Book review: Eleven minutes late

Matthew Engel, Eleven minutes late, Macmillan, £14 99, 324pp

Matthew Engel is in despair. But it’s his fault. The former editor of Wisden thought he would seek solace away from covering the ghastly state of cricket by touring around the country by rail and writing a book about it. But all he did was plunge from the frying pan into the mire.

Engel should have known that there is an uncanny similarity between railways and cricket: they were both invented by the British and yet we are crap at them. You can almost feel his pain as he comes to realise just the poor state of the generality of services on the railways.
He had few preconceptions, having recently experienced delays on 17 out of his 20 journeys between Newport and London, but he expected rather better than the Virgin steward, Umerji, who addresses him while he is loitering in the shop seeking out his breakfast and something to read: ‘have a bacon roll, you c**t’ and then, while he is still hesitating, ‘or you will be hear all f*****g day’. Richard Branson would be proud. To be fair, most of the staff are pleasant and dedicated, and none of his trains are seriously late. There are, too, the odd signs of investment well spent but overall he rails: ‘The railways are not a national joke. They are a national disaster.’
Engels does, with consummate wit and charm manage to make a lot of good jokes at their expense, but interweaves this with a serious argument, that the railways have always been maltreated by those in power. Despite all the errors on the railways made by administrators and politicians throughout their 180 year history, Engel reserves his best acerbic comments for the incompetent and customer-unfriendly private train operators who were handed the running of the system by the Major government of the mid 1990s. Major himself does not escape, amazingly granting Engel a rare interview but despite this courtesy the author concludes ‘John Major had a plan for the railways. It was a terrible plan, execrably executed’.
On the train operators, he is even more unmerciful: ‘One of the many surprises of privatization is just how dreadful firms like National Express have been in offering any sense of style or pride or even marketing – all the things that private enterprise is supposedly good at.’ He points out that National Express is particularly obsessed with its corporate image – indeed, one of its managers told me that its bosses wanted to change the name of its C2C franchise to the trip-off-the-tongue National Express South (or possibly Sarf) Essex.
Engel’s book manages to provide a simultaneous geography and history lesson, through the medium of his journey round the network. It is entertaining and instructive, picking up on those arcane little details that makes for readable history and providing, in just 300 pages a summary of both subjects in relation to the railways. It is a social history, too, ‘a book about the British’ as he puts it, taking us to places we would not want to visit such as Engel’s least favourite town, the pleasant sounding Morecambe where arriving on Britain’s vilest train, the ghastly Pacers based on a bus design, he finds ‘guest houses that were…run by jailers who came to the door brandishing bunches of keys and an expression of extreme suspicion’ and a general store with ‘security measures suitable for a jeweller’s shop in the crack-dealing quarter of Detroit’.
Very few railway books manage to break out of the trainspotters’ noose. They are largely written by nerds for geeks or vice versa but Matthew Engel’s elegiac tale with its gentle humour and acute insight rises far above the usual banalities of the genre and makes perfect reading on your next train journey. Just don’t weep. Or as Engel puts it, ‘I love trains. I hate trains.’ I know how he feels.

  • RapidAssistant

    Picked up this book last Friday, and it certainly brightened up what was a pretty miserable (and delayed) slog down the WCML from Glasgow to Euston on what was an even more bizarre visit to London which saw me manage to sit on the return NXEC journey from King’s X to Perth without being delayed, hemmed in by people who couldn’t find a seat, climb over disgruntled passengers in the vestibule, suffer a blocked toilet, or get on an Underground train at Friday rush hour that wasn’t overcrowded, hell I even managed to bump into Ken Livingstone in a Soho restaurant……….

    I don’t think I could add anything to Christian’s review – don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a great read…..I can heartily recommend it. Great read.

  • Dan

    Must be that recession Rapid – hardly anyone travelling about these days obviously!

    Anyway, I was thinking of getting this book so handy to have the tip.

    Incidentally – I can highly recommend Ian Marchant’s book ‘Parallel Lines’ which I enjoyed reading last year – here’s the link to his website, and a quote from the site re the book:

    “During the 18 or so months that it took me to write and research Parallel Lines, I would on occasion go to parties. Sometimes at these parties I would meet girls. ‘What do you do?’, they would say. ‘I’m a writer’, I would reply, puffing sagely on my trusty spliff pipe. Their pretty eyes would light up, and they would take a step closer. “Really?’ they would say. ‘And what are you writing about at the moment?’ And I would say, ‘Railway trains’, and the light in their eyes would dim, and they would take two steps backwards, and quickly make an excuse to move on. Which, at least in part, is what the book is about; an attempt to find out why something so fascinating, and so vital to the development of the Western world, is seen both as romantic and uniquely boring.”

  • RapidAssistant

    Well I was standing in the bookshop on Friday morning and it was toss up between Matthew Engel or Adrian Vaughan’s “Greatest Railway Blunder” – but given I was about to get on a WCML train that was inevitably going to get delayed, felt it was better to have something more humourous!

    Did anyone watch Top Gear last night? – I thought I’d never live to see the day when Jeremy Clarkson would be enthusing about a train, and getting all wobbly at the knees over Tornado. -especially when he says ‘all classic cars are rubbish’.

    Maybe the “great man” may even become a convert?