Way back when, there was a brilliant advert for British Rail which made the experience of train travel appear like a deep, deep exhalation; relaxing, soporific, comforting.
In the ad, the camera lazily scans across a train carriage, occasionally drifting to a green and pleasant land blurring past outside the window. Inside, a businessman settles back in his seat and his stiff brogues transform into soft slippers. The long heel of a stiletto curls and tucks like a dozing cat’s tail. Bearded Grandfather plays chess with bespectacled Grandson, the black bishop and white knight yawn and sigh. A card-playing family sit alongside a woman reading a book – the Penguin logo comes alive, stretches and slides sleepily on its back.
It’s all set off with Leon Redbone’s lilting, half-slurred ragtime: ‘Any time you choose, kick off your shoes, rest your weary eyes and catch up with the news, a favourite book will be the perfect company, so relax.’ (Watch the advert here – it’s a classic). So memorable was the advert that, thirty years on, it has framed almost every train journey I’ve made since. It’s the journey I imagine, the one I look forward to when the tickets are booked.
The reality, of course, is somewhat different. We often make the London to Manchester round trip, complete with two children under five. I’ve yet to sense my brogues softening and the chance to read a book would be a fine thing.
Instead, toilet whiff – that unmistakeable combination of chemical and human deposit – pervades the carriage. The temperature is never ‘just right’. There is a stifling, headache-inducing airlessness. A beep sounds, which should precede an announcement but never does. It’s just a beep. (Timed, it seems, to interrupt with a jolt that moment of transition from wakefulness to sleep – such nap-defying noises are used on prisoners in times of war. After an hour or two of pointless beeping on a Virgin Train, I’d give up my secrets, that’s for sure).
And then there’s the dreaded magazine for the little people. The hasty purchase, grabbed from WHSmith and tucked under arm as we leg it down the platform dragging suitcases and held-hands, persuading he who needs a wee to just hold on – please, please, hold on – until we get on the train.
The magazine, when we eventually slump in our seats, is usually dross. The front cover contains a plastic toy, inevitably destined for a landfill hell. The sellotape to remove said toy invariably rips the magazine in half. The paper, so flimsy it tears with the slightest twist, separates easily from the staples inside. It’s a disposable item and, as for all disposable items, it’s unsatisfactory. Like a late-night burger, it’s a purchase which leaves a taint of regret.
And this is where, racing to the rescue, comes Storytime magazine. The concept is simple and effective – each edition contains well-told and beautifully illustrated traditional tales, fables, poems and rhymes and stories from around the world. It’s the antithesis of train station tat. In the hand, it feels solid and sturdy, a top quality production built to last. The pages are weighty, the spine has a thickness which begs you to keep it; it speaks library rather than landfill.
The content is a real treat too. There is a splash of things to make and do, and a competition, but there’s nothing to detract from the oh-so-simple idea of a magazine which is all about delightful stories with pictures to match. Most refreshing of all is the lack of pushy, glitzy advertisements – their absence and the lack of clutter on the page gives the magazine a rich, timeless feel. (The only question mark is whether, at some point, the stories will need to move beyond the classics – there are only so many fairy tales after all. It would be nice perhaps to see the odd bit of writing by a new, modern author to complement the older fables and legends).
But Storytime magazine is an absolute gem. Every home with children under ten should have a copy, so should every school and library. And so should every train journey. Reading this as we hurtle – or trundle – past Crewe would transport me to the imagined train journey of my youth; slippers, contented sighs, and Leon Redbone strumming away, telling me to leave my cares and worries behind.
A free copy of Storytime was provided by the publishers.