My post last week was the first part of my interview with Martin Kryle, former local Liberal Democrat councillor and published author. His book Jottings from the Trans-Siberian Railway, edited by Barbara Large , is now out.
Reviews are crucial for all writers and one for this book reads:-
“I hope it will catch the eye of many reading groups in Chandler’s Ford. It is an informative and fabulous hard backed book, well written and beautifully illustrated and at £14.95, it is a bargain. An ideal birthday gift for a traveller…even an armchair traveller.” (Review kindly provided by Barbara Large).
That review is a good summary of the book. I would add in it makes a great read for all fans of railway journeys.
This week’s post continues the discussion with Martin.
How long did it take you to write the book in terms of having the initial idea, preparing it and holding the final version?
From start to finish it took about 2.5 years to write the book. I won third prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival competition with three pages about the problems of menu translation. For example, would you eat “hot shak with bird”?
(Allison: Hmm… I like to know what I’m eating – more on this later! And Barbara Large was the founder of the renowned Winchester Writers’ Festival, though it was known as the Conference in her time there).
Martin: The translator translated from Cyrillic script to Latin but forgot the Russian letter N is our letter H. The word should be snack, not shak. It would have helped had there been pictures of what the menu dishes were!
This article appeared in the annual Festival anthology in 2013. I also won a certificate for this. Barbara Large gave invaluable advice including the tip to turn the text from a straight narrative to a “conversation”.
The trip itself was in 2012. In the autumn, I wrote up my notes in six weeks. This amounted to about 55,000 words. Barbara Large advised me to start again! She told me readers want a conversation and suggested I rewrite the text as questions that might be put to me and I supply the answers. Of course, once I’d written my side, I also needed to work with Mike Roberts, put in his amendments, check the whole thing again and then submit the manuscript to Barbara for further comments.
The book has amazing photos. What were the criteria for choosing the images you did?
The photos had to be of specific interest – for example, one is of the only stone kremlin in Siberia (others had been wooden).
Mike also took pictures of a brand new cathedral. This had been rebuilt so Mike and I felt we had to have a look. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, however. The cathedral was 250 kms away from the Trans-Siberian Railway route! Nobody ever goes to this cathedral because it isn’t on the way to anywhere else. We got to choose those places (and therefore images for the book) which we thought were worth seeing.
Book Cover Design
The book cover for Jottings from the Trans-Siberian Railway was designed at Winchester University by Tim Griffiths. (Allison: the cover is lovely featuring one main image on the front cover and a collage of others on the back. The idea is to give a sense of the world you’re about to enter when you read the book and works well).
How is the slideshow of your photos going? Are you planning to do more of these?
I have 120 slides connected with Jottings from the Trans-Siberian Railway and I plan to carry out more presentations. The slideshow and talk takes about an hour. I gave a talk to the Russian Circle in Winchester (mainly made up of Russian women married to UK men). Most of the Russians I spoke to here had not been to Siberia. As for future talks, I’m happy to go where invited to do them. I do allow for questions to be taken after the talk and slideshow.
Your background in knowing Russian was crucial for this trip. Perhaps you can talk about this and show why it was so vital.
I speak Russian (amongst other languages – French and Latin to A Level). I learned Russian and took an intensive course in London (8 hours a day for 5 days a week for a week). If you failed the exam you were out. I went in for A Level initially and failed the exam by 1 mark. I kept the Russian up as I was interested and then taught it at what is now the Westgate School but had been a Grammar School for Girls. I also taught at Basingstoke and at the University.
Allison: And now on to Kryle’s Laws:-
Kyrle’s Laws are a fascinating insight into what Martin and Mike learned from their trip.
One of Kyrle’s Laws is the Law of the Public Bog! Below is an image of typical toilet paper Martin and Mike came across. (Allison: Trust me, you won’t moan at the cost of Andrex again seeing this! And I thought my old school toilet paper was awful. Yes, it was but not to this extent).
The thought of the holes is just revolting though Martin assured me the paper was very absorbent! I held one of these loo rolls and well… in fairness it could have been worse but not by that much.
Yes, Martin did take his own loo paper with him (though would have been limited as to how much he could take). Martin has in fact two Laws on this subject. One is a general warning as to what to expect from toilets (expect the worst). The other is not only to take your own loo roll but to take it with you always. You don’t want to be caught short without it, quite literally.
Then there is the Law of What to Pack. Things included were teabags. What clothing and footwear to take needed careful thought too. There is also good advice on what to do when taking medication on a trip of this nature.
Then there is the Law of Tourist Guides and Martin has three laws here. One is to remember you are on “business” with them and ask perceptive questions so you can make the most of their local knowledge. The second is to ensure an over-enthuasiastic guide does not wear you out! The third is to never to be afraid to say when you have had enough and ask to be taken back to your hotel.
Then there are the laws of Hotel Locations, of Settling the Bill and of Changing Money.
The Law of Restaurant Cars warns you to make sure there is actually going to be one on the train. Incredibly on such a long journey it is not always the case so you will need to have food and drink with you – or go hungry and thirsty. You need your guide to find out for certain whether the train has one.
The book gives more details on all of Kyrle’s Laws but I found them highly amusing and practical, which is an unusual combination! The whole tone of the book is an easy and enlightening read. Talking about how words are used…
This is a direct quote from Page 112 of the book.
“We were alone in the dining car and had time to relax while relishing the attempts by someone clearly without any English to translate the menu by looking words up in the dictionary and when there were two translations to choose from, plumping for one of them.
“What on earth is the dish on the menu described in English as “the language of beef”?”…. (Allison: Answer: Ox Tongue! See the book for more on how Martin worked out how the translator came up with this.)
Oh and “hot shak of bird”…. Turned out to be chicken julienne!
Looking back at both the trip and the book, are there things you wish you had done differently and, if so, what and why?
Yes. There were times Mike and I needed to catch the railway in the evening where everything was in pitch blackness. Timings of some of the journeys meant never seeing the landscapes (and knowing we would never get a chance to see them again). One train went at 3.30 am.
Mike and I discovered various places shut for all sorts of reasons. Yes, pictures could still be taken but no visit was possible. Sometimes hotel restaurants would shut down because they were hosting a private wedding party leaving hotel guests having to fend for themselves! Sometimes the travel agents don’t tell you things. The hotels don’t always tell you either! This happened in 3 different towns. I advised the travel agent to speak to the hotels concerned to say they must help out their foreign guests or at the very least tell them alternative restaurants etc.
One other mishap was on being told the time we had to pick up their train was then discovering the person had told us the details of the journey “the wrong way round” leaving us with six minutes to run up three flights of stairs with cases. We made it – just. We stood in the train corridor as the train pulled out.
On another occasion, we discovered no restaurant car on a journey lasting 32 hours! Other travellers helped them out. I felt very strongly we should have been warned about this by the travel agent. Also, magazine in Russian translates as our shop and that caused some confusion. When I came across this at a station, I assumed it would, at best, sell snacks etc. It was, in fact, a grocer’s but it did mean Mike and I could stock up.
You learn from your mistakes on trips like this and Martin’s big tip is to find out all you can for yourself. Travel agents hadn’t told them all they needed to know. Check as much as you can for yourself. Then double check it!
The next book will be Jottings from Russia and the Baltic States. Martin is hoping to publish this at the end of the year. Martin will work with Mike Roberts again for this.
I think the book will appeal not only to the travel “nut” but to the railway fan and anyone who likes adventure stories told with humour. It makes a great introduction to a part of the world which is still unknown (other than by name) to most of us.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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