THE ORIENT EXPRESS: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train by E. H. Cookridge

THE ORIENT EXPRESS: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train

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All the obligatory history, plus--in a conscientious anecdotal digest. Cookridge isn't stylist enough to pull it together with Élan, but he has the authority of informed research and a generous motley of story-treasures. Samples: the name Shell, as in oil, derives from its founder's first London enterprise, the Shell Shop, purveyor of bowls and boxes covered with shells; Czar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria was always allowed to exercise his royal prerogative aboard the Express, lest he forbid its passage, until he decided he wanted to drive the train; Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts traveled as a lepidopterist, but his Balkan butterfly drawings were actually color-coded plans of military fortifications. Cookridge, who usually writes about espionage and World War II, incorporates a lot about both here: the fate of the Orient Express during and after the latter is an instructive commentary on European civilization. The organization of the Compagnie des Wagon-Lits by Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, who negotiated the transcontinental routings that railroad managers in each country construed as ""experiments bound to fail""; the ""erosion of privilege"" betokened by the fact that anybody who could afford it, not just monarchs and titled aristocrats, could ride in unheard-of, unquestioned luxury, whatever the purpose of his trip. Which often was criminal (e.g., opium-smuggling from Constantinople to Paris) or sexual, though more commonly professional. Businessmen, like the spectacular villain-tycoons Zaharoff and Gulbenkian, virtually commuted on the Orient Express, as did statesmen and performers (Isadora Duncan reportedly strolled to the shower-cabin in ""something the size of a handkerchief, and in the wrong place, too""). Cookridge is at his clumsiest on fiction's monuments to the Orient Express, lumbering through what Theroux takes half a line to communicate in his few pages on the train in The Great Railway Bazaar. But of course when Theroux rode it, two years before its ultimate demise, it wasn't the same train at all. Sic transit transit. . . readably.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1978
Publisher: Random House