murakami, and reminisced about the original journey of 1973. His stint in Singapore is also interesting because it examines the huge impact a leader or government can have on the country they rule.
In a week when politics have dominated in the UK, I was hoping to get away from the topic. However, the description of the former Soviet Union and Theroux’s visit to a gulag turned museum, Perm 36, was a stark reminder to me of the freedoms we still have in this country. The immense suffering of the Soviet people under Communism puts our current situation into perspective, but also made me protective of our moderate political regime and fearful of a swing towards
Fascism*. Theroux also confirmed my thoughts on our current political class – that they lack the maturity and experience to be great statesmen or women.
Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is ageing and all that we have lost. Politicians and policemen are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed.
*Postscript Yes, it’s weird that I said Fascism, I should have said Communism. However, I could’t imagine Britain ever becoming a Communist country when I wrote this blog post. This was because I hadn’t realised that Marxism had morphed into something else; a sort of stealth Marxism – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I did my degree twenty years ago, and even then it was quite difficult for someone who actually engaged with the course, not to be indoctrinated into Marxism or Marxist Feminism. The useless students, those who didn’t pay any attention or read any of the set texts, probably emerged from my university completely unchanged, but diligent students inadvertently adopted the language and vocabulary of Neo-Marxist intellectuals. As it is, I can see that there is a fracture occurring in my country; factions are emerging and ideologies are proliferating. Far Right Nationalism will inevitably appeal to some, especially the traditional working classes who have been marginalised and transformed into ‘useless eaters’ by the de-industrialisation of the UK. Neo-Marxism is far more subtle and insidious and as I watch the news or read left-biased newspapers I can see that a mass-brainwashing has occurred. If people all start saying exactly the same phrases, it’s like a red light going off and you need to heed its warning. I notice it most when these people being interviewed about the latest terrorist attack, disaster or major policy change, are placed under pressure by an interviewer – the stock phrases come out. These words are palliative and meaningless, but also very dangerous.