Italian Rail trips and a very Eventful Walking Journey


ARTbop book reviewer, Kevin Newman of Tauranga gives his opinion about: Italian Ways – on and off the rails in Italy by Tim Parks and A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

ITALIAN WAYS – on and off the rails in Italy by TIM PARKS

I had approached this book with much enthusiasm. I am very interested in Trains and train travel, and have a reasonable level of interest in Italian, politics and culture. I had visited Italy in another life and found it a wonderful country in which to be overcharged.

Time Parks is a Professor at Milan University and has lived in Italy for over 30 years. These are two facts which he does not give the reader the opportunity to forget. I had read a couple of his books, one fiction and one non-fiction. I enjoyed both. I did have the feeling though that I might not like Mr Parks himself. Just a feeling mind.

The author aims to use his train experiences as a focus for his views on Italy. Where he has lived for over 30 years.And is a Professor at Milan University. Remember? This he has no doubt achieved.

However, this is not so much a book about Italian Trains, as a book about Italian train tickets and their accompanying regulations. No so much train spotting as tram ticket spotting. The author details the tickets and their regulations for every journey. As the book is over 260 pages long, that is a lot of tickets. .

Here is an example. “To travel from Bologna to Perugia on a Monday you can get the 8.17 Cetriolino Express from Linguine Station Bologna. If you have bought the ‘Figura di Merda’ special tickets, you can only travel by regionali trains that leave from platform 16 every 32 minutes. The tickets need to be purchased at least 47 minutes prior to departure from Window four, not at LinquineStation, but at Santo Vanvera, near the main Piazza Seccante. It is, of course, quicker to travel on the Vescica Express….” And on it goes. Over and over again.

Tim Parks does find time to give a few insights into Italian life. He is very interested in the role of Italian ticket inspectors. Given his interest in train tickets, I suppose this is hardly surprising. He likes to have a theme on which to ‘hang’ his books. In ‘A Season with Verona’ he writes about going to every game played by Hellas Verona Football Club.

This is not so much a book about going around with a group of supporters, as about travelling round with a bunch of infantile neo-fascist thugs. I did find ‘A season with Verona’ more interesting than ‘Italian Ways’. Perhaps I find football more compelling than train tickets?

Rail network was extensive and the cost of travel low. If I lived in a country with cheap train fares and a comprehensive network, I doubt if I would care what the ticket regulations were.

He does find space to give a spirited and highly commendable defence of public provision of services in general and public transport in particular. He attacks ‘user pays’ in the following way at Page 250;

“As if the principle that one should only pay for what one uses could ever make sense in a society, or indeed allow for the existence of a society at all”

And in his final sentence at Page 261 he writes:

“What a beautiful respite a train journey is, and a good book too”

I applaud those sentiments. Oh, and did I mention that Tim Parks has lived in Italy for over 30 years and is a Professor at Milan University?

A TIME OF GIFTS  by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The guests of the BBC Radio Programme Desert Island discs are allowed to pick one book to take with them to their Desert Island. In the unlikely event that I am ever invited to appear on the programme, I would choose ‘A time of gifts’ as my book.

To say that this is a wonderful travel book is to barely do it justice. It is the first part of the account of a 15-year-old school drop out, PLF, walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933/1934.

Despite PFL’s lack of success at school, he was highly intelligent. He had a great facility for learning languages, and had the gift of being interested in an encyclopaedic variety of subjects. He was also blessed with an excellent memory.

PLF was very good-looking, charming and mixed easily with people from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Needless to say he was highly attractive to the opposite sex.

He provides a fascinating narrative of his journey. Particularly interesting is his account of travelling through Germany, just after the accession to power of Adolf Hitler. Though generally non-political, PLF is an English conservative with a small c, he views the Nazis with distaste. Though, he does have considerable affection for most of the Germans he meets. In addition to his travels, PLF writes wonderfully about a wide variety of topics ranging from the migration and settlement of tribes from the East to the filioque controversy in the early Mediaeval Church.

He mixes with a wide variety of people, ranging from peasants and workers to the nobility. He is fortunate in the connections he makes, and finds himself staying in many a country schloss and estate. He also stays in barns and in the open.

In additional to his intellectual abilities. PLF is also a very good sportsman. He is also talented at drawing. To be honest, the only thing with which he seems to have difficulty is learning Hungarian. But then, even Hungarians have trouble learning Hungarian.

One of the book’s many chars is the portrait of a society nearing its demise, with World War 2 and ensuing Communist rule for Central Europe on the horizon.

PLF write beautifully. The book ends with him approaching one of my favourite towns Esztergom in Hungary.

PLF is criticised for painting everything with too rosy a glow. Every glass of wine is fragrant, every view beautiful, every maiden fair and good-looking. His response, give later in life, was well, this was how he remembered things.

I have run out of superlatives.

Kevin Newman. Kevin is ARTbop’s regular monthly book reviewer. He has a particular interest in the people, politics and times of Europe in the period of World War II and after.


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