The programme of the trains

I AM AN INVETERATE COLLECTOR. During my childhood, I collected all kinds of things especially if they related to travel. For a long time, I hung on to my collection of used travel tickets: bus, air, rail, boat, tram, etc. I do not know what ever happened to my hoard of salt, pepper, and sugar sachets, and ‘sickness’ bags collected whilst on air flights. Likewise, my bags filled with London Transport bus maps have been long lost. I thought that I had mislaid my collection of exotic toothpaste tubes, but some of these, including those I bought in Albania in 1984, resurfaced recently. My extensive collection of printed airline timetables has disappeared, but not my library of railway timetables, most of which are safely locked into a storage unit. Let me tell you about some of them.

 

BLOG TIMETABLE toothpaste

Some exotic toothpaste found in Serbia in 1990

I was in my late teens when I began collecting railway timetables, both British and overseas. One of my earliest gems was a paperback containing the timetable of CFR, the state railway system of Romania. Many decades later, when I was practising dentistry, my boss, Andrew, had a dental surgery assistant from Romania. Knowing that I had visited many places in south-east Europe, Andrew said to me:

“Adam, you must surely know a bit of Romanian. Say something to Cristina.”

I replied:

“Well, actually the only words I know in Romanian are ‘mersul trenurilor’”

Cristina looked at me blankly for a minute or so, and then exclaimed:

“Aha, the programme of the trains.”

My first copy of “Mersul Trenurilor CFR” was given to me at the Romanian Tourist Office that used to be in Jermyn Street. A few years before I retired, I told a charming Romanian patient about my first two words in his language and how I had first encountered them. Some months later, he came to my surgery for some treatment and presented me with the latest edition of the timetable, which he had bought for me during a recent visit to his native land.

Another gem in my collection was a set of huge volumes containing the timetable of FS, Ferrovia Statale, the Italian railway network.  The hall porter at a hotel where the family regularly stayed in Bologna was the source of these outdated editions of the timetable. He also gave me a large volume containing the timetable of SNCF, French railways.

Soon, I had the idea of sending letters to foreign railway companies to request their timetables. I used to address the envelopes containing the letters with simple addresses like “Central Station, Moscow, USSR”. Moscow replied, sending me a hardback the size and thickness of the Holy Bible (both testaments). It contained the timetables for passenger trains in the USSR. The timetable of MAV, Hungarian state railways, was as large as that from the USSR. From the advertisements contained within it, I learned one of my first words of Hungarian: ‘fogkrem’, which means ‘toothpaste’.

Someone in Tunis sent me not only the slender timetable of Tunisian Railways, but also an extremely old book of regulations (in French) for the Phosphate Railway of Gafsa. Some kind soul in Teheran sent me a small glossy-paged paperback containing the timetable of the railways of Iran. This volume, sent to me long before the Shah was deposed, is prefaced by photographs of the Shah and some of his family. Other people sent me the large timetable of South African Railways and a smaller volume containing the timings of Turkish railways. I bought timetable for its neighbour Greece in Athens.

A letter sent to the “Central Station, Prague, Czechoslovakia” hit the jackpot. My correspondent there sent me any used timetables he could find – from East Germany, from Czechoslovakia, and several thick volumes from Poland. In return, I sent him used British stamps, which he collected. This went on for several months, and then ended abruptly. I hope that he had not got into trouble for communicating with someone in the West. The timetable for East Germany (DDR) had a page written in the Sorbian language for the benefit of those few travellers who were born into the Slavic Sorb race, which lived in the DDR. I was given “Red Vožnje”, useful in Yugoslavia, by the Yugoslav Tourist Office that used to be in London’s Regent Street.

In 1970, I joined the BSc class in the Physiology Department of University College London (UCL). It was then that I met and made friends with an Indian woman, who was later to become my wife. At the end of the second year, she went back to India to see her parents who were then living in Calcutta. Before she left, I asked her to do me a favour. Yes, you have guessed what I asked her: to get me a copy of the timetable for Indian railways. She said she would.

Some months later, a small parcel arrived at my home. The paper in which it was wrapped was falling to pieces, only being held to the package by the string tied around it. The parcel contained a thick paperback, the timetable of Indian Railways. It was only many years later that my wife revealed to me how much trouble I had caused her father. Always ready to take up a challenge and determined not to disappoint his daughter’s new friend, he had sent someone from his office, a ‘peon’ (a lowly clerk),  to Calcutta’s Howrah Station to obtain a timetable, but he came back empty-handed because the station had run-out of the current edition. Undeterred and unwilling to admit failure, my future father-in-law sent the peon back to the station at regular intervals until finally he obtained one to send me. Years later, when Lopa and I decided to marry, we telephoned her parents from my home (in Kent) so that I could ask their consent to our marriage. After Lopa had spoken to them, she told me what her father had said. He had asked her hesitatingly:

“Is that the boy … for whom … I had to search for a railway timetable?”

Even now, if I see a railway timetable during my travels (sadly rather limited during the Covid pandemic), I add it to my collection. However, with the desire to ‘save the planet’, printed timetables are gradually being replaced by paperless online versions.

Book shopping

I have been addicted to buying and owning books since I can first remember. Since my youth, the ways of purchasing books have changed considerably, not least due to the use of the Internet.

BOOKSHOP 0

When I was a child, there were two main options open to the purchaser of books: new and second-hand. Both types of books had to be bought in shops. There was also a third option: book clubs. These issued a list of books, which the customer ordered by post. Many of these clubs discounted books but made it a condition of joining that a member should make one purchase a month or every several months.

Every Saturday morning when I was a child, that is during the 1950s and ‘60s, I used to accompany my parents to Hampstead Village in north-west London. Each visit included spending time in the High Hill Bookshop, which used to exist on Haverstock Hill. My sister and I were each allowed to choose one book each week. It was that way that I built up my collection of Tintin books, written and illustrated by Hergé. In addition to these, I bought many books suitable for children and young adolescents.

To reach the High Hill Bookshop, we used to walk along Flask walk, where there used to be a shop that sold used, but not quite antiquarian, books. This was opposite what is now one of Hampstead’s only remaining second-hand books shops, Keith Fawkes. It was at the now non-existing shop that I believe my love of second-hand bookshops began. I recall finding a used but detailed guidebook to Indonesia and Malaysia one Saturday. I had already been bought a book at High Hill. My parents said that I could not buy the guide-book that day but if it was still in the shop the following week, I could buy it then. Sadly, it had been sold when I returned the following Saturday.

Hampstead was rich in second-hand bookshops in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. One of my favourites was in Perrins Lane.  At number 25 Perrins Lane, there is what looks like a small, typical late 18th/early 19th century terraced house. This was the home and shop of the second-hand book seller Mr Francis Norman. John Fowles, author of “The Collector”, “The Magus”, and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, wrote in his “The Journals (Volume 1)” that Norman was:

“… a bluff, awkward, friendly second-hand bookseller with a mind like a jackdaw’s nest and a shop which must rank as one of the dirtiest, most disorganised and lovable in North London. … Prices vary according to Norman’s mood.”

That was in 1956. Ten years later, Norman’s bookshop had become a regular haunt for me and my friends the Jacobs brothers. By then, Mr Norman, whose name I only discovered recently, seemed to us to be a very old man. We used to call his, un-named shop, ‘the old man’s shop’. It was just as Fowles described.

In “Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion”, M Stern and L Rosenberg wrote of Mr Norman:

When he moved from his Gower Street basement to Hampstead Heath, he had moved not only his books but all the dust and grime and debris …”

Mr Norman did not mind us spending hours rummaging through his totally un-organised heaps of books. I believe that he enjoyed our company. Every now and then, he would read something out of a book, often in Latin, and began to guffaw. We had no idea what he had found so humorous. I found all kinds of wonderful books in his shop, including several beautiful world atlases dating from between the two World Wars. Mr Norman never charged us much for whatever we managed to dig up in his ground floor shop. He kept the valuable old books on an upper floor in his personal quarters. Occasionally, on Sunday mornings, we would visit Mr Norman’s shop when it was closed. We used to knock on his front door, and he would open up the shop for us, still dressed in his pyjamas.

By the time I knew Mr Norman, he was a very sad man. Fowles writes in his “The Journals (Volume 2)” that in November 1968, he visited the ‘Old Man’s shop’ and learnt that not only had Mr Norman recently lost his fifteen-year-old daughter Janey, when she slipped off the roof of his shop whilst trying to rescue her cat. Also, his wife had been so seriously schizophrenic, and he had not seen her for years. Mr Norman had had to be both father and mother to Janey. In addition to all these misfortunes, Mr Norman had lost his first wife and family when they were all killed by a V (‘flying’) bomb in WW2. It is no wonder that Norman told Fowles:

Money does not mean anything to me now … The shop keeps me alive, that’s all I keep it on for.”

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All of that was long ago. Today, there are still bookshops that only purvey brand new volumes. There are still antiquarian bookshops, but their number is decreasing. And, there are newcomers on the scene. There are the familiar on-line booksellers like Amazon, ABEbooks, and Bookdepository, which sell new and used books over the Internet. These are useful for buying books at discounted prices. However, browsing on-line bookshops is more tedious than looking at physical bookshelves in a bookshop. I have to admit – and I hope that no one running a physical, real bookshop will be upset by this – that if I find a new book in a real bookshop, I will often buy it on-line if that allows me to benefit from a discounted price. Clearly, not everyone thinks like me because there are still many large bookshops occupying prime sites in Britain’s main shopping precincts and streets.

For the lover of hard to find books, the Internet offers another useful facility, namely http://www.bookfinder.com. This incredibly useful site allows the reader to search all over the world for books that are not available locally. If the book is still available for sale, bookfinder will let you know where they are available, and at wat price, and will then allow you to buy it. This system helps both the customer and the book seller. Say, for example, you have a bookshop in a hardly visited town in Alabama, which attracts the footfall of only local customers. Buy listing your stock on bookfinder, people all over the world can become aware of your stock and pay for it.

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The advent of the Internet may have made book buying more versatile, but nothing quite beats the book buyer’s excitement of browsing the overstocked shelves of a somewhat shambolic second-hand bookshop. So long live dusty second-hand bookshops and book-filled charity shops (‘thrift shops’)!