Only in Britain

Or should this even be only in England?

Ian Allan, who has died the day before his 93rd birthday, triggered the post-war explosion of trainspotting as a British pastime by publishing the first booklet of engine numbers in 1942 and starting a club which had 230,000 members by the time steam gave way to diesel. He diversified the business to embrace magazines, bookshops, a travel agency, a Masonic publisher, a printing business, organic garden supplies, commercial property and car dealerships.
Allan was 20, and a 15s-a-week clerk with the Southern Railway, when he published the ABC of Southern Railway Locomotives in response to calls from enthusiasts for information. Management declined to publish it, but allowed Allan to do so at his own risk.
The first 2,000 copies of the shilling booklet sold out in days. Further ABCs on the Great Western, LNER and LMS railways, and London buses, trams and trolleybuses, went like hot cakes, friends and neighbours helping to distribute them.
It had not occurred to Allan that “bagging” the locomotives he listed would take off as a hobby. But within weeks, knots of schoolboys armed with his booklet appeared at the end of station platforms,

Not, perhaps, just the idea of trainspotting (I’m trying to ponder the reaction of the average Russian, or even German, to this idea and not getting very far) but that the bloke who invented it all by chance gets an obituary in one of the major newspapers.

We’re a weird country, no doubt about it.

29 thoughts on “Only in Britain”

  1. What’s even more impressive is that he managed to publish a book of locomotive numbers in the middle of a total war and wasn’t put up in front of a firing squad for his trouble. Not many countries where you could get away with that.

  2. Not a trainspotter myself, but it represents a boyish love of great industrial technology which is sadly lacking in the yoof of today. From the days when Britons still thought proudly of our country as the Worksop Of The World.

  3. Even more mind-boggling is the army of Eddie Stobbart lorry spotters. I have seen bunches them with SLR cameras on motorway bridges.

    I’d love to see the men/women split in these sort of clubs. I think the results would show that those people who develop bizarre obsessions are overwhelmingly male.

  4. And the Russian and German contribution to the age of steam was what? Providing scenery for the Orient Express?

  5. So Much for Subtlety

    Roue le Jour – “And the Russian and German contribution to the age of steam was what? Providing scenery for the Orient Express?”

    The Russians certainly had a romance with steam engines. Mostly in the form of Socialist Realism. The very first documentary film was made in the USSR about a coal mine I believe. The Fascists did as well. The Fascists like speed and power and high tech stuff. To the point that the Battle of Britain was won because of the contribution of a few people with unexpected, shall we say, political beliefs. Not sure if the Nazis loved Steam engines but I would not be surprised.

    Come to think of it, so did Ayn Rand. Make of that what you will.

  6. So Much for Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “I’d love to see the men/women split in these sort of clubs. I think the results would show that those people who develop bizarre obsessions are overwhelmingly male.”

    I bet that Ironman’s Scooter of Justice is steam-powered and so it would be cutting a little close to the bone to make the other comment about the demographics of train spotting. So I will just regret the passing of a unique culture in silence.

    And, naturally, denounce the entire train spotting world for their sexism which clearly is responsible for driving women away from the activity.

  7. It strikes me that a healthy interest in steam engines or v8s for that matter, is just that; a healthy interest, and people who have such a healthy interest tend to be nicer people than people who don’t.

    That’s not to say that I would want to spend an evening in the pub with a bunch of aging trainspotters exchanging stories about dmus and deltics (always more of a rat man myself), but for example spending a summer sunday afternoon as part of a team of volunteers restoring a steam engine – I can see that.

  8. Never mind plane-spotting which in most countries will land you in gaol.

    I remember the editorial in The Sun after those Brits were detained in Greece for plane spotting carried the line:

    Greece is a tin-pot, shambles of a country

    They could probably recycle that line this week.

  9. So Much for Subtlety

    Tim Newman – “They could probably recycle that line this week.”

    Not just this week. But of course Ironman thinks pointing that out is racist. Ignore the historical record. Pay no attention to the evidence. It is just a co-incidence that the same old people keep getting hit by bad luck. Unexpectedly as it were.

    In other unexpected news this week, North Korea is about to be hit by drought. Again. Such bad luck.

  10. @Rour le Jour – the principal German contribution to the age of steam engines was using them to transport troops backwards and forwards, and devising a plan for world domination based on a railway timetable.

    Now, it may have failed, spectacularly, but it fucked up things for the rest of us in the process.

  11. I inherited a collection of post cards from my grandmother: she had a fan in the station master of Bloemfontein, Orange River Colony 1904-08. He corresponded with fellow railway workers the world over: Japan, Russia, Canada, Argentina. That was the heroic age and they were aware of it.

  12. Not sure if the Nazis loved Steam engines but I would not be surprised.

    I think the Nazis were more into cars and aeroplanes than steam trains. Hence the Autobahns, new Airports – like Templehof – and the VW Beetle.

  13. “it may have failed, spectacularly”: it worked pretty well in Bismarck’s nationalist wars though.

  14. So Much for Subtlety

    Bloke In Italy – “the principal German contribution to the age of steam engines was using them to transport troops backwards and forwards”

    Actually I think they are more noted for using those steam engines to carry some non-soldiers backwards. Well, eastwards.

  15. I took the Jacobite from Fort William to Mallaig with wife and 8 yo daughter recently (the Harry Potter train) ending outward leg with a lovely lunch of a flat fish I had not even heard of before in Mallaig.

    Absolutely stunning scenery including the famous viaduct crossing and recommended if you like steam trains.

  16. So Much for Subtlety

    BraveFart – “I took the Jacobite from Fort William to Mallaig with wife and 8 yo daughter recently (the Harry Potter train) ending outward leg with a lovely lunch of a flat fish I had not even heard of before in Mallaig.”

    Yes but was the fish Gay?

  17. “Yes but was the fish Gay?”

    Well as a flat fish its face was on one side only and it had what could be interpreted as a wry smile?

  18. Philip Scott Thomas

    …the days when Britons still thought proudly of our country as the Worksop Of The World.

    Indeed. These days Britain seems more like the Stoke Of The World.

  19. Alex said:

    Never mind plane-spotting which in most countries will land you in gaol.

    I spotted one at the weekend. It was Vulcan XH558.

    These days if you want to see some kind of mechanical spectacle then a video of it is probably already on Youtube. I suppose this is progress.

  20. “a flat fish I had not even heard of before in Mallaig.”

    In Oban chipper, a million years ago:

    Q: On your blackboard, what is Scally dhu?
    A: It’s a sort of Gaelic mussel.

  21. Peter MacFarlane

    “He diversified the business to embrace magazines, bookshops, a travel agency, a Masonic publisher, a printing business, organic garden supplies, commercial property and car dealerships.”

    Sounds like he achieved quite a bit more than inventing train-spotting by mistake, actually. Quite a worthy subject for an obituary in fact.

  22. Peter MacFarlane

    @Dearieme: I thought they were called Clappy Dhus, but I may have got the spelling wrong; most gaelic spelling is wrong really.

    They are (were) a sort of gigantic mussel which became largely extinct when people started draining their latrines straight into the sea. Odd, that.

  23. You may well be right, Peter: I stand by the gist of the tale but not the spelling – which had anyway probably been anglicised so we could have a go at pronouncing it. I knew what “dhu” meant, but the noun was a mystery to me.

    Bloody fine chipper it was.

  24. “most gaelic spelling is wrong really”: a pal of mine, whose father was a Gaelic speaker, told me that Gaelic spelling had been mucked about as part of the romantic movement in the 19th century, where “mucked about” meant ‘made absurdly elaborate’. I assume that’s true; is it true too of Irish Gaelic, I wonder?

  25. @ianb – great industrial technology which is sadly lacking in the yoof of today well try chatting up a girl with the wonders of mechanical power and mass production. They may be wondrous things, but they don’t impress the girls.

  26. I was studying in Russia when Trainspotting came out. Lots of the Russian students asked me what the title meant but none of them really seemed to get it.

  27. And the Russian and German contribution to the age of steam was what? Providing scenery for the Orient Express?

    A rather British conceit I’m afraid to imagine that no one else contributed much to the age of steam. In fact American, French, German, Russian and at the end even Argentinian input was considerable and that’s just the steam locomotive. In many ways, after the first flush, the British contribution could not unfairly be described as slight.

    Management declined to publish it, but allowed Allan to do so at his own risk.

    Apparently the Southern Railway weren’t actually very keen on his work as they felt that it wasn’t really anyone else’s business what locos they were producing, not an uncommon attitude unfortunately amongst British railway operators.

    I have very fond memories of the IA combined volumes and the interset in spotting they triggered in me and a group of friends. Without them we might never have spent many happy hours on the end of Waterloo station with a soggy pork pie and a bottle of Tizer watching West Country and Merchant Navy locos pounding ( or slipping ) up the bank towards Vauxhall. He contributed to the sum of human happiness which is the true mark of greatness IMO.

  28. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    I’m a bit late to this, so probably no one will read the comment, but anyway…

    On German SudWestRundfunk ( serves Baden-Wurtemburg and the Palatinate) there’s a series from the late 90s called Eisenbahn Romantik. It is of course for trainspotters, but the sort who look at steam trains or mighty freight wagons. So they do exist in Germany and like all things Teutonic, they take it a bit more seriously.

    I saw an episode this morning ( by accident, honest!) about one trainspotter’s experience in the old East Germany in the 70s.
    He aroused the suspicion of the Stasi, because he frequently travelled to the DDR to attend Deutsche Reichsbahn open days, where they showed off their still-pristine steam locos. The Stasi observed that he took photos not just of the trains, but of the local surroundings and even the other spectators (!) He also accidentally took a few snaps of the Stasi man following him. He was allowed to see his files after the revolution and apparently the Stasi tailed him for years and checked up on all the shops he visited and investigated the West German trainspotters’ magazine to which he contributed. There were apparently over 900 pages to his file.
    The DDR authorities were convinced that the West German steam-fans that crossed the border were CIA agents really there to photograph military installation. The programme was hilarious and was done in a wonderfully dead-pan manner, with the victim himself reconstructing events and surreal telephone conversations with DDR spies posing as fellow enthusiasts, as described in the files.

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