‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins

I love travelling by rail (despite the expense). Even on routes I use regularly, there’s always a new and unexpected sight: never humdrum, never dull. Trains have featured in some of my favourite films – think ‘Brief Encounter’ – and provided me with a strong network of memories. They’ve even inspired me to write poetry. Inevitably, given the title, a train journey is also the starting point for the best-selling novel ‘The Girl on the Train’.

I finished reading it last weekend – on a train journey, as it happens. It wasn’t exactly the Orient Express: the carriage was bursting with beery cricket fans. My escape route was the plot, which was more than interesting enough to keep me glued to the screen of my Kindle! So what’s it all about?

Rachel drinks too much. That much is clear from the start. Every day, she travels, by rail, past the house she used to live in before her divorce; now, though, her ex-husband lives there with his new partner and their baby daughter. Bad enough. But every day, she sees another couple. She is drawn into making up names for them and imagines what their lives must be like. Then she sees something that doesn’t seem quite right, and one of the characters goes missing … but Rachel’s heavy drinking means she is labelled as an ‘unreliable witness’.

The plot develops through the narrative of three women: Rachel, Megan and Anna. None of the main characters, men or women, could be described as likeable; they’re all flawed, all somehow lost, all hiding something. Rachel lurches around (often literally) in search of the truth. Her suburban commuter-world is recognisable to all of us, yet it is peopled with characters who have slipped between the cracks, lost to drink, drugs or loneliness. Marginal people, who don’t quite fit, like Rachel.  People who exist on the lonely edges of life, places like the long ribbons of waste land at the sides of railway tracks.

This could all make ‘The Girl on the Train’ sound somewhat depressing, and I suppose some aspects of it are a little bleak, but I found it hard to tear myself away at times, and found myself reading it far too late at night more than once! Rachel’s unwavering determination to find out the truth behind what she glimpsed from the train certainly kept my interest.

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Dear Diary

You are the only one I can tell about this.  You see, I’ve done something very silly, and I don’t know what to do.

When I took the washing out of the machine this morning, a soggy wad of paper plopped on to the kitchen floor. Filled with an all too explicable mixture of curiosity and apprehension, I picked it up and peered at it, quite forgetting the basketful of tangled clothes which glowered at me, impatient to be hung out on the line. The sodden mass of paper appeared to consist of more than one sheet, folded over and packed tightly so that the whole structure resembled a miniature Swiss roll. However, this wasn’t what you might be thinking (a roll of banknotes). Oh, no. Indeed not. This was something far worse. This was an exam revision paper. And not just any revision paper. This was Physics! My son’s most difficult school subject, and the exams coming up in a few days. Calamity!

I had to act quickly, Diary. I remembered what the main character had done in a book I read recently. Sian, working on an archaeological dig in the atmospheric town of Whitby, with its brooding, haunted abbey and its hundred and ninety-nine steps. You see, she was given some terribly creepy papers in a glass bottle and had to unroll them with infinite care to reveal a (possibly) terribly creepy secret which had been locked in the bottle for ages. It helped that she was a qualified conservator of old papers and parchment and knew exactly what she was doing. Whereas I only had my panic-driven instincts.

Diary, I used something I can most accurately describe as intuitive autopilot. Gently, I peeled and separated the delicate layers: damp, dulled, greyish. Soon enough, I found myself able to make a judgement about the size and age of the paper.  A4, folded into an A5 booklet.  Photocopied approximately two weeks ago. Tiny black letters and numbers plotted together into questions and equations. Dotted lines for answers, like tiny black beads of Whitby jet. Which is where Sian was working on her papers.  (You know, Diary, the terribly creepy ones.) Spooky. And … no! A tear, a hole, a gap, as the stubborn pages stuck damply together, and I unwisely tried to pull them harder.  But it was too late to stop, Diary. And so the sorry process continued, until I was holding two rectangular doilies up to the light, hoping the Physics in them hadn’t slipped through the holes like potato water through a colander. Would my son notice? Would he still be able to do his revision? Should I own up?

I’m not ready to share the secret of what I did next, so no one will ever know.  Not even you, Diary. Though the truth will out, they say.
But you can find out what happened to Sian by reading ‘The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps’ by Michael Faber.

Early Motor-Cars

I don’t like cars.  Driving them, I’m a menace; discussing them leaves me cold. And as for how their engines, or how they work? Incomprehensible – and about as interesting as a party political broadcast (sorry Dave, Ed and Nick*). But this post is set to be a rule breaker.  It concerns A Book About Cars.

The first surprise about this work is its size: a veritable wallpaper sample book! Next, the cover (it probably lost its dust jacket years ago); it has broad Oxford-blue and off-white deckchair stripes – bold and confident. This book knows who it is and what it wants to deliver! Then there’s the gold lettering and the somewhat whimsical  drawings of vintage vehicles. The ‘motor-cars’ of the title evoke visions of a lost world, the kind of motoring enjoyed by Toad of Toad Hall (well, possibly not).

So far, so fifties. OK, so this copy’s cover is not the cleanest and the spine has split. But somebody has clearly loved this book: read it and re-read it. Inside, it’s obvious why. The illustrations. Not photographs of vintage cars –  we’ve all seen those before. (Apologies here to photographers and car enthusiasts). Elegant illustrations: subtle and oddly flat. Large enough to frame and hang on your wall, and I suspect that many of this book’s siblings have met that curious fate. These are cars without the noise, the fumes or the bone-shaking. Pressed like rare flowers between the oversized pages. I love them. I might even read the text to find out more about them, given time. And that’s saying something!

‘Early Motor-Cars’, by George A. Oliver

* Other political parties are available.

Bookshelf magic …

Added to the gardening bookshelf: ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ by W. Keble Martin. As a young child, I could only aspire to owning my own copy of this beautifully illustrated book. My mum borrowed it from the library to help me identify a flower I’d seen while on holiday in the Lake District. It provided me with the answer; I was hooked! So it was impossible to resist when I spotted that unmistakable white, green and pink cover in a bargain box outside a shop in Hay-on-Wye. I had to rescue it. For only £1, I turned a childhood dream into reality!

When originally published in 1965, ‘The Concise British Flora in Colour’ cost 35s. (Incidentally, the name stamped inside my 1965 copy tells me it was owned by a doctor from Powys, Wales). The book represents sixty years of work by the Reverend William Keble Martin, who was born in 1877 and studied Botany at Oxford. Later, he worked as a Curate or Vicar in various parishes in northern England, including Wath-upon-Dearne, where today there is a street named after him. After returning in 1918 from France, where he had been Chaplain to the Forces, he lived and worked in Devon, continuing his work on flowers. There’s a charming insight into his life at that time on the back flap of the dust jacket:

‘After a busy Sunday he would catch a late train, sometimes travelling as far afield as Scotland, and following his explorations some of the flowers he had found would often be drawn in the train on the return journey on Thursday.”

Heaven!

I love the illustrations: the way the plants appear to be growing round and overlapping each other, yet remaining clear and easily identifiable. Some of my favourites:

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In 1967, four postage stamps designed by W Keble Martin were issued by the Royal Mail.  As soon as I discovered this, it immediately brought to mind my chaotic, childish stamp album – not opened for many a year – and here they are!

A final thought

Writing this has brought back a powerful childhood memory.  Magical and lost … until now. It’s the reason this wonderful book is now propped up next to my screen as I’m writing.  A holiday in the Lakes.  A particular flower, a particular place, a particular time.  But probably another post…

Wolf Hall

I finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel in time for the final episode of the wonderful BBC adaptation. I’ll miss them. There are images in my mind now (from both books and television) that will take a long time to fade. As always, I’m glad I read the books first. I felt so involved in the world they created, but that takes nothing away from the excellence of the BBC version.

The third book is desperately needed!

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Flowers and Old Books

So this is the plan: put up some shelves for the gardening books which, at the moment, are piled up in a corner.

It’s been mooted before, but writing about those poisonous plants and plant names brought it back into focus. Looking along my bookshelves, I’ve found two relatively old books I’d forgotten about or just neglected. One is called ‘The Book of Wildflowers’. I remember seeing it on the bookshelves when I was a child. Only now do I notice that an older relative’s name is written inside it, in faded blue-black ink. Someone (unfortunately I suspect myself here) has crossed boldly through his name in black; my name appears on the following page. Guilty as charged!

The other book is ‘The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers’. I remember choosing this one myself; it has some clumsy maths workings-out in the back of it, along with some improvements suggested by my mum!

Clearly an interest in flowers was always there, though apparently not much respect for a book as an object; as a young child I used to enjoy writing in my books – personalising them, you could say. That’s why I find it difficult to give away any of my older books: some of them are like little time capsules.

Further to my comments on the book about poisonous plants – someone told me when I bought it a couple of weeks ago that the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle is well worth a visit.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it myself (it wasn’t finished when I went there), but I’d love to go.  Here is a link:

http://www.alnwickgarden.com/explore/whats-here/the-poison-garden/about

Poisonous Plants

Another book I bought on the same day; same previous owner.  It was published in 1967 and appears to have been sold at one time by a bookshop in Herefordshire (see images).  It’s full of interesting facts about plants it would be wiser not to eat, including some information about my poor rain-soaked winter aconites. Apparently their poisonous constituent is alkaloid, they have a burning taste, and their poisonous effects are little known. Subtly beautiful though…