Caught by the River

Ian Nairn's Journeys – The Orient Express

26th February 2013

Travis Elborough writes:

Recalling the great but today sorely neglected architectural critic and broadcaster Ian Nairn, his former Sunday Times colleague Ian Jack, once maintained that Nairn ‘was shy, ruminative and kind, and always looked sad. On TV’, he added, ‘you heard that catch in the voice, saw those watery eyes’.

And in this railway travel film about The Orient Express from 1972, introduced here by arguably his nearest contemporary heir Jonathan Meades (who sums it up perfectly when he calls it ‘splendidly off the cuff’), those watery eyes are much in evidence – as equally is that catch in the voice. Indeed on occasions along the way Nairn comes close to tears. In Munich at a beer festival and upon reaching his final destination, Istanbul, in particular.

Simply the sight of a large, evidently rather emotional, scruffy, quite ugly middle-aged man in a grimy suit with decidedly oily hair being allowed what now seems an unfeasible amount of freewheeling, ruminative screen time (even Meades, always rather cleaner cut and well-laundered, has slimmed down substantially in recent years), should make it compelling enough viewing alone. But, really, watch it for a glimpse of a lost Europe – one still separated by an Iron Curtain – of slam-door, steam trains taking ‘real journeys’, in the company of a truly first rate and keenly humane observer of our world.

London Bridge in America by Travis Elborough is published by Jonathan Cape and in the shops now.