Obituary: George Behrend

Expert on train travel who spent 70 years travelling by rail across 17 countries

Born: 10 January, 1922 in Burghclere, Hampshire.

Died: 12 July, 2010 in Cullen, Moray, aged 78.

George Behrend lived in a bygone age of sumptuous Wagon-Lits and their impossibly glamorous passengers when the hallmark of civilisation, he believed, was a good wine list in the restaurant car.

An authority on Pullman cars, his was a world of Art Deco furnishings, Lalique glass and waiters walking the length of the train announcing "First call for dinner".

Modernity sat uncomfortably with Behrend, who spent 70 years travelling by rail across 17 countries and shared his passion for the great European sleeping cars and their exotic destinations in more than a dozen books.

He also chronicled the story of the Great Western Railway in Gone with Regret and, having been fascinated by trams and buses since childhood, provided the commentary for an award-winning film on the last days of the Glasgow trams.

In his own memoirs, An Unexpected Life, he told of his 40-year friendship with composer Benjamin Britten, for whom he chauffeured, and his family's relationship with war artist Stanley Spencer.

Behrend was born at Burghclere in Hampshire, the son of prominent arts patrons John and Mary Behrend, who were keen supporters of Spencer and commissioned him to paint murals on a chapel they built to commemorate Mary's brother, Lt Henry Sandham, who died following service in Macedonia.

The paintings, which took nine years from conception to completion in 1932, became Spencer's most famous works.

Meanwhile Behrend was sent to boarding school, describing in his autobiography the school's "pre-war horrors" and the refusal of masters to accept the facts of the Holocaust.

His first meeting with Britten was in 1936 at the International Music Festival in Barcelona, while Behrend was still a schoolboy. But it would be more than a decade later before he began working with him.

Behrend graduated from Hertford College, Oxford in 1942 before seeing action in the Second World War. He served with the Desert 8th Army in Algiers, Italy and Salonika in Greece and claimed he should have been a cat he'd been blown up and cheated death so many times.

A couple of years after he returned home to a small farm in Hampshire the Aldeburgh Festival was founded by Britten, English tenor Peter Pears and Eric Cozier.

Behrend began assisting and was driver to Britten and Pears when they were on tour in the late 1940s and 1950s, chauffeuring them in their Rolls Royces. He also assisted both at Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh. His mother also commissioned and is the dedicatee of Britten's String Quartet No. 2

As a result of the friendship he met luminaries including WH Auden, EM Forster, John Betjeman and CS Lewis.

By 1956 Behrend was living in Jersey and had already embarked on his writing career, publishing the first of around 20 books - including volumes on aviation history and Stanley Spencer at Burghclere - 1954.

But it was as an authority on railways that he made his mark. His titles included Pullman and the Orient Expresses, Night Ferry, Yatakli Vagon: Turkish Steam Travel and Luxury Trains From The Orient Express to the TGV.

He had an extensive knowledge that often led to international calls requesting information about the number of a particular car. If the answer wasn't in his head he knew where to find it in his hoard of information.

Pullman would also contact him for details from his invaluable archive, some of which will now go to the Wagon-Lits Society. He regularly travelled to France, Germany and Switzerland and had a second home in Bordeaux, where he lived from 1976 to 1981.

Maintaining the railway theme, he moved to 9 Station Road, Findochty, in Moray, in 1989 because his wife, Jeannette D'Enyer, whom he married in 1960 and who was suffering from cancer, wanted to die by the sea.

They knew the area and Behrend stayed on after she died in 1992, moving into a nursing home in Cullen about 18 months ago.

During his time in Findochty he had been a supporter of the Keith to Dufftown Railway and was instrumental in bringing two Pullman cars and Pullman crockery to the heritage line.

While he was able to he made at least one foreign trip each year, his favourite being to Venice on the Orient Express. And a couple of years ago he travelled to Cornwall to support its Save Our Sleeper campaign.

Although undoubtedly the doyen of railway writing, whose tales never failed to fascinate, he shunned the limelight.

Chris Dobosz, who knew him in latterly, said: "He never carried his fame forward. When he published his memoirs he only had 50 copies printed and now they are like gold dust.

He just wanted to keep himself to himself and Findochty was perfect for that, nobody interfered and he was far away from the hustle and bustle."