The near disappearance of railway dining cars is something to be sorry about. Save for a few departures to the south-west and a daily service between Cardiff and Holyhead, the days of consuming a meal while speeding along the permanent way are pretty much gone in this country. The restaurant car evoked the great days of train travel: damask tablecloths reflecting sun and shadow, clinking steel cutlery, the surface of a glass of wine or water gently rolling, staff effortlessly balanced as they passed by with steaming silver trays of meat and vegetables.
A microwaved toasted cheese sandwich and a small plastic bottle of warm wine does not have the same impact.
There is a glorious account of a railway lunch in a book I have just read: Flèche, which takes its name from the Flèche d’Or or Golden Arrow, the Anglo-French service that linked London and Paris in the century before the Channel Tunnel.
Author Tony Scotland recounts a journey made on November 30, 1934, by a quartet of illustrious passengers: Igor Stravinsky, his mistress Vera Sudeikina, the violinist Samuel Dushkin and the Francophile English composer Lennox Berkeley. Stravinsky had been in London for a performance of his cantata Perséphone at the Queen’s Hall; Berkeley was returning to his life in Paris.
In a letter to a friend afterwards, Berkeley reported meeting Stravinsky and gang on the boat train. He mentions a game of bridge, and lunch in the Wagons-Lits restaurant, where “quantities of red wine” were drunk. Scotland has imaginatively reconstructed the rest. Alone in the dining car, the two composers discuss their music and their friends, their reconstructed conversations entirely composed of words recorded in other circumstances.
As a fan of both composers’ music (and president of the Lennox Berkeley Society), I read this short book with delight in the second-class carriage of a train heading north. Scotland’s painstaking research captures a romantic era: the “silver-plated pots of steaming coffee” on the Victoria-Dover train; a steward serving champagne and arranging a table for bridge on the Awning Deck saloon of the SS Canterbury; crayfish à la manière ukrainienne and breast of duckling with a 1926 Château Pichon Comtesse in the French dining car.
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