No time for comedy...

The economic crisis, the relentless attacks on Gaza and a very real threat to trainspotting. Jonatha

My first piece of the year. I have taken legal advice and understand what is required under the Columnists’ Act. So here they are, my humorous predictions for 2009...

January

Michael Martin agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by George Galloway!

February

Gordon Brown announces...
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That will keep the Statesman’s lawyers happy for a while.

But really this is no time for comedy. The economy is collapsing, the Gaza Strip is being blitzed and there are unconfirmed reports of wolves being sighted at Cleobury Mortimer.

So let’s talk about something serious instead.

Trainspotting.

And I don’t mean the adventures of Begbie, Spud and Sickboy either.

As I said in my review for Steam Railway Quarterly, anyone who opens Irvine Welsh’s book in the hope of gaining an insight into the operation of Gresley’s A4 Pacifics on the LNER is likely to be sadly disappointed.

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If I were not too worldly to have heroes, Norman Baker would be one of them. The Lib Dem MP once brought down Peter Mandelson with a single question. He has published a book investigating the death of Dr David Kelly. He champions Tibetan freedom and the reopening of the line between Uckfield to Lewes.

But this week Baker disappointed me. Revealing that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000 has been used to stop 62,584 people at railway stations and that another 87,000 travellers have been questioned under ‘stop and search’ legislation, he thought it necessary to say:

“The anti-terror laws allow officers to stop people for taking photographs and I know this has led to innocent trainspotters being stopped. This is an abuse of anti-terrorism powers and a worrying sign that we are sliding towards a police state.

"Trainspotting may be an activity of limited, and indeed questionable, appeal, but it is not a criminal offence and it is not a terrorist threat.”

When did this innocent activity become such anathema? Baker would not have felt a need to be condemnatory if he had been, say, defending sadomasochists against Jacqui Smith’s goons.

Trainspotting is now treated only half-jokingly as a symptom of a rather major social disorder, but it is not so long since boys were meant to be interested in railways.

For three decades after the Second World War working-class affluence gave them the money and the leisure to pursue the hobby. The Ian Allan Locospotters Club provided the ruthless organisation.

Nicholas Whittaker tells the story in his Platform Souls – a book that in a just world would have done for trainspotting what Fever Pitch did for football.

As he emphasises, trainspotting was not without controversy. Popular stations could be overrun with children in the holidays and questions were once asked in the House about a particularly notorious episode at Tamworth. When overzealous spotters were picked up wandering around locomotive depots, magistrates would call for the hobby to be banned.

But if nothing else, it taught them about geography. If modern youths want to get home they phone their parents and grunt.

So why all this “Place your notebook on the ground and walk away from it slowly” stuff from the authorities?

It’s nothing to do with terrorism: it is about enforcing conformity. If our young people were again to smell diesel fumes and taste chocolate from machines – for any former trainspotter these are the unforgettable flavours of first freedom – there would be no holding them.

But talking of conformity, we had better keep the lawyers sweet.

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...announces David Cameron.
December
George Galloway agrees to resign as Speaker, but only if he is replaced by Cheryl Cole!!