Eric Newby sounds like he would have been a delightful man to have a beer with.
This is his author bio from the 1978 Weidenfeld and Nicolson edition of The Big Red Train Ride. I heartily approve of this bio: there’s Nazis; there’s romance; there’s exotic travel; there’s the word tottering. Tottering! At one point in the book, Newby describes his location in Berlin as being “not much more than a biscuit’s toss from the Iron Curtain” and I’d really like to know just how far this guy could toss a biscuit.
The Big Red Train Ride is a worth-while read. It describes a trip across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which Newby took in 1977 with his wife, Wendy, and a German photographer named Otto–all accompanied by a ‘guide’ from “The Agency.” It’s a nice blend of history, information about the railway, with a good dash of Englishman-in-the-USSR hijinks, and just the right amount of grumbling about the travel conditions. Although I could do without such detailed descriptions of the physiques of the various conductresses along the line–particularly in light of the fact that Wendy seems like an awesome dame who totally would help you bust out of a POW camp.
A few years ago, when I was in more of a nomadic stage of life, I really wanted to travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I did quite a bit of reading and research about Russian culture and history, including some works about the railway specifically, and some fiction as well. The Sochi Olympics this winter and all the accompanying talk about Russia brought up my old travel dream. I didn’t pay too much attention to the olympics, but I did pay attention to stories about gay rights issues, and other social problems in Russia. This Jeff Sharlet piece via Annotation Tuesday was particularly devastating. After reading it, the last lingering bits of my desire to travel to Russia died. Why would I want to travel to (and spend my tourist dollars in) a country that treats people so horribly? I was about nine years old when the Iron Curtain fell, and so to me, the Soviet Union’s history of oppression and human rights abuses was a thing of the past. It was easy to think that the past was the past, and that things were somehow “better now.” But clearly they’re not, and this is something that I didn’t really see until discussions of Russia’s current social climate.
Reading The Big Red Train Ride was my way of saying goodbye to my old travel dream. It had been on my to-read list since my original round of Russian research four years ago. It was the right sort of farewell: generally light but with the occasional somber reflection on the often difficult lives of Russian people. The book didn’t reignite my desire to visit Russia, but it did make me want to read more Eric Newby.
Bio #2: Elaine Dundy, in a 2007 reprint of her 1966 novel The Old Man and Me.
Part of me wants to say ‘cool it with the name drops, sister’–except that her bio makes her sound irresistibly like one of the plucky and rather picaresque heroines of her novels. I have only just started The Old Man and Me, but have read The Dud Avocado a couple of times now, so I feel confident that an amusing tale of nightclubs, rogue-ish artist types and shenanigans lies ahead of me. For the past year or so, I have been really into mid-twentieth century books written by women that talk about what I like to think of as ‘women making decisions about love and life.’ It sort of horrifies and fascinates me that the questions we’re asking today–think Lean In, think endless can-women-have-it-all conversations–are the same questions that women have been asking for decades now. While Elaine Dundy is rather on the lighter side of these questions, her work does fit into my current generally preference for books written by women that speak to my experiences as a woman. Although–unlike the narrator of The Old Man and Me, I’ve never plotted to murder an English tycoon.