Great Victorian Railway Journeys / Bradshaw's Descriptive Railway Handbook

Book reviews

Rail travel in a more sedate age, dealing with design flaws, the nature of trust, and a sideways look at Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'.

Collins/Old House

Great Victorian Railway Journeys/ Bradshaw's Descriptive Railway Handbook

By Karen Farrington/George Bradshaw, £20/£10, ISBN 978-0007457069/978 1908402028

Despite an almost 150-year gap between their publication dates, these two books are coupled like two coaches of the same Victorian train. This is not just a reviewer's metaphor, for the famous and unique Bradshaw's Handbook, lovingly reprinted by Old House Books, is one of the main protagonists (if one can refer to a book as such) of 'Great Victorian Railway Journeys' in which the author, Karen Farrington, is travelling the length and breath of modern Britain and Ireland, armed with (among other sources) Bradshaw's best-selling guide.

The richly illustrated and superbly designed coffee-table 'Victorian Journeys' is a 250-page ode to the Victorian engineers and railway workers who had laid foundations of the powerful and highly industrialised modern Britain. In his enthusiastic foreword, broadcaster and former MP Michael Portillo points out the world's first inter-city railway and other "engineering wonders", achieved by "geniuses like Brunel and Stephenson" thanks to whom we are still travelling along Victorian track beds today and – looking out of the train window – can still admire beautiful Victorian stations, viaducts and other railway structures erected by Victorian engineers.

A railway enthusiast myself, I was thrilled to learn from 'Victorian Journeys' that one of the first challenges Bradshaw faced when compiling his guides and timetables was the ten-minute time difference between London and the West Country, with dwellers of different areas setting their watches by their own calculations of sunrise and sunset – a serious impediment to operating a smooth national railway network, let alone to compiling a reliable timetable. The problem was resolved by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself who insisted on standardising the clocks along all of the Great Western Railway network, and Bradshaw then consolidated the change with his pioneering train scheduling.

From the very first days of British railways, journeying on them was much more than mere commuting. Railways were always loved and admired by the Brits, and that was precisely the reason behind the appearance of the first Bradshaw's Handbooks (as opposed to his timetables), designed to rival Murrays and Baedekers by focusing exclusively on railway voyages. These Handbooks immediately became bibliographic rarities which every collector was desperate to own.

Luckily, thanks to Old House Books – a small publishing house specialising in facsimile reprints of historical books and maps – the collectors' dream has now come true. And what a sheer delight it is to leaf through the Handbook's pages, full of bang-up-to-date (for 1863, I mean) descriptions and information: "Many of the parishioners of Shadwell, Limehouse and Poplar might have heard of the Regent's Park and Primrose Hill, but had never visited either, for want of some direct communication, brought as it were, to their doors [by the new North London Railway]."

As a proud owner of another Victorian bibliographic rarity – the 1893 'Handbook to Various Publications, Documents and Charts Connected with the Rise and Development of the Railway System Chiefly in Great Britain and Ireland', I cannot refrain from quoting here the latter Handbook's compiler S.Cotterel: "I have witnessed the equally passionate interest in various little historical matters connected with railways among men in all spheres of life..."

It is largely thanks to the books, like the above titles, that this "passionate interest" is still running strong. 

Vitali Vitaliev

Harvard University Press

To forgive design: understanding failure

By Henry Petroski, £20.95, ISBN 978-0-674-06584-0

Here's an interesting counterfactual. Suppose for a moment that a century ago the Titanic hadn't sunk on its maiden voyage and had succeeded in reaching its proposed destination of New York. Now imagine it had made many further successful trans-Atlantic crossings. Could we then assume that Titanic's design was a success? The unsinkable remained unsunk, so probably, yes. But we know through the benefit of history that there was a catastrophic design failure that meant under certain conditions (namely a collision with a North Atlantic iceberg) the vessel was fatally flawed and that in these unlikely events the design would fail.

Although this is part of the conclusion to Henry Petroski's brilliant 'To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure', it is also the starting point, because, as his book ably demonstrates, designers design for success. Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is, as he puts it, "the most profound mistake engineers can make". And in examining this root cause, the author of the classic 'To Engineer is Human' looks at case studies of landmark accidents "whose occurrence has a profound effect on how we deal with technology today".

As with his previous work, his focus is often on bridge failure, but Petroski also draws on the examples of spacecraft blowing up, buildings collapsing, oil rigs exploding and accelerator pedals sticking: all of which we can put names to without stressing our memories too much. But why does the media always blame the design, and why do we tend to, as a species, often fall back on the notion that somehow these catastrophes are the result of pushing technology limits through little more than trial and error? Petroski sets off in search of the answers, and the result is highly readable and though-provoking book that, like its predecessor, is destined to become a classic of the literature of engineering.

Nick Smith


Liars and outliers: Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive 

By Bruce Schneier, £21.99, ISBN 978-1-118-14330-8

Why is it that we don't check the contents of tins of food before buying them? And how do we know the person we call to fix a burst water pipe won't tie us up and steal our valuables? How can we be sure they even know what they're doing? Taking questions such as these as his starting point, security technologist Bruce Schneier launches into a wide-ranging and frequently humorous investigation into the nature of trust and the essential role it plays in helping society to gel.

A few pages in he states that his intention of writing the book was to create an "illuminating new framework with which to help understand how the world works". It's something of a quixotic goal and one which realistically lies beyond the scope of a single book.

What he does however is draw on research from a bewildering number of disciplines, such as experimental psychology, game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, to piece together a convincing genealogy of trust and its multifarious societal mechanisms. It's thought-provoking stuff.

His line of reasoning hinges principally on the splitting of the population into two categories: cooperators, those who abide by the laws and mores of the group (or groups) to which they belong; and defectors, the liars and outliers of the title. Security, be it padlocks, barbed wire or sophisticated software systems, he theorises, is one of several pressures that keep a check on these defectors, and in the final analysis prevents them from bringing the entire system crashing down.

All of the arguments are clearly laid out and littered with illustrative metaphors and analogies, though at times the deductions are somewhat reductive and lacking in rigour. The writing is both lucid and lively throughout and helps Schneier to breathe life into a subject that could easily have been dry and esoteric. By concentrating on the human angle and packing the book with real world examples he has successfully stretched its appeal outside that of the security specialist to the more general reader. That's no mean feat.

Jason Goodyer


Zona: A book about a film about a journey to a room

By Geoff Dyer, £16.99, ISBN 978 0 85786 166 5

In 1981 while a student at Oxford, writer Geoff Dyer wandered into a screening of director Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. At first left "slightly bored and unmoved", he later found himself obsessing over its every detail. It was, it turns out, something of a grower. Now, 30 years and several repeat viewings later, he has distilled this obsession into 'Zona', a waggish dissection of the film and a rumination on its continued presence in his life.

Stalker follows three middle-aged men who sneak into a barren, restricted area known as the Zone. Somewhere within this debris-strewn wasteland lies the Room. Apparently, anyone stepping into this mysterious vestibule will have their deepest wishes granted. It's a deliberate, meditative and heavily symbolic piece of cinema and, though ostensibly a sci-fi road movie, as with Tarkovsky's other work it doesn't fit comfortably within genre boundaries.

In Zona, Dyer guides us, scene by scene, through the film's 163 minutes. Unsurprisingly given his day job, these rich descriptions of the onscreen action exhibit a novelist's eye for detail. He does such a good job in fact that prior knowledge of the film is entirely optional.

This running commentary is further fleshed out with free-associative riffs on the film's themes along with pretty much anything else that flits into Dyer's mind during viewing. The result is delightfully freewheeling and whimsical. At times the sprawling marginalia outweigh the text proper, with a number of entries continuing for several pages.

From the deadpan title it's clear Dyer isn't taking himself entirely seriously. He moves effortlessly between the high- and low-brow, the personal and the universal, with reverence and irreverence in equal measure. A reference to Nietzschean eternal recurrence on one page is followed by talk of contraband choc-ices the next, for example. Despite this he avoids flippancy and showcases a thorough grounding in cinema history as well as a talent for decoding Tarkovsky's tightly composed imagery.

Part film criticism, part meandering memoir, Zona, like its subject, defies easy categorisation. But ultimately, thanks to its colloquial tone and easy charm, it provides an experience perhaps most akin to returning home from the pub and sitting down to watch a DVD in the company of a particularly witty, erudite friend.

Jason Goodyer


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