The Writer on the Train

When I became Writer on the Train for GWR, the rail operator running trains out of Paddington to the west country, I began a journey of exploration that was both physical and literary: of the territory that lies along the line between London and Bristol and of different ways of capturing it in words. I ‘knew’ this space: I had traversed it often enough as a commuter between Oxford and London, using my travel time to complete my three previous books. When I embarked on the project I had no clear idea of what its final form would be. I began experimenting through writing a blog. On it I recorded my encounters with rail staff and passengers, the history I uncovered about the places that lay along the line and the notable people who had lived beside it or travelled along it in the past, from Haile Selassie and Oscar Wilde to Diana Dors, Stanley Spencer and Brunel himself.

The blog caught the attention of an academic, Fabrizio Nevola, now at the University of Exeter, who invited me to apply for funding that was being made available for new forms of digital literature by REACT, the knowledge exchange hub based at Bristol’s Watershed. Through REACT we were partnered with an app producer and work began on creating an app that would deliver writing to regular commuters on the London to Bristol line using geolocation. For the first time I, or the proxy ‘I’ represented by a traveller’s smartphone, would know where my readers were when they encountered my words; I could invite them to look out of the window at a specific moment or muse more generally on the nature of travel itself. At the same time I had to write in self-contained snapshots short enough to suit reading on a screen; habitual bloggers recommend no more than 250 words for a post, and length is arguably even more crucial when it comes to content in an app read on a phone.  Users were invited to enter the start and end stations of their journey. If they were on the train every working day they might engage with a text that unfolded over a period of weeks. If their daily journey meant they only travelled part of the route they would never read those pieces triggered by other locations, yet the narrative of the app still had to work when delivered in part or in a different order.

All of these factors provided interesting new challenges. Any app doing something new is fiendishly hungry in terms of coding hours and requires lots of testing. Each technical difficulty brings progress to a halt and as a writer it can be hard to keep the creative spark alive: a micro-version of the stresses attendant with working on a script in Hollywood perhaps, only without the sunshine and the pool. We delivered a working prototype, released to 50 or so test users making journeys between London and Bristol, to a good response, at which point the developer I was collaborating with decided for some inexplicable reason to accept the offer of a job with a household name in California, leaving our app rusting in the sidings.

This could have been the end of the story of the Writer on the Train project, but for some reason I wasn’t ready to admit defeat. While I was struggling to find a way forward with the app I was approached by an editor from Guardian Books who was interested in whether I could turn the ideas expressed on my blog into a book. The first difference I noticed working with a publisher that was also part of a newspaper group was speed: they asked for delivery in eight months rather than 18. No problem, I thought; after all I have written so much material already, for different media. Of course, what I discovered was that the intimate, locative tone appropriate to an app does not necessarily work on the page and print budgets preclude the inclusion of the number of pictures one can write to in a blog. It all needed rethinking. A book requires order and structure. The line from London to Bristol provided a geographical spine, in the manner of a traditional travel book, but the episodic nature of my progress along it required underpinning with strong themes to hold its narrative together.

Station to Station: Searching for Stories on the Great Western Line was published this summer and I’ve been pleased with the critical reaction it has received. A book, it seems, is still among the most reliable portable reading device there is, relying on the power of the imagination rather than geo-fencing or the signal from distant radio masts to trigger images in the human brain. At the same time, my book would never have evolved into its final form without the experiments I carried out in different media along the way. They have been part of its journey and are written into its DNA. I look forward to the next digital adventure.

Author James Attlee will be speaking at The Rooms Festival in Bristol this weekend.