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8 August 2018

Andrew Martin’s diary: Steam engines, ear wax, and how class prejudice could have stopped Brexit

Britain’s preserved railway lines are a phenomenon of localism as much as nostalgia.

By Andrew Martin

On 11 August, it will be the 50th anniversary of the end of steam traction on British Rail; or what was supposed to be the end. Yet steam locomotives were back on BR’s main lines for special excursions by 1971, and the preserved railway movement had been up and running for 17 years. The preserved railways operate steam locos or diesels – often along revived country branch lines that the railway axeman, Dr Beeching, thought he’d closed in the 1960s.

The steam locos are the heroes, while the diesels are employed a bit shamefacedly. I went to the beautiful Wensleydale Railway in Yorkshire the other day and asked the ticket clerk what was running: “Only a Class 37, I’m afraid.” (A Class 37 is a diesel.) You can usually have a quick go in the cab of a diesel for £5 (“Driver For a Fiver”), but footplate sessions on steam engines are more expensive and prolonged, and having done a few of them I can see the appeal of steam. It’s so elemental – like being in charge of a thunderstorm.

There are roughly 150 preserved railways – 150 wormholes to the past, you could perhaps say – and 200 of the locomotives running on them were reclaimed from a scrapyard in Barry, Wales. I recently watched footage from 1973 of one steam engine – Duke of Gloucester by name – being unloaded at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway (a preserved line), having been rescued from Barry. It seemed the whole of Loughborough had turned out to greet it, including a young girl flitting about in a poncho. Suddenly she darts towards the engine and puts a hand on its buffer beam, to assist the engine’s removal from the low-loader – a token effort, or perhaps the bestowal of a blessing.

Watching this, it struck me that the preserved lines are a phenomenon of localism as much as nostalgia, and one student of the scene told me, “The people running them are basically syndicalists.” Being as a rule mild-mannered individuals of retirement age, they don’t look like syndicalists, still less revolutionary syndicalists, but they have (so to speak) taken back control of their own lives and localities in a not-for-profit way that accords with tenets of libertarian socialism.

That Old Etonian chancer

As some readers might remember, I used to write a column for the New Statesman called “Class Conscious”, in which I paraded my chippiness, while acknowledging that the hierarchy of class was being replaced by one of money.

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Since then, class awareness has been further blunted by intersectionality, which urges people to consider that their class grievance may be only one of several to which they are entitled. But if we must have prejudice, then class prejudice is the one to go for, partly because it’s the only type that you can make jokes about. (And here’s one by Jimmy Carr: “I’m middle-class but I’m hard – al dente.”)

It also occurs to me that if the edge had not been taken off class consciousness, the Brexit vote in poorer areas might have been different. Boris Johnson would have been seen as an Old Etonian chancer, full stop; Nigel Farage as another public school product – this one of the strident, Home Counties golf club type. Yet the emergence of Jacob Rees-Mogg as a spokesman for the masses proves that my speculation belongs to a disappeared world.

Golfing like Trump

I shouldn’t be rude about golf clubs since I might one day aspire to join one. I do play golf – badly. I have a half set of old (meaning heavy) clubs and a narrow, retro bag. Think of Benedict Cumberbatch’s kit in the golf scene of Parade’s End, as adapted by Tom Stoppard for TV. The course I most regularly play on is a nine-hole links at Southwold, Suffolk, and I will be going there next week. I like to play alone, teeing off late in the day, which is known in golf – surprisingly poetically – as “twilight”.

Come 7.30pm in high summer, the goldenness of the light at Southwold is entrancing. It also makes a ball in the semi-rough harder to find, which is why a round at twilight is half price. Yet no matter how late I leave it, there is usually another duffer starting even later, gradually catching up and threatening to suggest, “Shall we go round together?” – an appalling prospect because my golf is not fit to be seen by strangers.

Most bad golfers are bad in the same way: they hit the ball too short a distance. They lollop along doing the same unimpressive thing, whereas I will occasionally hit a straight 250-yard drive (which is long) but sometimes miss the ball altogether. In other words, I do not have what’s called a “grooved” swing.

According to an elegant piece written last year by Jaime Diaz in Golf Digest, Donald Trump’s swing is “imperfect but grooved”. I find it hard to believe that anyone with a grooved golf swing can be really crazed. If Trump played golf like me, then I would be worried.

Getting an earful

At the risk of being disgusting, I am going to mention that I recently had a lot of wax syringed out of my ears. Suddenly I could hear properly, after months – maybe years – of partial deafness. Yet I soon felt a new vulnerability. I realised that even more people than I thought were not only looking at their smartphones but also listening to them – in a public place and without earphones. I object to this because – as my dad used to say on trains when I put my feet up on the opposite seat – “What if everyone did it?”

I sometimes ask people broadcasting a funny YouTube clip to their dozen mates in the saloon bar to desist and they usually comply. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, because they were clearly in a state of shock as they turned down their device, staggered by my incivility. 

Andrew Martin’s latest novel, “The Martian Girl: a London Mystery”, is out now, published by Corsair

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This article appears in the 08 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State