Magazine article The Spectator

'Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line', by James Attlee - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line', by James Attlee - Review

Article excerpt

Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line James Attlee

Guardian Books, pp.310, £14.99, ISBN: 9780852655672

Readers who have put in some time on the railways may remember the neat, brush-painted graffiti that appeared in 1974 on a wall facing the line just outside Paddington station: FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE.

Not until Banksy took up his spraycan did a piece of London graffiti make such a stir. The Telegraph 's Peter Simple column attributed the long-lasting inscription to the shadowy 'Master of Paddington' and the Oxford commuter-poet Roger Green mused on the hauntingly unspecific slogan in his journal Notes From Overground , a minor publishing hit of 1984. Another 20 years passed before the perpetrators were outed; it turned out that their declaration was a mash-up of the words of two other poets, Robert Graves and Ruth Padel.

James Attlee's book is the work of another former commuter, now released into full-time writing after 12 years of long-distance shuttling back and forth on the same line. Designated 'writer on the train' by First Great Western -- a sort of writer-in-residence on wheels -- he explores the route in depth, armed with a licence to interview railway staff along the way.

As it turns out, the workings of the modern system interest him less than the interconnected stories that lie just beyond the railway's graffitied boundary walls. The result is engaging, with echoes in particular of Patrick Wright's excavations of occult English histories, and of the subversive narratives of Patrick Keiller's Robinson film travelogues.

Keiller's Robinson in Space (1997) began in Reading, at the house where Arthur Rimbaud was employed in 1874 as a teacher of French. The young Symbolist poet and temporary Readingite turns up in Attlee's book too, as does Oscar Wilde in his unwilling role as prisoner C.3.3 in George Gilbert Scott's Reading gaol, one of the many architectural excitements along the Great Western mainline.

Attlee traces C.3.3 in his former role as social lion to Taplow Court, where Wilde was among the guests of Ettie Grenfell, Lady Desborough. Ettie was queen bee of 'the Souls', and she made Taplow one of the group's playgrounds in matters social, cultural and romantic. Neighbouring Cliveden emerges as still more consistently a house of power, especially during its Astor years. …

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