A love for unusual travel literature was one of the many things that made my grandfather Phelim famous in family lore. Though a voracious reader of almost everything, he rarely visited the Travel Writing sections of bookshops, uninterested in the tales of other people’s wondrous journeys. Instead he spent hours poring over a dog-eared book of Italian train timetables. Most travel writers are interested in the places they go to and not the journey itself. They never say which bus they took and how often the bus was running. My grandfather always wanted to know when the bus was running. And so, instead of vicariously living the experience of others, he conjured up his own travels in his mind.
He travelled in the same way that he played music. He was a beautiful piano player, and could read sheet music so well that when he looked at a manuscript, he heard the music playing in his mind’s ear. Similarly, journey after journey played out in full colour in his brain as he sat in bed with the timetable on one knee and a map on the other, scanning the different trains he could take and where they went, calculating the number of changes he would need to make to go from here to there, always leaving himself plenty of time in between trains.
His playing of the piano and his love of travelling both were connected to memories of his youth, especially those of his sister Eileen, who died young, but who was particularly close to my grandfather when she was alive. She had a beautiful singing voice and trained as an opera singer, and Phelim used to accompany her songs on the piano.
His sister Eileen was also the reason for the first journey he made by himself: at the age of eighteen, he was sent to rescue her from a situation as an au pair with an unpleasant French family, she being too young (and probably too female) to go alone.
It was 1960 and Phelim had never before been on an airplane. After flying to Paris and changing trains three times, he arrived at the village where Eileen was staying. It must have been a curious experience for the unnamed French family, to find an unannounced, uninvited youngster on their doorstep, expecting to be given a bed for the night. Still, they invited him in; I suppose they had little choice.
They awoke the next morning to find the youngster vanished along with his sister, their guest; for instead of telling the family that he was there to take Eileen home, Phelim and Eileen simply slipped out at 5:00 a.m., before anyone was awake, and walked a mile to the nearest train station, where they had to wait two hours for the first train of the day to come through. The grand escape effected, they spent three days sightseeing in Paris.
The French family made no attempt to recover their charge, although admittedly that would have been difficult in those days before Internet and mobile phones. Perhaps they were as relieved to be rid of Eileen as she was to be free of them; by all accounts, she was something of a fire-raiser.
It is not surprising that this trip should have given my grandfather something of a taste for the thrill of travelling. His habit of reading train timetables in bed used to make us all laugh, but it now makes perfect sense to me, given the man’s character; in fact I wonder why more people don’t do it.
My grandfather was one of those who had the soul of a true traveller, as opposed to that of an explorer, which is a different matter. He enjoyed greatly, took real pleasure in, the mechanics of journeys, especially train journeys. The packing of bags (he loved packing and could pack a bag like someone who was trained in it); the bustle of stations, the queues for tickets, the excitement of waiting on a platform, memorising the different words for “ticket” in various languages, the noise and smoke and splendour of it all: they delighted all of his instincts for enjoyment.
Combined with this, he loved to plan. He was in the habit of interviewing his extended family about their intentions for the rest of the week, writing down both his and other people’s appointments in his rather extensive diary, regardless of whether or not the appointments had anything to do with him – one never knew, there could come a moment when he would have to go to someone else’s rescue; that opportunity being his life’s greatest ambition and joy. His need to know all arrangements, though a sometimes irritation preoccupation, was never controlling or obsessive. It was done for his own peace of mind, and was his way of feeling a part of the goings on around him.
And so for all these reasons, the train timetables perfectly suited his purposes. He favoured the Italian schedule, not only because he spoke perfect Italian, but because that country’s train network was extensive enough to fill a book, provided plenty of variety between regions, and just dense enough that he could get to every small village he could have wished to visit, without being so huge as to make the book incompatible with bedtime reading.
It didn’t matter that the book was at least ten years out of date. He could always use new versions when it came to real upcoming travels, which he could plan with equal glee, and the greatest attention to detail. When my mother went to stay in the small village of Cuisi de la Verna for her birthday some years ago, his Helpful Instructions to her for her trip filled three full A4 pages, and contained no fewer than 46 individual steps.My mother still keeps the instructions in a drawer in her desk, in case of those moments when she is feeling in need of a little of his help and encouragement.