British Railway Enthusiasm by Ian Carter
Manchester University Press, 2008. Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON
Sociologists have a reputation for writing dull books. Walk into a big bookshop like Borders or Dymocks and you’ll find shelf after shelf devoted to the writings of historians, but precious few tomes with their origins in sociology departments. For many readers, the very word sociology conjures terrifying visions of vast and incomprehensible tables of statistics and pages of jargon-ridden prose.
If anybody needs proof that sociology can be entertaining, as well as informative, then they could do worse than consult the oeuvre of Anglo-Kiwi academic Ian Carter. In a career spanning nearly four decades, Carter has written about subjects as different as the Scottish peasantry, the poetry of Robert Burns, the life and times of the founder of New Zealand’s symphony orchestra, and the British novel. Carter researches his books with a fervent thoroughness, and sprinkles them with hundreds of footnotes, but he enjoys a readership on both sides of the academy’s ivory walls, because he knows how to turn his research into engaging writing.
In the early nineties Carter was awarded a long sabbatical, as a reward for years of hard labour in the University of Auckland’s Sociology Department. When Carter chose to spend his leave in the northern English city of York, colleagues assumed he had been attracted by the fine old cathedral, and by the local university’s excellent history and sociology departments. But York held a different attraction for Carter – the city was a hub of Britain’s train system in the nineteenth century, and it houses a major research institution dedicated to the railways. During his time in York, Carter eschewed university seminars and walks to the cathedral, preferring to follow paper trails through the archives of the National Railway Museum. Carter returned from his sabbatical with a vast collection of documents, and a long reading list.
The first important fruit of Carter’s labours was Railways and Culture in Britain: the Epitome of Modernity, a book which scrutinised the impact of the train on the writers of the world’s first industrial nation. Carter’s new book is an investigation into the mysterious world of ‘railway enthusiasts’ – train spotters, builders of model railways, rail line preservationists, and others for whom rail is much more than a means of transport. Despite its author’s labours in the archives, British Railway Enthusiasm is not the work of a detached academic observer: Carter admits to having spent much of his youth chasing trains, and suggests that his academic research into railway enthusiasm can perhaps be considered ‘an indulgence’. In a long, elegant introductory chapter he mixes a narrative of the history of British railways with memories of his own adventures on the station platforms and in the rusty repair sheds of post-war Luton.
Through the keyhole
When does indulgence become self-indulgence? Is a mind as supple as Carter’s wasted on a subject as modest as railway-related hobbyism?
Should this senior scholar not be devoting himself to an analysis of the crises of capitalism, or a study of the social implications of global warming, or an examination of the state of Western democracy? Questions like these have been muttered by sociologists who mistake grand research subjects for important research results. Such people misunderstand the method at work in British Railway Enthusiasm, and in many of Carter’s other books. Like his heroes, the American sociologist C Wright Mills and the Welsh cultural historian Raymond Williams, Carter likes to select a single, relatively limited subject as a sort of ‘keyhole’ through which he can view a whole society and era.
In the splendid book he wrote in the late eighties, Ancient Cultures of Conceit, Carter examined the peculiarly English genre of the ‘university novel’, showing how books like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong reflect and express the anxieties that have beset English academia since World War Two. Ancient Cultures of Conceit begins as a work of literary criticism, but soon develops into a baleful account of the snobberies and stupidities of Oxbridge, the pathetic attempts by the newer ‘red brick’ universities to invoke these dubious qualities in pursuit of a bogus respectability, and the ham-fisted and commercially-driven attempts by the Thatcher government to ‘modernise’ the tertiary sector in the early eighties. It’s amazing how much can be seen through a keyhole.
A post-war phenomenon
What can we see through the keyhole that is British Railway Enthusiasm? one level, the book is a series of studies of different aspects of the railway enthusiast’s ‘life world’. Carter documents the explosion of train spotting in the forties, and the rise of a sophisticated railway modelling hobby in the same period. He laments the decline of these and other railway enthusiasms in more recent decades, and casts a cool eye over Britain’s burgeoning ‘railway heritage’ industry.
Carter is not content simply to describe milieu that have frequently been shrouded in mystery and misrepresentation: he also has something important to say about the Britain of the second half of the twentieth century. His book shows that, far from being the product of some odd English quirk or a mass outbreak of Asperger’s Symdrome, the rise of railway enthusiasm was a product of the particular qualities of post-war British society. Despite being superseded by the United States as the world’s pre-eminent capitalist power, post-war Britain remained an industrial superpower, with a huge, highly skilled working class. The ‘brief flowering of social democracy’ which began with the election of the Attlee government increased the spare time, job security, and incomes of many workers. What is sometimes called the ‘leisure sector’ of the economy increased enormously, absorbing workers’ free time and disposable income. Carter notes that railway modelling, in particular, represented a way that Britons could use their work skills for pleasure, away from the demands of the market and managers.
Carter’s arguments about railway modelling resonate with the study that one of his PhD students, Len Richards, has made of Auckland’s now-derelict Otahuhu Railway Workshops. In a piece written for the journal Red and Green a couple of years ago, Richards described how the employees of the workshops would secretly use their equipment to make ‘rabbits’ – objects meant for leisure-time use, like fishing rods and barbeques, which were smuggled home in pieces at the end of the day.
Carter and Richards both have a keen sense for the complexity of the class contradictions that persisted beneath the placid surface of post-war Anglo-Saxon society. The hip, latte-sipping section of today’s left tends to regard the fifties and early sixties as a time of unmitigated conservatism and conformity, a dreary prelude to the upheavals of the late sixties and seventies. For its part, the political right likes to present the same period as a lost golden age, when workers and employers alike enjoyed a rare contentment.
Contrary to the mythmaking of both the left and the right, though, the post-war worker was not some supine creature perfectly content with a forty hour week and mortgaged quarter acre or semidetached. Very often, he – and, as Ian Carter repeatedly and regretfully notes, railway enthusiasm was largely the preserve of males – felt the need to enter another world, where the skills he used in the workplace were deployed in a more creative, fulfilling manner.
Like his discussion of modelling, Carter’s chapter on train spotting is characterised by a fine sense of historical and social context. Carter points out that the same people who ridicule train spotters as hopeless geeks see nothing wrong with collecting artefacts from the world of trains. Station signs and clocks make regular guest appearances on ‘that pioneering piece of middle class reality TV’, Antiques Roadshow. It seems that what offends many opponents of train spotting is the hobby’s failure to adhere to the logic of capitalism and create collectable consumer goods.
Carter shows that the great interest in train spotting after World War Two was made possible by an increase in leisure time, and he connects the egalitarian collectivism of the hobby – enthusiasts hunted in packs – to the values of the social democratic era inaugurated by the Attlee administration. Attlee’s nationalisation of the railways also helped spur the hobby: for many Britons, it meant that the trains were something they suddenly had a real stake in.
In his last chapter Carter surveys the decline of modelling, spotting, and other hobbies linked to the railways. In the fifties most British schoolboys were railway enthusiasts; today the modeller or spotter is more likely to be ‘bald and bespectacled’. Carter links the decline of the various railway hobbies to a loss of leisure time, and to the demise of much of Britain’s industrial base. How many of today’s Britons, he wonders, have the electrical, engineering, and woodworking skills required to create an old-fashioned model railway? How many workers have work schedules that allow them to spend whole weekends with their friends on windy station platforms, scribbling down the serial numbers of passing trains?
Redeeming the footnote
British Railway Enthusiasm proceeds at a relaxed, almost languid pace – a tempo appropriate, perhaps, to a discussion of pursuits like modelling and train spotting. Despite his own passion for anything related to the railways, and his indignation at the ridicule his passion nowadays attracts, Carter is able to laugh at himself and his fellow enthusiasts. In one alarmingly credible passage, for instance, he likens competing railway preservationist societies to feuding Marxist sects. Carter also has a few sly digs at pass times which fail to enthuse him. During a comparison between the railways and other parts of Britain’s ‘heritage industry’, for instance, he can’t help referring to churches as ‘erections…serviced by legions of devout, ageing spinsters’.
A word must be said about Carter’s use of the footnote. Usually, a writer who produces footnotes of prodigious length can be diagnosed as suffering from either paranoia or pomposity. Students contributing to that paranoid genre known as the PhD thesis and academics squeezing out their first book both tend to overdose on the footnote, out of fear that their arguments look too thin on the page. Scholars at the other end of their careers sometimes succumb to the temptation to show off the depth and breadth of their learning in tedious footnotes.
Ian Carter is a prolific footnoter, but he is neither paranoid nor pompous. Written to expand upon rather than merely repeat the arguments in his main text, his notes lead the reader off to a series of unexpected destinations. Some notes contain capsule biographies of fascinating characters Carter has encountered in his research, like Jim Russell, the horny-handed thirties railwayman who eventually became an important figure in the railway publishing business; other notes quote Dickens, or crack jokes about Welsh place names, or explain the inner workings of the steam engine. Carter has managed the difficult task of making footnotes fun to read.
Old-fashioned, but not irrelevant
British Railway Enthusiasm is imbued with an unashamed nostalgia for a period in history that will not return. Carter sometimes presents himself as parasite, feeding off the corpse of a dead subject: in his melancholy last chapter, for instance, he claims that the railways were once a ‘pioneer socio-technological system’, but are now becoming little more than ‘a terrain for scholarly antiquarianism’. The hobbies the railways inspired are ‘just another world we have lost’, a world that is fading ‘like a badly-fixed photograph’.
There is a danger that Carter’s preoccupation with the decline of his beloved hobbies might prevent him from seeing the continuity between these archaic pursuits and the popular culture of the twenty-first century. Today, in a Western nation like Britain or New Zealand, a worker is more likely to have been trained in information technology than in electrical engineering. Few workers have the skills needed for old-fashioned railway modelling, but many still use their work skills to create islands of autonomy where the rules of the employer and the market do not apply. ‘Rabbits’ are no longer smuggled from railway workshops, but millions of office workers use their employers’ computers and time to write blogs, or maintain My Space, Bebo, and Facebook pages, or run computer games networks. The beautifully crafted alternative worlds of the train modeller may be rare today, but ‘virtual realities’ like the online world Second Life serve much the same purpose, for a new generation of workers. Capitalism has dispensed with the steam train, but it cannot avoid creating and maintaining alienation. The subject of British Railway Enthusiasm may be old-fashioned, but the book’s themes are all too relevant.
Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.