Friday, September 05, 2008

Fire and Steam

Terry Coleman's wonderful work of social history The Railway Navvies was first published when I was a teenager. A teacher spent an hour enthusing about it, even though it had nothing to do with our syllabus, and ever since reading it I've been fascinated by the incredible engineering feat of the building of our railway network in the 19th century.

You might think that there was no call for another history of the railways - for the general, non-nerdish reader - but Christian Wolmar has produced a splendid one in Fire and Steam (2007).
It's amusing to discover that in 1868 Parliament legislated to force the railway companies to provide smoking cariages. Once all carriages were enclosed, the railway companies had banned all smoking as a fire risk but Parliament felt this was unfair to smokers, particularly on longer journeys. The rail network finally became entirely non-smoking again in 2005.

A more macabre story that I'd never heard before relates to a service that railway workers called the "stiffs express".
With the growth of London in the nineteenth century, burial space was running out and cemeteries were developed outside the city. Train services were developed to carry bodies to these cemeteries, particularly after the cholera epidemic of the 1840s. A special terminal was created for this purpose - Waterloo Necropolis.
A developer opened a vast new cemetery in Surrey and went into partnership with a London railway company, buying special new rolling stock for the purpose.
These trains were not only divided up into three classes, both for the dead and their friends and relatives, but there were two different stations at the cemetery - one for Anglicans and one for non-conformists. (I'm not sure whether Papists were totally barred from the service). It was a logistical challenge to divide up the corpses into six different categories but the company running it - called London Necropolis - was soon running a 'stiffs express' every single day.
It's a remarkable tale of a capitalist exploiting an opportunity and of class and religious divisions persisting beyond death.

The book also exposes a number of myths, for example the so-called Golden Age of the railways prior to nationalisation. By the 20th century the private railway companies had become adept at spin and PR. They heavily promoted their premium express services like The Flying Scotsman which are now firmly entrenched in popular memory. But this obscures the fact that the majority of services that most people used were slow, dirty and often unreliable.

Another myth is that, prior to the Major Government's privatisation, British Rail was a basket case. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s it had become increasingly efficient and successful.
I was pleased to have my own impression confirmed because in the 1970's I was commuting to London from my home 120 miles away. At the time, we moaned about every minor delay but the reality was that, compared to today, the punctuality was incredible. Although I lived further away than anyone else I was nearly always the first person in the office in central London.

Christian Wolmar has written a separate book about the privatisation of the railways but the final chapter of Fire and Steam provides a good summary of that particular ideologically-driven disaster. Not only was billions of pounds of taxpayers money wasted on the initial process but Government subsidy of the railways is far greater today then it was under British Rail.

Fire and Steam is a terrifically readable overview that may well be enjoyed more by anyone who likes social history than by those who have spent hours of their lives on railway platforms writing down train numbers, something my best friend and I did for all of two weeks before deciding, even at the age of ten, that life was too short.


I consider myself lucky that I'm old enough to have caught the end of the Steam Age.
When I was a small child, on Sunday mornings my father sometimes took me to the local station to watch an express steam train thundering through at around 100 mph. It was an awe-inspiring experience unmatched by any contemporary technology. The ground beneath your feet would start to tremble when the train was only just visible in the distance. I remember total silence, then the buzzing and vibration of the rails, a few seconds of enormous noise, steam, wind and terror, then total silence again. That the memory is so vivid is partly to do with scale: I was little more than a toddler at the time.

Because of my father's business, we could rarely go on holiday. So on those Sunday mornings on a deserted station we would make fantasy railway journeys.
This involved getting into one of the empty carriages that had been parked at a platform for the weekend and pretending we were hurtling along the tracks to the coast. (My father has always had a cavalier attitude to the concept of 'trespass'). I still recall my deep embarrassment when we were brusquely evicted from one of these carriages by a cleaner, not least because we were both making choo-choo noises when she opened the door.

I was slightly consoled by my weekly go on a weighing machine on the platform. You put a penny in the slot and it printed your weight on a cardboard ticket. I'm not sure why it was thought that railway passengers might be overcome by a sudden impulse to weigh themselves. But that magical machine gave me more pleasure than technologies yet to be invented. Unlike those, it did one small thing very well and never got above its station.

A man and a small boy at an empty, windswept station in the 1950s going on a make-believe journey in a grubby yet strangely cosy railway carriage with thick upholstery and framed scenes of Britain above the seats: I'd like to say the memory is sepia-tinged but I'd be lying because I can still see the colours. The cream zig-zag-edged awning over the platform, the dark green seats of the carriage, the bright red weighing machine.
Above all, those fantasy journeys we took were an introduction to the potency of the fourth dimension: the Imagination. Not a place to live your life - particularly as Reality is liable to burst in wielding a disapproving broom - but an essential part of being human and the crucible of creativity.
I doubt that CGI and cyber-worlds will provide quite such fond memories for today's children as that image of a father and son sharing an imaginary journey to imagined places in a deserted railway siding.


At 2:37 PM, Blogger Tim Footman said...

I remember Terry Coleman (if it's the same chap) when he wrote for The Guardian in the 80s. He hated pop music, I recall, so some bright spark sent him to cover Live Aid. He was very rude about Simple Minds.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

tim: yes, it's the same chap.
He was already with The Guardian when he published The Railway Navvies in 1965.
He was a very good, rather idiosyncratic journalist and also did dome good interviews.


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