‘Whatever happens, remember to wear lipstick because it cheers the wounded.’
For the day after Remembrance Day this year Train to Nowhere by Anita Leslie, first published in 1948, and brought back into print by Bloomsbury.
Treat the slower first half of the book as a bit a restful warm up and introduction to a remarkable woman. Conserve your energy (you'll be needing it later) whilst allowing Anita to get into her stride with this whole war thing; get to know her gimlet eye and her sense of humour because what follows is quite astonishing. Even then nothing will quite prepare you for the details of Anita Leslie’s experiences as an ambulance driver in the Second World War.
‘I feel I am helping the War effort by having as pleasant a time as possible which is just what he [Hitler] doesn’t want’
says Anita from the comfort of home.
‘You can’t imagine how bored people are with the war here. No one wants to listen to fancy speeches.’
Especially if they are being made by your cousin Winston Churchill.
As an escape from a complicated personal life Anita would volunteer as a driver in the MTC (Mechanised Transport Corps) and comfortably slip into the uniform designed by Hardy Amies. With the advice of her mother ringing in her ears...
’Don’t get sunburned in Africa, men hate it.’
...Anita set sail for her new role on the Desert Front in Africa as a ‘light-headed, giddy girl’ and, quickly realising how much she relished the adventure, sought out ever more dangerous assignments. After three years in the Middle East, and sensing that she might miss the main action, Anita eventually effects a transfer to the French Forces who, unlike the British Army, allowed women on the front line and in August 1944 the adventure really begins.
It was at this point in the book, under the command of Jeanne de L’Espee (of that lipstick quote) that Anita, long ago divested of the Hardy Amies look but nevertheless still striving to achieve it, joins the 1st French Armoured Division. The advance proceeds from Marseilles pursuing the blistering rearguard action of German Forces and towards the liberation of France.
There will be bone-numbing cold and discomfort, ad hoc billets in barns, as-and-when food and much danger, plus some harrowing action amongst the casualties in the brutal theatre of war, but alongside there will be bonhomie and comradeship, sadness, sorrow and fear but above all courage.
‘We lived now in squalor and discomfort, warming our hearts at cottage hearths with brave strategic talk...and Germans were encircled everywhere...that was the worst part of the medical service; sitting about listening to a fight and knowing there would be nothing to do until someone got hit.’
And Anita brings her British eccentricities to the fray as well....
’There were ten to twenty soldiers in every room in the village - which made it impossible to wash, to warm up, to cook or to think. I asked permission to go for a walk every afternoon to escape the bedlam.
What? said the officer,’walk alone in the drizzle? Very, very English.’ Hiking in winter over ploughland had never been the Continental idea of un jolie sport.’
But perhaps Anita's request also suggests the need to get outside and reflect because she sees much that is harrowing. However don't be put off because for every distressing episode there is the leavening effect of Anita Leslie’s indomitable spirit, her canny observations and wry sense of humour in the face of unimaginable adversity, all of which which turned the book into something quite unexpected and extraordinary.
And who had ever heard of Anita Leslie? I'm sure some of you will have done but she had missed my radar entirely.
The only woman to be decorated with both the Africa Star for her service in the Western Desert and the Croix de Guerre in 1945 by General Charles de Gaulle, Anita Leslie married Commander Bill King and would go on to publish seventeen books. In many ways I read Train to Nowhere as a book that represented so many of those other unknown, unrecognised heroes and heroines of war, and how right it seems to remember them right now.
But it has also sparked my interest in Anita Leslie herself and a simple search reveals an Alice-like rabbit hole of fascinating trails...
Marjorie Ide, Anita's American mother who had married Shane Leslie, the heir to Castle Leslie in Ireland, entering into the privileged but subsequently chaotic life of the Irish country house...
A long list of published biographies by Anita Leslie about people as diverse as Mrs Fitzherbert, Lady Randolph Churchill, Madame Tussaud and Francis Chichester, enough to send me scurrying to Devon Libraries catalogue to put in a few reservations.
And what about Anita's own burial instructions here...
'I would prefer to be buried without a coffin, just tied to a board, but if this is complicated take the lid off !"
Onward trails are an added bonus to good reads like Train to Nowhere so please do scroll down for gifts (a lot of them) if you are in the mood for some new reading paths.