Going off the Rails: Two Book Reviews

Part One of Two: Italian Ways, On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo and Stranger on a Train, Daydreaming and Smoking Around America.


My mind is a bad musician that cannot keep time. What next? It asks, what is there for you after this? who will you be, later? where will you move to next? I have what some people call ‘a curious mind’ and what people who know me call ‘incredibly annoying.’ Hand me a book and I will reel off four others that I need to truly burrow into the core. In class I struggle to harmonise my physical self and my mental self because it is hard to harmonise a formica tablet chair and the future. In fact, this blog is itself is a distraction from the important work of selfhood; this my biggest project from which I am perpetually procrastinating. I wasn’t always this way. This is the work depression did — this is what is leaves in its wake when it loosens the reigns a while — to save me from finding a mirror in the silence.

My best friend has taught me a lot. He knows all sorts of things about track gauges and the complexities of signalling. He taught me the reason that North London is connected by the extensive underground network and South London is connected by the expensive mainline train network.* Unlike Mr. Transport, I know nothing beyond that which trains immediately reveal to me. This may, in fact, be one of the reasons I like trains as much as I do. In the train’s steady roll past the dormer windows of my morning commute, through the fissured lateral moraines on Italian interregionalle, in the impressionist blur of France seen from a Eurostar’s window: trains give me stillness. My curiosity which isn’t curiosity at all, but the way in which something darker manifests, capitulates to the train’s motion. Trains metronome my mind. I can read on trains without worrying what else, what next, why why why. They restore cadence to the words on the page.

So here is a book about trains that you can read on trains to still your agitato mind, at least for a little while.


Italian Ways, On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo By Tim Parks

The best travel writing can be found in cookbooks, and the best histories in travel books. And Italian Ways, like Jenny Diski’s Strangers on a Train, is not a travel book, but histories and autobiography converging and diverging like railway switches. Parks sees the railways as Helena Attlee sees citrus fruits: an inroad through the everyday from which it is possible to extrapolate entire narratives. On his morning commute a spider web of pasts laid over the country: Victor Emmanuel II, who declined Austria’s offer to relinquish control over Custoza, and whose army subsequently lost 14,000 men at the hands of the Austrians in the name of family honour. Mussolini’s passion for Milano Centrale. Crotone and the problem of presence alongside such antquity — how to preserve beauty without becoming prisoner to the past.

Part 1, The Train of the Living Dead, which is ostensibly about Parks’ morning commute between Verona and Milan — Italians commute — highlights one of Italy’s central conflicts:

Are we ‘part of Europe’ or not? Are we part of the modern world? Are we progressive or backward? Above all, are we serious?

Italian Trains link such dichotomies: between North and South, where the money is and is not; between home and work, where the heart(h) is versus where the work is; between future and past, as seen from a train window — Genoa’s futurist serpentine stilted highways unfurling over the ancient cobblestone city beneath.

In the latter chapters, as Parks’ impression of Italy expands so too does his concern. The South — where neither the trains nor the people work — is on the lip of a massive economic decline and the unemployment rate is almost 50%. There is a sense of precarity amongst the young. There is very little money along these sapphire shorelines, and Parks laments the abandoned chemical plant hugging the coast ‘like a vast beached sea whale,’ the steel plant across the gulf is polluting marine and city life alike, and the South’s fledgling airline business has failed, too.

What is best about this book is that Parks doesn’t try to digest Italy and all its contradictions, formalities and dichotomies. He doesn’t try to answer the South’s problems, he doesn’t try to solve the North’s corruption, he doesn’t attempt reconcile its tussles or its multitudes, he lets it as it is and, at the same time, reminds us that this country with a strong sense of place just needs a way to get home.

*Which is, incidentally, how my sort-of-step dad’s family home in AMERSHAM in ZONE D (read: not even slightly London) has a tube, and my flat in Zone 2 has a mainline railway service which gives up on itself on weekends. I’m not bitter, you’re bitter.


One thought on “Going off the Rails: Two Book Reviews

  1. Pingback: A Portrait of Crystal Palace | THE SPADE IN THE DARK LOAM

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