17 December 2005

A Trainspotter's Guide to Women

...but first we eat our meat.

Another Country

It was a different world, the railways. Another country, things were different there. Remember the music? Have you forgotten already? Such a spread of music; from the clattering, cussing of a goods yard or the rush of an express hammering through the station just inches from our snotty but appreciative noses, to the elegiac dreaminess of a bucolic and quaint branch-line, its languid murmurings riding on a bed of birdsong and soft country accents. Ah, Adlestrop. Often wistful; the train in the distance, the night train crossing the border replete with cheque and postal-order, the Brief Encounters, the fearful whistle separating doomed lovers as slowly, slowly, but with great certainty, three thousand of Crewe’s finest horsepower would bellow at the sky in an urge to be gone.

The old railway, the railway of ay fond farewells and slumbering sleepers and the single red tail-light receding into a ghost-green yonder has been superseded and lives on only in the imagination of aging men. The old ghost railway, replaced now by a faceless corporate machine where marketing messages form the only desired engagement of our senses. Is it any wonder railways are now treated with contempt instead of enthusiasm? They have abandoned their remit to inspire. The modern trains are generic European multiple-units with weedy little bus-engines buzzing away under your feet. Carriage lights are ultra-bright, so you can’t see out the window at night. The windys don’t open, so you can’t lean out of them. The seats are thinly-padded, so you don’t get too comfortable. There’s hardly any legroom. The Guard’s coming over on the P.A., only he’s not the Guard anymore, s/he’s a “Customer Care Manager” and the message announces a snack-trolley will arrive presently and that smoking is not permitted anywhere on the train. The toilet isn’t in the draughty vestibule anymore, there isn’t a vestibule. The toilet-door opens straight into the open carriage, so no chance of a sneaky biffta and every chance of broadcasting your bowel movements to a captive audience. And as we are all now treated as semi-morons who can’t be trusted to operate a door-handle, the doors slide open only upon the amber light. Gone is the juvenile pleasure of a running dismount after walloping some hapless commuter with one’s carriage door. Another folk-skill lost to automation.

A Trainspotter's Guide to Women

Before we go any further…. I know what a certain demographic's thinking. You think I’m saaaaad. Maybe I should get a life [whatever horrors of plastic designer-consumerism that may entail]. You think I’m a “trainspotter” and that would be appalling; an anorak, an Asperger’s boy unable to join the Real World. Possibly, and charitably, an eccentric. Or is it that this is all symptomatic of a profound Fear of Change? The following is not for you.

For to talk Railway is to admit membership of a despised institution. It’s hard for we men of a certain age to come out. Fine to drone on about the great deal you’ve got on your new Toyota Treefucker, or the injustices of speed-cameras/ petrol prices/ road-tax, or the car you want after the car you want next; that’s all okay, just don’t mention you like trains. Or even "railways" because, don't kid yourself: everyone knows it's just a euphemism for "trains". "Industrial Heritage" could be used in emergencies, but you'll be rumbled faster than you'd believe possible should any amount of investigation ensue. The female vote will be lost and with it, any hope of your ever accessing her bounty.

So if, whilst promenading your intended trackside one fair summer’s evening, a train goes by and she comments along the lines of “mmm… I do like trains”, do not under any circumstances interpret this as permission to say something like “Yeh, but it’s only a crappy little Network Sprinta. I can remember when the Cathedrals Express used to charge through here; a maroon Western¹ clagging* away up front and dragging a brace of steam-heated Mark Ones³, now that was a train.” You may think a statement of this magnitude combines romantic and thrusting phallic imagery in quite a subtle way, but you’ll have failed and she is now considering the options for replacing you with someone less weird. What she will actually have been thinking was either:

a/ I’m bored and wish I were somewhere else,
b/ I’m feeling romantic, in a vague and wistful These Are the Days of Our Lives kinda way, or
c/ I’m getting a frisson with the thought of exhibiting my bare bouncing arse at all those people on the speeding train, so let’s get jiggy with it.

She does not want to talk Warships² and Westerns¹.


And she's unlikely to find anything like the same amusement as you when you name that train a crappy little Notwork Sprinta, arf arf. Your best bet’s to make a throwaway joke about the earth moving then commence mental preparations for Option C. [It’s true: for years I was in denial, but now I must concede and share this with you. Uncomfortable as the thought may be, but… [whisper it] …women like sex too.]

You may need to do some work on interpreting the signals here, as confusing Option C for either of the alternatives could spell disaster. Resist any temptation to operate a traffic-light or semaphore system for determining her likely responsiveness and never refer to any slip-ups here as SPADs or, worse, "doing a 109-er".

You will have entirely different notions concerning the word "romance". Your earthly delights, your Eden, your enchanted boyhood dreamworld... all are likely to be viewed seedy at best, when seen through the femi-filter. She may even question your hold on reality. It's not your fault. You just have to realise the enemy's every bit as shallow as you are when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of sexual attraction. You like demure and girly, she likes masterful and probably Colin Firth [even though he's gay [allegedly]]. Her sense of romance is more likely to involve sun-bleached beach and palm-tree wine-waiter type scenarios than it is to include railwayana. Her sense of practicality [I'm being charitable] responds to the genial breadwinner rather than the wistful nostalgist. It's not her fault. She just isn't equipped to deal with the depths and contradictions real people show, any better than you are. Talk about houses instead and canvas her opinions on interior design.

Do try and desist from referring to houses, pubs, shops, banks etc. as "non-railway buildings". You'll develop an unattractive nasal twang to your voice, not dissimilar to that heard from bearded folksinging "Keith" in the Mike Leigh film "Nuts in May".

"Not now, Candice-Marie!"

And should you get lucky:

You have not got lucky, scored, got a result. You have engaged in a meaningful union of mutual supportiveness with a view to securing a sustainable future together. You'll come to realise this in due course.

Try not to do the two-tone horn sound upon ejaculation**.

And if things do spiral out of control...

Live it through your firstborn. Should product be female, try again. Or maybe just buy her meccano, dress her in dungarees, then take her to steam-museums on access day and take notes.


¹ Western: a diesel-hydraulic B.R. locomotive used on Western Region services until the mid seventies. Curvaceous side-profile, evocative names always prefixed by the word "Western", for example “Western Leviathan”, "Western Pioneer" and “Western Campaigner”, thunderous exhaust note and a face like the man in the moon.

² Warship: a slightly less cool version of the above.

³ Mark Ones: British Rail coaching stock from the fifties and sixties; in use until the early nineties. Usually featuring corridors and compartments, originally heated by steam from the engine’s boiler.

* clagging: the cloud of black particulates issuing from a nicely run-in B.R. diesel loco when under load. This is considered a good thing, as it adds character and leaves a little love behind.

** ejaculation: when you make yourself sticky.

[This piece originally appeared on Smoke Alarm , 13th October, 2005]

The fine three-arch bridge is situated on the northern section of the former Didcot Newbury and Southampton Railway, in chalky downland between Upton and Churn. It is second in a sequence of three bridges known to enginemen as "Faith, Hope and Charity", as they marked a heavy upgradient from leaving Upton station. On the north side, the brickwork remains soot-blackened from the exhausts of long-dead Dean 0-6-0's. Closed to all traffic in 1966, the trackbed under "Hope" bridge is now a landfill site.

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