Trainspotting

The second enthusiasm I caught from Murray Wilkinson was trainspotting.  This is a quintessentially useless activity. I had to stand on draughty railway platforms waiting for trains to arrive so that I could write down the numbers of their engines and then, when I got home, underline these same numbers with a ballpoint pen in one of the little books published by Ian Allen, books that, collectively, listed all the locomotives in Great Britain.  Real enthusiasts, and I quickly became one, went to great lengths to collect their numbers.  For me, any railway journey involved sitting (or standing in the corridor, if there was one) with my face pressed to the window peering up the line so that I could see the engines that came towards me and read the numbers on the front of their boilers (they were still almost all steam trains in 1951).  This was an uncomfortable task and difficult, too, given that the combined speeds of the two trains might be 240 kmph so that the spotting opportunity only lasted a fraction of a second.  It took vigilance, commitment and discipline – qualities that have often been wanting in other parts of my life. 

Useless activities are done unambiguously for their own sake.  They have you in their thrall, which is probably just another way of saying that they are manifestations of some kind of instinct.  In the case of trainspotting, the instinct is one that is common in nine-year-olds, especially boys, but that can also survive into adulthood.  It’s the instinct of the collector.  I’ve always enjoyed the story of the man who collected old tyres, a completely useless activity because they were of no value whatsoever.  He had acres and acres of them, piled into pillars and ridges and mountains.  His property was an eyesore that drew complaints from neighbours and bureaucratic fire from the local authorities.  Then, one day, someone discovered a way of recycling rubber and overnight he was a millionaire.

I like this story because it is about the triumph of folly.  It is a kind of morality tale in which the virtue of doing things for their own sake is rewarded in the only way that is fitting – unexpectedly and without justification. 

Of course, collecting tyres is not collecting in its purest form.  That honour goes to trainspotting.  Nothing has less utility than a trainspotter’s list of numbers or his Ian Allen ABC of British Railway Locomotives: North-Eastern Region full of its scrupulous underlinings.  Such a book can’t even be used by another spotter.  It is no more than a record of experience, the most abstract form of intellectual property, of meaning and of value only to its creator.  As such it suffers from all the purity and the pitfalls of private knowledge.  Once, in a fit of acquisitive madness, I went through my Ian Allen books and underlined dozens of numbers at random just to increase my collection.  The only result was that I destroyed it.  I suffered a terrible sense of self-betrayal and, what’s more, I had to start all over again. 

Trainspotting relies on a private kind of integrity.  You have to be honest with yourself in order for it to mean anything at all.  On the other hand, there is no way that a spotter can know that his collection is accurate.  Who is to say that, in the split second when two trains flashed by each other, I had not read the number as 61043 when it was actually 61048?  Almost certainly, I got some of them wrong.  The integrity of the collection depends not on its truth but on the collector’s belief in its truth.  Here, I think, is a shining example of the absurd – a bundle of disparate elements that come together only in the doing and which resists the loss of meaning that results from a shift to another point of view because it has no meaning in the first place. 

Trainspotting helped me survive the last years of my childhood.  Like listening to the Goon Show, it offered me a way of being.  More than the Goon Show, it gave me something of value (to me) that no one else could destroy.  I kept it up until we left England in 1956.  The only legacy I have of all those years of observation is the ability to spot locomotive anachronisms and mislocations in British movies set in the first half of the 20th century – ‘You’d never see that engine in 1935.  It wasn’t built till 1948’ kind of thing.  Even these remarks I have to keep to myself.  Other people don’t usually thank me for them.

One Response to “Trainspotting”

  1. Emma Neale Says:

    The triumph of folly: wonderful. This post is energising – keeps me keeping on (like the little engine that could!) – just with the thought that one day, it might all fall into place with the merry absurdity of millions coming to a used tyre collector.

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