So many years ago that I refuse to count, I used to commute into London on the Metropolitan Line. The trains then were fairly new – the line electrified in the 1960s - and they seemed the height of smooth travel. From my station in Bucks, where usually one could find a seat in the rearmost carriage, the forty minute journey into the City of London would be spent – by me – buried in a book.
My fellow commuters would rustle their way through newspapers, seldom conversing, and the journey progressed from stop to stop occasionally interrupted by railway officialdom or the odd incident on the line. One experience has stayed with me, the memory invoked again this week. I can hear the rattle of the carriage doors closing, the whirr of the train moving forward, feel the rush as it gathers speed. I wish I could remember the name of the book I was so immersed in that day. It was a thriller involving an escape during the Second World War. The escape was being made out of either Germany or occupied France, and the author built tension in vivid detail, paragraph by paragraph. So much so in fact, that when a pair of ticket inspectors appeared near my seat, I was momentarily convinced they were the Gestapo. I felt cold and disorientated as I showed my season ticket; the fear induced by the story was alarmingly real.
I haven’t been so involved in a book since then – until now, reading ‘The Swiss Spy’ by Alex Gerlis. Other reviewers have described the story itself, so I will simply mention that it is set in the same WW2 time frame, and recounts with admirable clarity and detail the experience of a double agent as he makes more than one journey into Nazi Germany. Alex Gerlis skilfully paints the grim picture of the oppressed, controlled lives of the inhabitants of such cities as Berlin and Stuttgart at that time, where no-one could be trusted and hope was a mere dream. People lived in constant fear. Worse was to come.
My reading of this book coincided with the EU Referendum on 23rd June and its aftershocks. It has been impossible not to ponder on the fact that the events in the book took place only seventy six years ago. The European Union was formed after the War in an attempt at peaceful trading within its borders. Is such a thing ever truly possible? Do human beings always become sidetracked by their own desires and so, inevitably, by greed and a lust for power over one another? I cannot answer that question.
A book whose narrative causes readers to experience emotions as well as to think deeply about life elevates itself from a mere ‘read’ to something more profound. I have awarded this book five stars for the experience. Would I read it again? One thing is certain: on a re-read, the circumstances of life around me will not be the same. I will answer ‘yes’, but I believe I would leave a gap of some years before so doing, if only out of curiosity about what further changes Europe will have experienced by then.
I doubt I will ever again travel on the Metropolitan Line as I now live so far away from it, but you never know. And it was on another such journey on the same railway line, between Baker Street and Finchley Road, that one of the ideas for my book ‘Losing Time’ was born, the concept of travelling through time during a train journey… so I have reason to be grateful to that particular line!