Since getting my library card, the first two books I have consumed are Life on the Old Railways by Tom Quinn and This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay, the former as a hardback and the latter as an online audiobook.
It may seem odd to review both of these together, but there is some similarity – both consist of recollections of employment in a British state institution established in 1948.
I was interested in the descriptions of the institutional rank structure: On the old railways it went from Cleaner to Passed Cleaner to Fireman to Passed Fireman to Driver. The “passed” indicated that you had already completed a set amount of time in that role and were training for the next one. One diarist remarked that despite the intensely hierarchical nature of the system, movement from one rank to another was oddly informal and that the job titles were more reflective of the job you’d already done than the one you were currently doing. Pay rises, whatever your rank, did not take effect until your birthday. Kay explained the ranks of the NHS as Pre-registration house officer, senior house officer, specialist registrar and consultant. That structure had already been abolished and replaced by the time his diaries began, but the old terminology lingered for years afterwards in staff usage. He noted that the “senior” house officer was in reality still a very junior role and that promotion was purely a function of time rather than performance. This, he reckoned, was to convince the lower employees that their next upgrade was always just around the corner and so prevent them bailing out.
Another theme of both books was the sheer amount of time dedicated to the profession – railwaymen would be up before dawn to get their engines ready whereas junior doctors would would stay long into the night to keep patients alive. Neither managed to get many weekends or holidays to themselves.
Record-keeping was also important – the railwaymen recalled how every ticket, time and tonnage had to be scrupulously written up by hand (under torch or even candlelight) in enormous ledgers many of which were later sadly thrown away, whereas Kay spoke of the hospital’s attempts to digitise, with computer systems that refused to communicate with each other, blocked employees’ emails, erased recordings and ran so slowly that the patient would be dead by the time you’d selected the right medicine from the drop-down menu.
Despite the arduity, it was noted that the workers at both organisations were passionate about their jobs and generally held in high esteem – train driving was what every child had always wanted to do, while medicine was where every parent wanted their children to go (some class differences, of course). Perhaps that could also be their problem – the external prestige of holding such a position was used to compensate for (and even cover up) the stress of actually performing it.
This Is Going To Hurt was dramatised earlier this year as a critically-acclaimed BBC series. There is no TV version of Life on the Old Railways, but stories and documentaries about the days of post-war steam are ten-a-penny on most channels and online.