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August 1968 - the date is etched on our memories. A group by the name of Cupid's Inspiration was shooting up the charts with "Yesterday Has Gone" - sad synchronicity in the month that steam engines were finally expelled from British Railways. We'd had years to get ready for it, but the 1968 Ian Allan `combine' still came as a shock. It was so thin and insignificant. I still remembered - still remember today - that first one my mum bought for me, fat and shiny, with that petrol smell I always associated with the adventure of books. But in the four years I'd been buying the combine, it had shed thousands of numbers. They'd already stopped issuing a separate steam book - it would have been derisory, no more than a flimsy pamphlet - and even the combine wouldn't have been worth its 12/6 if Ian Allan hadn't resorted to padding it out with a 20-page puff for the rose-tinted hi-tech future of the railways.
Not that steam fans cared...as far as they were concerned there was no future. It wasn't only their darling steam engines that were destined for history's dustbin, but whole damn thing, that great smoky teenage playground - signalboxes, sidings, men in grubby jackets and crumpled caps, station porters - anything that made a noise or cast a shadow.
The future railway scene would be eerie and soundless: clanking signals would be replaced by winking lights; a million rattling wagonloads of freight would be transferred to the roads; and even the track itself was being welded into long continuous strips, so there wouldn't even be that clickety-clack clickety-clack anymore...
If there had been any poets on the British Railways Board they might at least have let the lads enjoy one last glorious trainspotting summer, two more of those long hot months of pop and sandwiches and the smell of coal, but the holidays had hardly even started before steam was wiped out. Still, at least the weather was good. If the end had come in winter they would have limped off to the scrap-yards veiled in drizzle and smog. As it was, they departed in carnival weather and the crowds came out to pay their respects.
Three names are inextricably linked with those final days of of steam: Rose Grove, Lostock Hall and Carnforth. These depots were the last bastions of mainline steam and formed a `Black Triangle' with Preston, Blackburn and Lancaster as its corners.
This is where they all came, a steady stream of trainspotters desperate for a last glimpse. The railwaymen made them welcome too: there was no kicking ass now, no harsh words about trespassing - they were even invited to help out and got to work with their rags and polish. British Rail may not have given a damn - they just wanted it over as quickly and quietly as possible - the railwaymen and trainspotters were determined to make an occasion of it.
The trainspotting equivalent of the JFK question is `Where were you on the last day of steam?' The faithful will be able to say they were somewhere in Lancashire, chasing every possible working, snapping every possible picture, drowning their sorrows in a Carnforth pub. They'd been hanging around for months, but there were so many people turning up at Carnforth in those last few days they had difficulty parking their cars.
I know where I was...I wasn't there. And I've never overcome that guilt. Me, who'd chased steam around the country for four years as much as my pocket allowed, I couldn't even make it a hundred miles to Lancashire to join in the wake. I dread having to explain myself one day, to my grandchildren perhaps: I'll feel like a soldier, too ashamed to admit I wasn't at Dunkirk. While the others were mooning around the sheds at Rose Grove and Carnforth, or chasing the last freights up to Carlisle, I was more interested in the disco at St Chad's church hall and shaking my hair to Jumpin' Jack Flash.
If one of the gang had wanted to go, we'd probably all have made the effort. But no one did. Pipsqueak would have been too proud: he would have hated to see those 8-freights and blackies limping from one humble duty to another, leaking steam, covered with blistered rash of limescale that no one could be bothered to clean off. Andy seemed to be more into football and had ambitions of managing his own team of juniors...
But there was a more sombre reason for our absence. Jinx's mum and dad were killed in a car crash and it had thrown a shadow over all of us, especially Andy and me because we'd been round at Jinx's dancing drinking his dad's beer and dancing to Stones records when the police came with the news. It was a tragedy for Jinx, of course, but it made us all feel vulnerable too. Part of the joy of trainspotting was coming home to love and a hot meal, then clearing the table to sit down and do all the paperwork. I loved my mum, but I'd always taken her for granted too: thinking that she wouldn't be there was too awful to even think about. It made me newly timid, a little less adventurous.
So how can I write with any authority? Maybe I can't - but the end of steam is part of railway mythology, so well-documented in words and pictures, in film and sound recordings, that everyone knows the story. I'd already seen the neglect and resignation elsewhere: those last days at Wolverhampton and Tyseley and those trips to Manchester had given me an ample preview of what it would be like.
I don't think I was the only one who didn't go. Old trainspotters are like old soldiers - they all claim a share of the glory. No one can disprove them now. But if there had been that many of them swarming around, the county of Lancashire would have sunk two inches further down.
Arguments have raged ever since about whether the end of steam was necessary. To schoolkids and socialists (but not those in government) it had the smell of a political fix. While hippies were high on pot, the establishment was high on modernisation, and they thought they'd had a vision: a wonderful future full of hi-rise blocks and supermarkets and comprehensive schools. British Rail had invented InterCity and painted all its carriages blue and white in an early attempt at a corporate image. Steam engines had no place in this vision, they were too obviously mechanical and emitted embarrassing smells. Yet some of the steamers were barely 10 years old (the last was built in 1960), and they could have lasted another 50 years. It was an shocking waste. Even die-hard steam fans might accept that steam engines had to go one day - but not so hastily and with such disgraceful lack of gratitude. The wealth of the nation owed much to the invention of the steam engine and its century and a half of loyal service.
Dr Beeching - a name even now accompanied by an oath and a spit - had chopped the railways by a third and if he'd had his own way there'd have been no railways West of Plymouth or North of Edinburgh. The scale of the change can be gauged from the fact that 20,000 steam engines were replaced by a mere 5000 diesels and electrics. There's even a Domino Theory that the end of steam marked the end of our industrial society. Without the railways to supply, the strength of the coal industry was considerably weakened. The railwaymen and the miners had always stood shoulder to shoulder, but the bond of mutual dependence had gone.
The weekend of August 11th saw the famous `15-Guinea Special', powered from Merseyside to Carlisle by that one remaining Britannia, 70013 Oliver Cromwell. £15.75 - about two week's wages then - for the privilege of travelling on the last-ever officially-operated steam train. British Railway were certainly going to milk tearful trainspotters for their last penny and there was no shortage of takers. I suspect that the thousands of people who stood at the lineside and watched it go by had a better view: it may have been only a few seconds, but it was somehow more dignified than being on the train, fighting for a space at one of the tiny windows.
For me, steam had only lasted four short years. A quarter of my life then, but only a tenth of it now And yet, emotionally, spiritually, it's always been more than half. I still have recurring dreams of steam. I'm back in the Sixties (or steam has been revived for some reason), walking across a bridge when I hear a whistle. I jump up to see over the ironwork - and it's all there: the whole of my childhood, all my summer holiday cops pasted onto a long and vivid collage - an Ozzie rattling past with a coal train, a Blackie coupling up to a trainload of mixed wagons, a faithful little Jinty shunting in the sidings. I've had this dream on and off for twenty-odd years, once a month at least. Recently, during one of our sadly infrequent drink-meets I plucked up the courage to tell Andy Parker about these sentimental dreams - and to my surprise he confessed that it was exactly the same for him.
CARNFORTH 1995. I'm a quarter of a century too late, but there is still steam here. Steamtown sounds a bit Disney-fied, but it is a fitting memorial to those last smoky days. With Health and Safety at Work to worry about and a stack of EEC rules mean we can never recapture the authentic gloominess and neglect of those sheds (they couldn't risk visitors crashing down into an inspection pit or falling headlong into an oil slick) but there's still lots to snag the senses - the smell above all, and the hiss of steam, that ever-present sense of power at rest...
Carnforth is also famous as the location for one of the smokiest and best of railway films - Brief Encounter. It's hard to believe, looking round here today, that this tale of passion was possible and believable, all that passion and betrayal and eroticism, the whisper of steam and the gathering thunder of expresses with the hint of that final petit mort. That happened here? It makes me wonder if any romance could be made at Milton Keynes Central or New Street. Highly unlikely, and such a pity. Much is made of the eroticism of cars, but it's tacky schoolboy sexuality, obsessed with phallic symbolism and Desmond Morris colour codes. The railways could never offer blunt symbolism like that, but they have certainly provided the setting for romance and eroticism over the years.
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