Book review: ‘The Red Line’ by Christopher Knowles

Memories of 1980s trips through the USSR provide readers with “a railway journey through the Cold War”.

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years and probably – on a par with Paul Theroux’s ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ – one of the best railway-related travel books in existence.

‘The Red Line’ (Pen & Sword, £25, ISBN 9781473887442) describes 24 journeys that the author, Christopher Knowles, made as a tour guide between London and Hong Kong, via the USSR, China and Mongolia, during the 1980s. Looking back in the best traditions of Patrick Leigh Fermor and other travel writers who liked putting their impressions on paper many years after the actual voyages were completed, Knowles has collated all those trips into one unforgettable and surprisingly topical “railway journey through the Cold War”.

I enjoyed every moment of ‘The Red Line’, which for me was like an ultimate time-travelling experience. Part of Knowles’ itinerary, namely its London-Hook of Holland-Berlin-Moscow stretch, is an exact repetition of my life’s most important and most far-reaching train ride when fleeing the USSR. Despite the fact that Knowles and I travelled from opposite directions - he from the West, I from the East – our impressions appear similar.

Knowles’ descriptions of the “bovine” East German frontier guards, “the Grentztruppen der DDR,” who boarded his train on the border between West Germany and its “dysfunctional twin” echo my impressions of the latter (“young, pimpled and with low foreheads, as if deliberately handpicked for those particular features”) only in my case, they boarded the train in East Berlin, before we were to cross the still seemingly impregnable Berlin Wall.

Despite some natural differences in our impressions (to me, coming from drab snow-ridden Moscow, the Polish and East German stations we were rattling past appeared neat and unmistakably ‘Western’, whereas to Knowles they seemed ramshackle and empty), we were both deeply shaken by the sudden neon glare of West Berlin which, in Knowles’ words, “came as a welcome surprise after the oppressive darkness of East Germany”.

Like all great travel books, ‘The Red Line’ is populated with colourful and masterly portrayed characters. I was particularly taken by the spot-on description of Yuri and Andrei, the Soviet train attendants, sporting uniforms, “not of the faintly reassuringly shabby, ill-fitting type, associated with railway staff around the world, but of a more military cut,” when he got the first glimpse of them on the platform in Berlin.

“They were perfectly nice, bluff, genial teddy bears, the two of them. Yet had they chosen to refuse us passage, there was nothing I could have done about it.” I see those lines as one of the best down-to-earth descriptions of the menace and unease that is routinely embedded in totalitarianism and its representatives, be they some sinister KGB agents, or those seemingly ‘nice’ and affable attendants. It’s a type familiar to me from my own experience as a part-time train conductor during summer holidays when I was a student in the USSR. The old ‘professional’ staff attendant, with whom I worked alternate shifts, liked to repeat the following adage of his own making: “Rails are made of iron, but passengers aren’t”.

For reasons that are hard to explain, I was recalling this simple yet wise mantra repeatedly while reading “The Red Line” and looking at the excellent period photos with which the book is richly illustrated.

Among these – coincidentally – is a 1980s picture of the Moscow Yaroslavsky station platform in winter. That was where my own ‘train to freedom’ departed on a cold winter evening in January 1990; my very last glimpse of the now-defunct USSR. Or so I thought then. Having closed this truly momentous book, which brought back the feel of the bygone epoch, I realised that I had been wrong.

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