George Behrend

The railway author George Behrend died in July. Behrend was one of my heroes, one of the greatest of transport authors, whose obsession with noting every small detail on his daring and extensive travels was matched by a magical storytelling ability. Barely a week goes by when I don’t find myself dipping into one of his books to enjoy one of his wry evocations of travelling across Europe by train.

In a ferry context his most notable contribution was Night Ferry, the posthumous celebration of the London to Paris sleeper service which passed via the Dover-Dunkerque train ferry. The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (“The Company” in Behrend-speak), who provided the sleeping cars of the Night Ferry, was without doubt Behrend’s real passion, and the Company’s operations were historically intertwined with those of the short sea ferry services across Europe – Calais and Oostende were two of their largest bases and the latter home to the workshop which, ultimately, would restore Night Ferry sleeping car 3792 for the National Railway Museum in York, where it remains.

His greatest work? The historical Grand European Expresses is brilliant yet perhaps he had most fun when it was a self-centred travelogue. Yatakli-Vagon, the co-authored account of an intrepid rail journey across Europe to Turkey in the 1960s is enthralling and completely documents an entirely lost world – starting in London, taking the Night Ferry to Paris, the Orient Express to Vienna, then the Balkan Express and Istanbul Express to Turkey. Attempting to repeat even part of his journey today is a daunting task, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the free exchange of information through the internet notwithstanding.

Throughout his writing Behrend rejoices in and laments a past or passing age – his obituaries note his “tangled relationship with modernity”. Clearly a man of independent means, his parents had been patrons of the artist Stanley Spencer whilst he was closely associated with the composer Benjamin Britten. Behrend always travelled deluxe and there is little empathy to be found in his work about second class travel or travellers. Much of the time he appears to be enjoying the “mellowing effect” of various beverages and there is always a detailed description of the dining car, its menus, characters and peculiarities (“consternation on finding that the windows do not open! Sacrée voiture buffet! How deplorable!”.)

In Yatakli-Vagon five lengthy paragraphs are devoted to an extended description of buying ham from “a Bulgarian wench” in the “People’s State Supermarket” and all the time Behrend would observe the behaviour of his fellow travellers: “a large sleek middle-aged Belgian is gulping his coffee and unconcernedly rattling the cellophane of his biscotte. Farther down the car an English milord is tackling his eggs and bacon and tomatoes in that slightly aggressive and superior manner that English people unconsciously assume in strange surroundings. On the other side is a single Frenchman, to whom the surroundings are not strange at all. He scarcely notices the brown rocks or the gently lapping wavelets past which the train runs. He takes the Train Bleu for granted too, for this is where the Wagons-Lits belong. They may seem slightly out of place in London, or old fashioned and expensive to the commuter… but here they are at home”.

The same may be said about Behrend himself. Despite some entertainingly politically incorrect asides, his work was, broadly, optimistic though one senses he had an overarching feeling that the best days were past, even by the early 1960s. The demise of proper Wagons-Lits travel in Western Europe in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century must have saddened him. He retreated in his final years to Moray and leaves behind a library of outstanding books which capture and lament the passing of the golden age through which he lived.

Link: Yorkshire Post obituary.

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