Trainspotting Nostalgia. . . . . . .
If you were around in August, 1968, you may recall a pop group called ‘Cupid’s Inspiration’ and their song with the title ‘Yesterday has gone’.
The author and lifetime rail enthusiast/train spotter, Nicholas Whittaker, used it to sum up his experiences as a ‘train spotter’ from the 1960’s and onward. His book starts by discussing Birmingham. There was Snow Hill with the tunnel at one end of the platforms, suggesting an almost Alice in Wonderland experience for a young boy, as trains emerged from it. Over at New Street there was a conversation with new spotters on the platform, as an electric loco Class 90 named ‘The Clothes Show’ pulled out. Some remember ‘Princess Elizabeth’, ‘Pendennis Castle’ and so on but by 1996 it had become ‘Rugeley Power Station’, ‘Blue Circle Cement’, ’The CBI’.
‘Alan swings his camera towards the Class 90,’ wrote Whittaker. ’It’s driver gives a cheesy grin…… it won’t be long before someone sets up a make up department for image conscious ASLEF men.’
But then, on a more serious note, he recalls how the number of obituaries to trainspotters is growing. Testamonials recall the golden years of spotting, plaques appear on benches, even stained glass windows recall happy days on the railways.
Lest this piece get too maudlin, there are plenty of us still going strong, albeit perhaps a little more scornful of today’s locomotive names. Once in a while, it just feels nice to indulge in a bit of nostalgia., but without thinking too deeply about it.
Many of us remember the last days of steam, sad sights at scrapyards such as the famous Barry in South Wales. My nearest elephant’s graveyard was near Kettering which I used to cycle to on a Saturday afternoon. There I would find a selection of old London Underground stock being burnt and still smoking after ministrations by the scrap man the Friday before. It was also a place to see unusual locomotives, often partly dismantled – an SR ‘Schools’ Class (in the Midlands!), various other SR classes, an occasional GWR Pannier tank, an LNER L1 tank. It was a good way to see how a steam locomotive worked when it’s entrails were spilling out onto the trackside, boiler casing folded back, pipes and valves exposed.
As the railways began to contract and motive power changed, conspiracy theories grew long before the days of false stories on social media. Scrapping steam was a way of killing off the coal industry, there was a strategic reserve of steam engines created somewhere by the government in case of an energy emergency (Box Hill was mentioned, but also under Nottingham in the old GCR tunnels).
Graffiti began to take on a certain humour before the arrival of garish designs plastered all over the available walls of train cuttings. ‘To the dungeons’ read one on a door at the north east corner of St Pancras station in 1967. ‘’Beeching is FAB’ read another on a disused station in Suffolk. (Good to know someone liked him).
But nostalgia has its sad and sometimes lyrical moments. Whittaker mentions a trainspotter’s lament sung with the help of a mouth organ and one of many ballads, yet to be collected’
‘Let me tell ya it’s all Sprinters now (ooh wah)
There ain’t no romance any more….’
Could Bob Dylan be interested?
And me? My favourite is that poem by W H Auden, ‘Night Mail’, from 1936. After following the night mail on its journey behind an unrebuilt Royal Scot, the train reaches Glasgow and the camera follows the mail to the postman’s round.
‘And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’
How could we be forgotten? Yesterday hasn’t gone yet.
Jack Simmons collected many quotations on railways, including unusual graffiti, in his book ‘Railways: An Anthology (1991).