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Seeing the world from a train window
ACCLAIMED American author Paul Theroux once wrote: "I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it." Michael Williams could not agree more.
"That's me," says the UK freelance journalist and author who specialises in writing about trains and train travel. Like many of his generation, he grew up with a fascination with railway trains, brought on by his childhood memories of family holidays where they would travel to the seaside via train.
"You can't dream on aeroplanes - you go to sleep. You can't dream in cars because you've got to drive them. You can't dream in buses, they're too noisy. But on a nice train, you could look out into the distance and dream," says Williams at a closed-door lunch earlier this week, hosted by luxury travel company Country Holidays, where he also launched his latest book, The Trains Now Departed.
This book is his fourth, and it covers "16 excursions into the lost delights of Britain's railways". He explains: "Railways are associated with a type of nostalgia. I've tried to pick out 16 icons of what was once great about the railways, like architecture, the quality of the food, the glamour of the trains . . . and (try) to get into the psychology of what it is about railways that appeals to us."
For now, one of the reasons that he believes people are getting more interested in railways is that they are simply getting frustrated with air travel and the "obsession now with security". He says: "I think train travel has become more sexy, more fashionable, smarter. If your friends took a long journey by train, you'd say oh it's very interesting. If someone went on a plane to Hong Kong, that's not very interesting, is it?"
Aside from writing about the nostalgic element, Williams also covers the topic from a political angle when writing for major publications such as the Daily Mail.
In those stories, railways are often an "agent for change", like how Russia's development was assisted by the building of the Trans-Siberian railway, how Canada was joined by the Transcontinental line, and how China's highspeed railways are helping to develop rural corners of the country.
He is careful to clarify however, that he is not a trainspotter or railway enthusiast who's interested in the technical aspect of locomotives.
Instead, he describes himself as a social observer who's interested in the anthropology of railways, and writes about "Britain as seen from a train window".
When asked about his best memory on a train, Williams smiles and replies: "I met my wife on a train 20 years ago. She's still my wife, and we have children."
Other than that, his favourite train rides are the ones on local stopping trains especially in countries with few cars, because that's where he gets to interact with the locals.
"You find stories on trains," says Williams. "I like travelling on my own because that's when you meet people, get people's stories, and you look more intensively at the world."
The Trains Now Departed
by Michael Williams
Available at Kinokuniya from August/September