Do European trains run on time?
Last week I went to Holland and Belgium, on a "book tour" with (the appropriately surnamed) Tom Holland. We were doing lectures and interviews in connection with our recent books, both of which have recently been translated into Dutch, by the same publishing house.
We decided to go by Eurostar -- as it was as quicker, all told, as going by plane, not to mention being greener. That meant changing in Amsterdam. OK, we were pleased to have gone that way, but it wasn't a great advert for European trains (which -- when standing for an hour on First Capital Connect -- one always imagines to be faultless).
On the way out, the Eurostar to Brussels was on time, but the Thalys to Amsterdam was announced to have a 45 minute delay. Mr Holland, who was more adventurous than I, discovered the damn thing sitting on the platform there, when it was due to leave -- so quite why it was delayed is unclear (staff shortages?).
I should say that Tom's pluck in exploring the platform was not rewarded. For on Brussels Midi station passengers are kept in the underground bowels of the earth until they rise to a platform by escalator. Tom rose, but couldn't find an escalator to take him back down again (all the lifts were broken). He was forced to rush down the up-escalator school-boy style.
The way back was worse: trespassers (did they mean potentially illegal immigrants?) on the line near Lille, and an electric failure outside the tunnel. That meant a 50 minute delay altogether. It was only when I was back at home that I discovered that some people had suffered 4 hour delay that evening, and blessed ny good fortune. So in future when I complain about the British trains, I'll make myself remember that the grass isn't always greener.
The experience in Holland and Belgium was, by contrast, wonderful. While book pages in quality daily papers are going down the tubes all over the world, those in Flanders seems to have survived pretty much unscathed. We did several interviews for daily papers, and everyone of the interviewers knew a whole lot about what we had written, and many had a background in ancient or classical history -- Patrick de Rynck and Theo Toebosch, amongst them. (We also were repeatedly photographed -- and you can see above Tom's version of Beard against the 'no dog shitting' sign, a five minute walk from the publishers' office in Antwerp.)
We also did a number of public talks and discussions about the books and things more general. One question kept coming up. Why was there this "new" interest in the ancient world. Tom had a good, and impressive, answer to that which involved the end of the cold war, the inheritance (or not) of the French revolution etc etc.
For myself, I wasn't so sure that there really was a "new" interest in the ancient world. Much more to the point (I think) is that every generation rediscovers ancient Rome (and Greece) -- and convinces themselves that their interest really is new. Actually there is hardly a moment since the 15th century when the ancient world has not been on the cultural and popular agenda. Think Bulwer Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii, or Michael Grant's many best-selling works on the ancient world (in the decades after World War II), or Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii (to name just three we often forget). The brilliant thing about the ancient world is that we tend to forget our predecessors' rediscoveries and think that we are responsible for finding it again ourselves.
(You can listen to a bit of these debates here -- don't tell me that I um and err too much; I know.)
And this is a picture (on the left) of Tom Holland on the way home (reading Diarmaid McCullough's History of Christianity) -- before he realised we were almost an hour late, and before we had fallen to argue about whether it was or was not accurate to say that the Aztecs practised human sacrifice (I wonder what the other people in the carriage made of it).