It’s a pleasure today to welcome London-based journalist and writer, Mark Johnson, as my guest. He’s a first-time Scottish novelist: Changing Trains, subtitled “one boy’s journey of discovery across 1980s Europe”, was published in January for kindle and in paperback.
A chance encounter boarding a Eurostar train propels news editor Sam back to 1985, and a journey he took across Europe by train. Young and inexperienced he discovers a world away from his smalltown upbringing and starts to wonder about his place in life and well as his own sexual identity. This gentle coming-of-age story, set in some of Europe’s greatest cities, will take you on a nostalgia trip across an emerging European Union.
I sadly couldn’t fit in the reading, but this book has already gathered a rather nice clutch of positive reviews, and I asked Mark along to tell us more…
Changing Trains is my first novel, and is a fictional travel story within a travel story. In fact, I also developed and wrote most of it while travelling on Eurostar and TGV trains across the Continent.
For years I’ve been commuting back and forth between my home in Central London and a run down old house in south western France. There’s something about rail travel that, for me, inspires the imagination. It’s also far less stressful than flying.
The main character in the story is Sam, and the action starts off in the present day, as he boards a Eurostar headed for south western France. Through a chance encounter, Sam takes us back to the balmy summer of 1985 and a very different world.
Younger Sam, he is 19 years old in 1985, is a smalltown boy, with a dead end job and many questions in his head about the world and what his place in it may be. He is uncertain of what he wants to do in life and has questions about his own sexuality.
But he is also curious about the world and has a hunger to experience new cultures, places and people. A tense and frankly terrifying meeting with his bloated HR manager ends in a major decision, which gives him the opportunity to have an adventure.
Although much of Sam’s story is based on my own actual experiences – I’ll never forget that horrible HR encounter or my own month spent Inter-railing around Europe in the 1980s – the overall story is fictional.
The historic setting is key to the novel. I wanted to take readers back to a time just before the internet. A world without mobile phones, wi-fi or social media. A time when being away from home meant also being out of touch and free to explore and discover.
It was also a time when the European Union was still a small collection of nations, where every one had their own separate currencies and where border controls still existed – Sam gets processed through the austere customs systems of France, Spain and Italy, where he feels guilty just by being there.
It’s weird to think that, with the UK now on a journey towards leaving the European Union, that Brexit could see us facing similar kinds of border controls again, at least at the key entry points to the Continent.
A major part of the book is Sam’s transformation. This is why the word ‘change’ is in the title. As well as changing trains as he travels Europe, Sam goes through his own personal journey of change. By the time he’s heading homeward he knows what he will do with his life.
Another critical element of his story is the development of his sexual identity. This was tough to write, but I wanted to show how he negotiates having a girlfriend and meeting various other girls on his journey with his own ultimate admission that he may be gay.
Many stories have been written about dramatic and poignant gay, coming-of-age experiences, which are vital to the history of sexual suppression and intolerance. But for many gay people, myself included, dealing with this major question IS just one of those things.
There are countless ‘ordinary’ gay men and women, who have simply come to terms with their own sexuality without the huge dramatic outpouring. Sam is dealing with this life affirming issue while also getting on with his life and feeding his own desire for knowledge, adventure and culture.
I wanted to write a story that showed, gently and without all the ‘noise’ of modern hysteria, how one young man with a zest for life and adventure was able to resolve the issue of his role in the world and his own sexual identity by filling a backpack and heading off on a journey of adventure.
Thank you Mark – and I wish you continuing success with your writing…
About the author
Mark Johnson is a Scottish born journalist, writer and broadcaster. For three years he wrote a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph on life as an expat commuter. He has also worked for award winning news organisations such as the BBC, Bloomberg TV and Dow Jones Newswires. He’s spent most of his life working as a journalist in the City of London, covering the ups and downs of the global financial markets.
In the noughties, he spent three years living in Dubai and has extensively travelled the world for work and pleasure. He now lives between London and New Aquitaine in France, traveling often by eurostar and TGV and longs for the day when he doesn’t have to ‘change trains’ to get to the south west.