The Books of Quinn and Kay

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.

Streets, Railways and Brownfields


Today’s virtual outing took an unusual turn, featuring the London Natural History Society. The title proved a little misleading as the lecture was less about the streets and railways themselves than the plants growing on them.

At about 50:45, I asked Dr Spencer which species were most advantaged or disadvantaged by the presence of a railway line. He said the most advantaged were wind-dispersed plants, such as the “classic story” of Oxford ragwort which was confined to the walls of that town from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century when the railway arrived to blow its seeds around the country.

The History of the Shepaug Railroad

Today’s (well, tonight’s) virtual event was The History of the Shepaug Railroad. It was jointly hosted by the Gunn Historical Museum and the Danbury Railway Museum.

The former has put the whole presentation on its YouTube channel so I needn’t give a long synopsis, which is just as well since my computer was having difficulties and I probably missed a fair bit.

The Archives Arrive

The BBC Archive YouTube channel claims to have existed since 2018, but their videos only go back three months. I discovered them just yesterday. My favourite thus far is an interview with J. R. R. Tolkien explaining the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Also featured is the Shildon steam celebration of 1975, which includes an interview with Wilbert Awdry (strangely called “William” in the voiceover), and at least two short documentaries about the making of Classic Doctor Who.

It’s too early yet to know just how many videos this channel will post. If it’s anything like British Pathé I will be greatly impressed.

Sigh for A Deltic

This one was taken by Terry Foulger circa 1977, just to confuse you.

Today’s virtual lecture was put on by the North Eastern Railway Association. The Zoom session opened half an hour before the start of the actual presentation. This allowed the veteran members of the association to resolve technical issues, and also to trade jokes about Vladimir Putin. Neil Mackay, the association’s chairman, said that the upcoming Annual General Meeting would be held on Zoom due to the trustees’ lack of confidence in physical attendance, and asked if anyone would volunteer to be minutes secretary.

Our speaker was David Thomas. He had come to show off his photographs of the Class 55 diesel locomotives – popularly known as the Deltics, taken at various points along the East Coast Mainline in the period of 1977-1982, in anticipation of their displacement by the Class 43 High Speed Trains. Originally the photographs were taken with a Kodak Retinec 1B and the sound was captured by a Philips cassette tape recorder. Thomas’s original plan was to produce a tape-slide presentation, but this proved too costly at the time. Rather than settle for a less-than-professional presentation, he simply withheld the pictures until Microsoft Powerpoint came along to make things easier.

There followed a long stream of images. I will not attempt to describe them all. Thomas said that the Deltic engine was originally a marine concept, the admiralty having wanted a powerplant for its minesweepers. There were some technical diagrams included, and photographs of smashed engines undergoing repair. There were also insights into his personal life – he mentioned rushing to get a shot of No. 003 Meld at Holloway before going to see his wife give birth in York. He noted, too, where the environment in his photographs had changed, such as the “re-greening” around the viaduct at Leeds or the disappearance of poplar trees on the A64. Important moments in railway history were captured, such as the centenary of York Station in June 1978 and the final Deltic Scotsman service in February 1982.

The title of the lecture derived from Sigh for a Merlin by Alex Henshaw. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine had unofficially given its name to the Lancaster Bomber aeroplanes which used it, just as the Napier Deltic engine had done for the Class 55s. Thomas admitted that he didn’t like the locomotives originally but he grew to love them and he ended his talk by saluting all the volunteers who keep them working in preservation, the fleet between them having covered sixty-eight million miles.


UPDATE (8th March)

Chairman Mackay has accepted my offer to act as Minutes Secretary at the Annual General Meeting in May.

An Illustrated History of High-Speed Rail

Today’s event was put on by the Newcomen Society. Professor Felix Schmidt took us on a historical tour of the international quest for ever faster locomotion, from the Hetton Colliery Railway in 1822 to the Shinkansen today. The society has placed the whole thing on its YouTube channel, so I needn’t type a detailed synopsis.

One Last Ride

I have mentioned before my delight at finding old documentaries uploaded for free on YouTube. One which has stuck with me for a long time is episode 10 of Monster Moves, in which a South African Class 15F tender engine is rescued from a breaker’s yard in Bloemfontein and returned to its birthplace in Glasgow.

As expected from this sort of program, every setback is milked for the drama. First, the lorry meant to move the engine to Durban turns out to be too small, so it has to be towed on rails by a diesel engine. Then the wheels all have to be re-lubricated so they don’t catch fire, then ten empty flatbeds have to be hauled behind for breaking capability, then the line is blocked by a stalled lorry, then the diesel breaks down just shy of the dock, then the ferry is diverted, then a giant floating crane is needed to lift the 100 tonnes aboard, then after arriving in Immingham another giant crane is needed to lift it off again, then the lorry trailer has to be redesigned for the narrower track gauge, then the load might be too high to get under British motorway bridges, then the long trailer struggles to navigate Glasgow’s tight corners. All of this is accompanied by a gloriously over-the-top orchestral Western song.

No. 3007 now resides at the Riverside Museum. It is a little disheartening to think that she can never actually run again – her track gauge being too narrow and her loading gauge too wide – and that the other old locomotives at the same depot probably won’t be saved. Many in the comments section also allege that South Africa’s rail infrastructure has deteriorated severely since 2006 and been hit by widespread looting during lockdown. All this makes the film’s ending a little bittersweet.

This was not the only rail-centric episode of the series – they also covered the relocation of two Gresley A4s from North America to York and the retrieval of two Stanier 8Fs from Turkey.

Henry and the Trackside Trees

Euan Roger (left) John Varley (right)

This week I got a little carried away with Eventbrite, and consequently this afternoon I attended two virtual talks in rapid succession – both on Teams rather than Zoom.

The first was All aboard a railway for people and wildlife by Women in Sustainable Rail. The session began less than formally with John Varley (Estate Director of Clinton Devon Estates) and Dr Neil Strong (Biodiversity Strategy Manager for Network Rail) getting carried away in a conversation about beavers. Varley spoke about the review he had done in 2018 for the Department of Transport, commissioned by then-minister Jo Johnson.  Varley concluded that the review was about nature and not just trees. He stated that in the 1950s there were fewer trees immediately bordering Britain’s railways than today, yet there was greater overall biodiversity. He noted that people tend to have a spiritual relationship with trees that is not extended to other plants. He delightedly recalled one day being given his own train in the North of England to go around inspecting the ground and interviewing the locals. He urged Network Rail to treat nature as an asset equal with its man-made infrastructure. The next speaker was Jane Dodds, Portfolio Head of Project at the Rail Safety & Standards Board. She told of the negative public perception surrounding Network Rail’s approach to managing vegetation around the lines. Strong then recounted the story of the implementation of the review. He showed photographs of a pilot scheme in Kent where a large row of trees was cut down from the side of the line, with the intention to plant a meadow there instead. He presented a long list of organisations with which he liaised over the course of the scheme. There was a question & answer session at the end which concluded in a similarly awkward fashion with the host offering to send slides and asking anyone still listening to email further questions. I couldn’t think of anything to ask (and wasn’t sure if my microphone worked) to ask so logged off sheepishly.

The second was event Readeption and Revenge: The final years of Henry VI by the National Archives. This detailed the later life of the last monarch from the House of Lancaster, though the lecturer Euan Roger included a brief overview of his early life, when he inherited the throne at aged nine months and was ruled by regents until coming of age. He founded Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, and was said to be overly generous with petitions, even granting the same estate to two people on the same day, to the point where his ministers began screening documents before the King was allowed to see them. The people perceived that senior officials were enriching themselves at the crown’s expense and that profligate royal pardons were undermining the rule of law. Henry’s reign took a serious turn for the worse in 1453 when his mental illness first appeared. He was barely lucid for much of the time, so unable to carry out duties of state. When he recovered he dedicated his life to religious pursuits instead of administrative or military ones. Roger noted, though, that reports of infirmity could have been exaggerated by those seeking political advantage. Without wishing to tell the whole story of the Wars of the Roses again, Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461. The new king eventually captured the old, but his imprisonment was relatively comfortable by the standards of the time. Contemporary documents referred to him as “Henry of Windsor” or “late by fact but not by right King of England”. One calls him “Henry Beaufort”, which Rogers suggested could be an attempt by the Yorkists to reframe his ancestry. A fall-out within Edward IV’s court saw the Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick depose him, restoring Henry to the throne as a puppet under their joint protection. The readeption only lasted six months before Edward IV had taken the throne again, and weeks later Henry died, officially of natural illness but more probably through blunt head injuries. Henry was buried at Chertsey Abbey, but in 1484 was relocated to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. For this lecture questions were asked in the chat box, but I waited too long to ask mine and so the session ran out of time to answer it.


I had wished to know why the Yorkists had killed Henry in such an obviously violent manner rather than poisoning him or denying him food, so that it would have been more plausible to claim that his death had been peaceful. Even Philippa Gregory’s version of events had him suffocated with pillows instead of beaten.