rail travel

The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

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A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.