Trains, 'Planes and Automobiles!

Along with architecture, household products and clothing, modes of transportation give us a wonderful sense of time and place in fiction. Motor cars now considered "vintage" were once the latest, most state-of-the-art vehicles on the road—which they shared with horse-drawn carts. Aeroplanes (not "airplanes" in Britain) were not jet-propelled until the late 1940's, and indeed the first proper jet-airliner was the de Havilland Comet, which came into commercial service in 1952. On the rails, steam locomotives gave way to diesel and electric-hauled trains—but attention given to the recent re-launch of the refurbished Flying Scotsman demonstrates the affection with which those old trains were held. Indeed, seeing that plume of steam pouring from the loco brought many to tears.

The Flying Scotsman

And as for a sea voyage—today we only think of cruises, but those old ships were ocean liners with regular sailings to points across the globe. They were the airliners of their day.


As a writer of historical fiction, not only do I use modes of transport to get my characters from A to B in the narrative, but I use those trains, planes and automobiles to give a sense of time and place. If you remember, in Birds of a Feather, the second novel in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie receives a quick lesson in starting the MG she has just bought from Lady Rowan. That exchange doesn't just get Maisie into her new motor car, but for readers who have only ever known the automatic ignition—and more recently, the keyless ignition—a vehicle that requires a 5-step process to get going represents a journey into the past. There were no quick getaways in those days!

I have always loved vintage and classic cars, and have spent many an hour stranded at the side of the road to prove it! Much of my experience I can attribute to my brother, who is what they call a "petrolhead." Ask him any question about any car, and he will know the answer. His latest restoration project is a 1953 Alvis, one of only about 29 imported into the United States.

1953 Alvis

And yesterday he told me about his "new" 1960 pickup truck! He is partially to blame for Maisie's interesting new purchase as Journey To Munich draws to a close—it certainly makes Robert MacFarlane of the Secret Service green with envy. And no, you will not see her in a pickup truck!

In the novel, Maisie also travels through Europe via train. My research for that part of her journey took me to one of the best websites anyone who loves rail travel could possibly find. Mark Smith is "The Man in Seat 61", a veritable mine of information about current and past train routes. When I needed to get Maisie from Paris to Munich in 1938, I turned to Mark, who quickly came back to me with scans of train timetables from that year, advising me on which trains she might have taken, given her circumstances. Mark does not charge for his advisory service—but he does direct those he assists to a link where they can make a donation to the UNICEF Syrian Children's Appeal. To date he has raised over £10,000 (about $14,000) for the appeal.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith on Burma's
Rangoon-Mandalay Express

Of course I love steam trains, and whenever I am in England I go along to the Kent & East Sussex Railway in Tenterden, Kent, to remind myself of the steam-hauled rail travel experience. In the early 1960's, Britain saw the closure of branch line stations across the country—they called it the "Beeching Axe" after the transport minister of the time, Dr. Richard Beeching. A way of life seemed to vanish overnight as steam trains were decommissioned, railway tracks torn up and stations abandoned. I remember the day our local branch line closed—people flocked to the station to say goodbye to the trains.

Hartley Station
The branch line station that was close to the hamlet where I grew up

I was about eleven when a group of committed volunteers banded together to bring the steam trains back to Tenterden—we used to drive over and watch the engineers working on restoring the locomotives and other rolling stock. Now it's a thriving concern, still run mainly by volunteers, where families enjoy days out, where people like me leap aboard so that we know what we're talking about when we write about travel in past decades—and the railway is also used for location work by TV and movie companies.

Kent and East Sussex Railway line
A train on the Kent and East Sussex Railway line,
with Bodiam Castle in the background

By the time the 1930's rolled around, travel by air across Europe was becoming more and more popular. Ex-WWI aviators found work in the burgeoning industry, and Imperial Airways became the airline of choice for those wanting to see the world—and they were people who could afford it. Between 1930 to 1939, some 50,000 passengers traveled in what we would think of as a quite luxurious cabin—with plush seats and waiter service.

Flying in the 30s

In Journey To Munich, Maisie is once again challenged by the prospect of taking to the air—as those who have read A Dangerous Place know, she is not a happy flyer!

Elegy for Eddie To close this newsletter, I come back to another mode of transport—the beautiful horse on the cover of Elegy For Eddie, which was published in 2012. When it was decided that a car and a horse would share the cover, I sent the artist, Andrew Davidson, a photograph of my beloved Friesian gelding, Oliver, to inspire his depiction of the silhouetted horse. Sadly, dear Oliver had to be put down in mid-February. A routine procedure to remove a growth from his hoof became very serious when he twisted his colon coming to his feet. He was a stunningly beautiful horse with a kind, affectionate temperament—I miss him terribly, and now I'm even more glad he became a cover boy!

Travel safe, wherever you are ...


Journey to Munich
Journey To Munich will be published on March 29th. PREORDER THE BOOK IN THE US:
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Allison & Busby