We were saddened to see the news this week about the death of the writer George Behrend on Monday evening.
We cannot say we really knew George Behrend well, yet we had over a spell of some years exchanged notes about various rail journeys. He was always very enthusiastic about our work with hidden europe, although perhaps a tad surprised to find two women writing about his pet topic, viz. railways. “So civilised” he wrote after reading one of our railway essays.
George was famously enthusiastic about travelling by train across Europe in the good old days when you could still get a decent glass of Burgundy in a dining car. A good wine list in the restaurant car was a hallmark of civilisation in George’s world.
It was George’s suggestions that prompted a number of articles that we have researched and written over the last years. “Why not actually go to Schengen and see if there is anything of interest there?” So we went to Schengen, the little village in Luxembourg on the banks of the Moselle that gave its name to two European treaties, and found it was a great wee spot. George might have been a shade less positive, for Schengen does not even have a railway station.
George had an amazing capacity to remember detail. When he heard that we had travelled on this or that train he would often ask something like “Do they still serve scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for breakfast in the restaurant car?” We hardly had the heart to tell him that the restaurant car was scrapped over twenty years ago.
George wrote with great authority on railway history, and was surely the ultimate expert on all things connected with the history of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens (CIWL), the company founded by Georges Nagelmackers in 1872 that set new standards of comfort to international travel. Those distinctive blue and gold Wagons-Lits carriages brought style and romance to such grand European trains as the Orient Express. George wrote with passion and authority on Wagons-Lits, as indeed on many other rail related topics.
We believe George’s last long journey was about three years ago, when he travelled from Inverness to Penzance and back, in each case using night sleeper services – so Inverness to London one night, and then London to Penzance the next. Some haul for an octogenarian.
We swapped e-mails from time to time, but the messages tailed off in late 2008, and then there was just the occasional letter and phone call. George had an extraordinary habit of writing postscripts over the envelope. Those notes unveiled a treasure trove of exciting trails. “When you’ve been to Schengen, try Samnaun,” he wrote in 2008.
Our paths crossed in a number of ways. Jersey and Burghclere were way stations in George’s rich and complex life and he seemed much touched that we knew and liked both. He wrote to us in 2008, telling of dinner in an Italian restaurant car (as recently as 2003) where Aurum was still served. Aurum is a lovely saffron tinted liqueur. He knew we would understand!
He was a man of many facets, able to play le bourgeois gentilhomme, but also with a critical edge whenever it was needed. His engagement with the arts, with literature and opera was formidable. And he did not just know the texts, but the individuals behind them. For many years, George would drive Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to events across Europe.
But ultimately George had a tangled relationship with modernity. The world changed and George was unsettled. No longer does the Train Bleu pull out from the Gare de Lyon every evening, bound for the Riviera. No longer do waiters walk the length of the train announcing “First call for dinner.” No longer is George Behrend on board, a glass of good Bourgogne in one hand, notepad and pencil in the other, ready to tell the tale of the journey.
Requiescat in pace.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne