Category Archives: railways

Ridiculous mouse

It was Horace, teaching The Art of Poetry (line 139, if you want it), who borrowed that from Aesop.

The Department for Transport, in turn, borrows from Horatius and produces a shiny new apologia on how, one day, the railways of England and Wales will be again the wonder of the age. Note Scotland had the sense to run their remaining network as an integrated unit, and are already expanding.

At one level it’s all about undoing some of the damage privatisation and franchising did:

sweeping proposals aimed at creating joined up teams running track and train will make the railway more reliable for passengers and ensure that it works as one to deliver for its customers.

Hint: that’s what we had before the “poll tax on wheels“.

At another level it’s a response to the McNulty (2011) and Shaw (2015) reports. The paper mills of the DfT grind slow — and also exceeding small. Having failed to electrify, there’s always the magical incantation: “digital”. Sure enough, here comes the fairy dust:

The vision also pledges to introduce digital rail – new technologies that have the potential to reduce crowding and improve train punctuality for passengers – across more of the country.

The DfT is so advanced in thinking for the “digital” age, when one accesses the document, one is warned:

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology

Wait for it! — when we arrive at paragraph 2.23 we get “schemes”:

Rail services have the potential to unlock housing growth, as part of a wider transport network. New connections and stations can support locally-led development and help deliver more housing. There are also strategic opportunities to change local transport patterns, and provide communities and people with new opportunities.

Away we segue into a  surfeit of subjunctives and hypotheticals:

  • a new station could provide direct rail links
  • also potentially generate additional housing opportunities in high-demand locations
  • Construction is expected to start in late 2017 and to be completed by 2021. (The back-end of November is “late 2017”: is it happening yet?)
  • a station has the potential to unlock 7,500 jobs and 1,500 homes
  • the challenges of poor East-West connectivity need to be addressed (rather like the Hull-Leeds-Manchester-Liverpool corridor, which ought to be national priority #1 — but won’t be as long as it lies outside London and the South-East commuter belt).

More subjunctives (“may run”) and hypotheticals (“possibles”): The Times has identified the proposals to re-open lines Beeching axed:

From the top there:

  1. The Ashington, Blyth and Newcastle (ABT) line is there, running freight (providing essential links for the Alcan plant and the waste disposal at Butterwell), and Northumberland County Council has primed the pump with £5 million. Much of the expected cost is in peripherals: new stations, car-parks (there’s an irony!), and connections to other existing transport links (including Shanks’s pony and cycling).

2. Skipton to Colne is less than a dozen miles. It is abut as logical a link, a no-brainer, as could be imagined:

 

This one was not even proposed for closure by Beeching: it happened, none the less, in 1970. The Leeds and Bradford Railway saw the potential as early as 1848, and built it. Several studies (in 2003 and 2007 to my knowledge) have suggested considerable benefits. The route is protected by the planning authorities. Railtrack have agreed, but could make no progress without external finance. The whole scheme is complicated by the road lobby cooking up a route which parallels the railway: odd, that — a need for a road link where the basis for a rail one is staring all in the face.

Anyway, previous announcements — most recently a squeak before the June 2017 Election — amounted to more than a wink-and-a-nod.

3. The Kings Norton link is beyond me. There’s already a link into Birmingham, via Edgbaston. At first I wondered was this an error for the Kings Norton next to Leicester Airfield. Could it be because the housing developments in this patch are in desperate need of a fillip? Three Labour constituencies, all reasonably safe, cover the ground — so the “party advantage” motive doesn’t apply. On the other hand, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, is a Tory, and has been raising smoke about transport expenditure in his fiefdom being a third, per-capita, of London.

4. Wisbech to March — oh, but this one could be fun!

The Wisbech to Outwell stretch never was more than a tramway:

Once a bus service arrived, the passenger line was closed — and that was as far back as 1927. The line functioned for agricultural produce until Beeching. Because the whole thing was so ramshackle, rustic and “quaint”, it has been a staple for model railway builders.

What is being talked of here is the “Bramley Line”. This wasn’t a Beeching cut so much as a shrivelling of the Fen links: this one survived for freight until the turn of the Millennium, because of the Metal Box and Nestlé factories (the latter did pet-foods, and seemed to me to specialise in odd smells). It’s all of — what? — eight miles. Re-opening would be more about overspill housing from Cambridge and Peterborough than much else.

Relevant or not, South-East Cambridgeshire is a relatively safe Tory seat. There was a sniff of rampant UKIPpery none too long ago, which provoked warm utterances from David Cameron for local development and investment.

5. The “Varsity Line” between Oxford and Cambridge should never have been closed. It wasn’t on Beeching’s list. Long stretches remain in active use. The main “missing link” is between Cambridge and Bedford, where — criminally — housing developments have been permitted over the rail route. Since 2010 there have been repeated announcements and promises of government funding — so this is yet another iteration.

Look carefully at that sketch map, and spot Verney Junction. Those who, like me, still dote on John Betjeman may recall this was where he found the end of his Metroland:

The houses of Metro-land never got as far as Verney Junction.
Grass triumphs, and I must say I’m rather glad.

Until 1936 it was possible for the rustics of Lord Verney’s estate at Clayton House to take the Metropolitan Railway all the way to Baker Street. Which also explains that pseudopod of the London Underground map which still extends into (nay, invents) Zones 8,9, and 10.

This is another case where housing is a significant factor. Reopening the route makes the Bletchley-Bedford stretch an obvious candidate to become a major development, up to city size. With houses at Verney Junction. And in an essentially Tory backyard, too.

6. Portishead to Bristol amounts to re-opening just over three miles of track. Since 2009 Network Rail has been muttering about doing the business, and MetroWest have it as a work-in-progress. All that is required is sorting out a level-crossing at Ashton Vale and building the new station at Harbour Road in Prtishead. Since the alternative is some very heavy improvements to the A369 into Bristol, this again represents a triumph of common sense over numbskullery.

7. Uckfield to Lewes, the Wealden Line,  came close to agreement as far back as 2008. Since 2013 (as a spin-off from the ConDem coalition) there have been real moves to “do something”: government urged Network Rail into motion, the station site at Uckfield was bought back from (believe it!) the residuary British Rail Board.

Currently 42 miles (by road) from Lewes to Westminster takes an hour and a quarter by train. The truly-astounding thing here is that the natives of  East Sussex have not risen in righteous revolt against Southern Rail. Even so, the rumblings of discontent along the whole Costa Geriatrica are impacting on traditional party loyalties — and that’s not good for Tories.

8. Exeter to Okehampton, last but not least.

Another one that has me puzzled. As I recall, this service — the Dartmoor Railway — was to be re-opened in 2010. Although passenger services ended in 1972, there were Sunday excursions after 1997.

What would make total sense is restoring the link from Okehampton to Bere Alston, which creates a second route to Plymouth and the South-West. That was seriously touted as the alternative when the line at Dawlish was washed away in February 2014.

So the sting in the tail is that the alternative route to the South-West, through Okehampton could threaten the South Devon line, were there to be more bad weather. Even now maintaining the Dawlish stretch needs half-a-million a year, and services are liable to suspension in bad weather at high tide.

I started with Horace’s “ridiculous mouse”. I conclude by marvelling that Chris Grayling, the disaster to befall one government department after another, has got away with this pip-squeak of a policy announcement.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative family values, railways, Times, Tories.

Friday, 8th September, 2017

Business of the day:

From Crouch End to Greenwich.

Stage 1: to Muswell Hill on W7, to find the Muswell Hill roundabout is now a major excavation.

Stage 2: from Muswell Hill to Bank on a 43 bus, to discover that whole stretch through Islington is now re-routed via Caledonian Road. Even more major excavations. Retreat into the Phoenix, Throgmorton Street, where I was joined first by Pert Young Piece, then by the Lady in my Life.

Stage 3: DLR from Bank to Greenwich, Cutty Sark. I used to be supercilious about the DLR, but it is truly a marvellous piece of kit, somewhere between a toy train and a proper grown-up railway — yet something more substantial than a tram. The weave through the towers of Canary Wharf is an experience worth the journey in itself.

At Greenwich, the task is to inspect the ceiling on a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour:

Up close, and personal, this is astonishing. I hope to live long enough to see the finished result.

And so, back the way we came,

Stage 4: DLR back to Bank. This time in the front seat, to play train-driver — and London has no greater thrill-ride for this Bill Hoole manqué.

Stage 5: from Bank, the 43 to Muswell Hill.

Stage 6, post-prandially, the W7 back down to the Maynard.

Carte du jour:

Something of an experiment: the “Miller and Carter” steakhouse, housed in what was once the cavernous “The Church” (a.k.a. O’Neill’s) in Muswell Hill Broadway.

For all of the pretensions, this is yet another branch of yet another tentacle of the Mitchell and Butlers octopus. Which makes it also a subsidiary in the Molson Coors megalo-brewing brand.

I felt obliged to see the place, having known it through various incarnations. For many years the former non-conformist tabernacle (all florid red brick and flint work) was being left-to-decay. It had been leased for a while as local council offices, but was then in a state of limbo and pigeon-crap. It was on the point of being demolished for a supermarket (the supermarket chains have eyed various properties — notably the Odeon cinema — but in each case have met the rising tide of middle-class N10MBYism). Eventually the teetotalist covenant was broken, and for a brief but happy moment it was “The Church” with a brew-house. That didn’t last long, and it went to being O’Neill’s, a barn of a sportsbar — a good place to watch the Rugby only available to Sky subscribers, but not a place to linger for the non-fizzy beer crowd. The arrival of Wetherspoons, taking over what was originally the old Express dairy on Muswell Hill roundabout (then, unhappily, as the teenies’ drink-and-drugs mart of choice), at what is now the Mossy Well changed the whole boozing culture of N10 — and for the better. Even if it also meant the loss of the Wetherspoons houses in Crouch End and at Highgate’s Gatehouse.

I’d have to presume that the Mossy Well, along with wider availability of international Rugby, drained the life out of what had been O’Neill’s — and so M&B are having another go.

I’ve now tried it once. It’s OK-ish; but I doubt we shall return.

Beers of the day:

A pint of Camden Pale Ale at the Phoenix. Err, well … if one must.

A pint of London Pride at the Gypsy Moth in Greenwich: definitely a step up in the world. If I can’t get ESB “lunatic broth” or — yet better — HSB (originally Gale’s Horndean Special Bitter from Hampshire) then London Pride is as good as Fuller’s gets. I’d have preferred a Young’s Special, when it was a London brew, but … horses-for-courses.

Finishing the evening: a taste more of that rather-toothsome East London Brewery’s Jamboree, on draught, at the Maynard.

Quote of the day:

Banner on Pentonville goal: “Serving the community for 175 years”. The “service” of 120 prisoners was abbreviated by the hangman,

Readings of the day:

The New Statesman and the New European.

Then A Great and Noble Design, the catalogue of Sir James Thornhill’s sketches for the Painted Hall at Greenwich. This really needs a complementary volume for the finished work: that will presumably follow from the conservation work. Oh, and a little pamphlet — just a dozen printed pages (English and French on opposites) of Thornhill’s own Explanation of the Painting. The bit of that which caught the Pert Young Piece’s eye went:

In the Middle of the Gallery next the upper Hall, is the Stern of a Britiſh Man of War, with a Figure of VICTORY filling her with Spoils and Trophies taken from the Enemy.

Under the Man of War is a Figure that represents the CITY of LONDON fitting on THAME, and ISIS, with the ſmaller Rivers bringing Treaſures unto her. The River TINE is there pouring forth his Plenty of Coals.

Her attention was that of an avid student of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and re-reading (and audio-booking) the lot before we get volume seven.

My interest there was as much in the typography of 1726. What exactly were the rules of initial capitalisation (presumably for all nouns — easy), of ENTIRE CAPITALS (was this for Proper Nouns?) and for italicising (which seems just weird)?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Beer, London, Muswell Hill, pubs, Quotations, railways

Another fine mess …

I’m reading Modern Railways, pages 26-27, with great interest. Roger Ford’s hatchet job on Virgin Trains East East (VTEC is our main line here in ‘old’ York) starts well:

remember that while Virgin Trains West Coast is 1% Virgin/49% Stagecoach, East Coast is 90% Stagecoach with a 10% sprinkling of Virgin fairy dust.

After that, we know where it’s heading. And it’s all downhill.

For a start the Stagecoach prognosis is to lose £84.1 million on the East Coast franchise in the next two years.

There’s a further £44.8 million impairment of intangible assets associated with the right to operate the franchise. As far as I understand that bean-counting gobbledegook, I assume it amounts to paint jobs and cosmetics — including the very useful and passenger-friendly meet-and-greet stuff.

And on top of that there £57.5 million already spent, mainly on the £40 million rolling stock upgrade.

Then come the other problems.

Not this decade, Sir Richard

Those promised glossy Hitachi Azuma trains are at least two years behind schedule. And the schedule premium payments were based on a May 2019 introduction. Ford’s assessment is: a continuation of the VTEC franchise on its current terms untenable after May 2019. Ummm.

As I read it, the infrastructure problems are as acute. Not least of which is power supply. Ford has it that the Power Supply North is not done, in part because the Hendy Report took some out of the five year budget £40+ million needed to achieve the upgrade. With Cross-Pennine introducing electrics, that’s another drain on an already barely-adequate power supply.

Ford’s conclusion, as printed:

Overall, East Coast is probably a sorrier mess than the W[est] C[oast] R[ail] M[odernisation] (That’s going some— Ed!).

He also slips in another wrinkle: if the Azumas can’t be brought into service, the tax-payer is still committed to paying for them for a further twenty-seven and a half years.

A useful read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Branson, Britain, Conservative Party policy., railways, York

Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

1 Comment

Filed under Britain, Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., crime, culture, Daily Telegraph, economy, Guardian, Harold Wilson, health, History, Independent, leftist politics., leisure travel, Literature, Music, politics, poverty, Quotations, railways, schools, Theatre, Tories., Trade unions, travel, underclass, working class

“Affordable and easy”?

Last weekend’s New York Times had a superbly self-contradicting travel article:

Luxury Trips for Less in Spain and Portugal

Despite that headline, the whole piece was about:

how to get maximum luxury for the lowest prices on a Spain or Portugal getaway

So far, so good. And some of the “tips” are valid — or self-evident, depending on your mood. For example:

Spain and Portugal have an abundance of small, family-run luxury hotels, which are often half the price of five-star chain properties… these locally owned properties, in some respects, could be more luxe than chains because their rooms tended to be comparatively more spacious and the service more personalized. If you mention during your stay, for example, that you are interested in the local architecture, don’t be surprised to find reading material about the area’s top architectural sites waiting for you in your room.

Well, stripe me pink and call me ham!

The one that really, really got me was this:

… AND THE TRAIN IN SPAIN The country’s reliable, clean, service-oriented high-speed train system, Alta Velocidad España, is an affordable and easy way to get around. A one-way ticket from Madrid to Málaga, in southern Spain, for example, costs as little as 50 euros.

I defer to nobody in my enthusiasm for travel by rail. And were I wanting to travel from Madrid to Malaga I’d certainly be tempted to do so by AVE. I would book ahead, on-line, and reckon on rather less than €50. Then, both at Seville and Malaga, the AVE arrival is a wee bit away from the centre. Still …

Bucket listing

My interest in this page-filler was, just a few weeks since, I ticked three items off my bucket list: Granada and the Alhambra, Cordoba and the Mesquita, Seville.

The joys of low-cost air travel meant we were in-and-out through Malaga. The commuter trains through Malaga Airport station go all the way in to Malaga-Centro Alameda: €1.80 — not AVE standards, but regular and efficient.

Now we could have made that Andalucian circuit by train, especially the bit from Seville back to Malaga. In fact we found that it was quicker, and cheaper to use the ALSA coach services. On top of which there would be no changes, and more frequent — at least hourly —  departures. Not to mention that the coach stations are, in at least two of those cities, more adjacent to the tourist centres.

Time and tide waits for the retired

The other dimension here is we didn’t racket around. We took a fortnight, which allowed several days in each city. That was just as well: the Alhambra for one allows only a ration of visits each day; and to do the whole site — the Nasrid palace, the palace of Charles V (no where near as spectacular, but worth the trip) and the Generalife — is going to take a full day.

Then, in Seville, you are not going to get into much of the cathedral, or climb the Giralda, on a Sunday …

And, doing it that way, meant it allowed us to rent an apartment in each location. It also gives access to a washing machine, so less baggage.

The bottom line is: luxury shouldn’t trump convenience.

Leave a comment

Filed under New York Times, railways, travel

Tiffy

Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):

Leave a comment

Filed under folk music, History, Johnny Cash, Literature, Music, Oxford English Dictionary, railways, reading, United States

Where are the scuts of yesteryear?

That previous post, and the St Andrews fauna, brought to mind this:

King’s Lynn, North Wotton, Wolverton,
Dersingham! Dersingham!
Snettisham (or rather Snet’sham),
Change at Heacham …
Sedgeford, Docking,
Stanhoe, Burnham Market,
Holkham and
Wells-on-Sea!

As redolent to me as any verse of The Slow Train:

The Great Bean-counters of British Rail did for the first bit, the original Lynn & Hunstanton Railway from 1862, as late as the back-end of the 1960s. The eighteen-and-a-half miles of the West Norfolk Junction Railway had closed for passenger business in 1952, when it was still running Victorian gas-lit carriages wheezed along by antique steam locomotives. After the East Coast  Floods of 1953 there was deemed no possibility of it ever having an after-life.

There are so many “what-ifs” in that. Today, a “heritage railway” operating such rolling stock would be a national treasure. Had the original concept of a coastal loop, joining all the small resorts of the Norfolk coast, ever been realised we might today have something even better than Belgium’s Kusttram.

My memories — and I must be one of an diminishingly few who can recall, however dimly, that journey — are precise.

cover170x170Why was it necessary for the name of Dersingham to be bellowed twice? I still hear it in the fastnesses of a sleepless night, with the rising inflection on the middle syllable. Did that somehow echo down to Jon Hendricks’s pale imitation: New York, New York, a city so nice, they had to name it twice?

Snettisham is, if at all, known for the astounding hoard of gold torcs first ploughed up, then properly excavated, over a quarter of a century. Now starring at the British Museum and Norwich’s Castle Museum.

Then there were the bunnies.

Wolferton was, and is, something of a railway oddity.  I speak not of the incongruity, Wolverton, that is the tight curve on the old LMS line through Milton Keynes. Instead I recall the elaborate mock-Tudor confection that the Lynn & Hunstanton Railway devised to serve Sandringham House. To us lesser-breeds, endured to standing on open platforms in the northeast winds that make Norfolk in winter and early spring a place of cold comfort, Wolverton was a place of mystery and wonder. The station was always immaculate, the canopies white with recent paint — why did a place so small, so remote, deserve or demand such an extended shelter? —, planters and flower beds in abundance. Was there — there surely had to be — a majestic royal privy, the bluest of bloods alone for the relief thereof?

wolferton_station_9

As the train huffed-and-puffed north out of this stately pleasure-dome, the embankments became sandy and rabbit-infested. And I mean dozens of the little buggers.

Since the Heacham-Wells link died in 1952, my memory must pre-date that. The rabbits were despatched between 1953 and 1955 by farmers wilfully introducing of Myxomatosis.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Norfolk, railways, social class, travel