Nostalgia is a strange thing. For those who are indulging in it, it is generally seen as a pleasant activity, a good thing; for those who are witnessing it in others, it is seen as thoroughly unpleasant, exclusive and indulgent.
So, bear with me, while I brood on the matter a while.
One thing seems obvious to me, and that is that the older I get the more there is to be nostalgic about. Nostalgia on this level is a great comforter. However awful things were, all events that I can remember can be viewed through this beautiful, soft-focus lens. The horror of adolescence, as I experienced it at the time, becomes an idyllic world of peerless pop music and beautiful girls; all that gangling inadequacy and shy ignorance of the world and its ways, become excuses for avuncular smiles and indulgent, incredulous shaking of the head.
I suppose it has to be like this, or we just couldn’t live with ourselves. We would be overwhelmed by the truth.
This weekend we visited a heritage steam railway. Why they insist on describing everything older than ten years as “heritage”, I really don’t know. If steam railways are “heritage”, that makes me heritage too, for I travelled on steam trains, spotted steam locomotives, and dreamed of being an engine driver, along with all boys at that time. If I am indeed heritage, then I should get regular improvement grants from the government. A documentary will be made about me, and I will become a registered charity.
The visited railway was the Great Central Railway, which has been restored between Loughborough and Leicester, and which my mother travelled on regularly to visit her grandmother in Quorn, price one penny return. It was a line built as late as the 1890’s, with the intention of linking London to the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North, up to Glasgow in Scotland. It was a grand project, and was closed down in its entirety by Beeching in 1965, as part of a desperate attempt to make the railways pay.
It was the first salvo in a war that has been waged on our national assets by people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. The war is still going on, but now concentrated on Education and the National Health Service.
The experience of the train opened the rose-coloured memories of a slower world, when customers were called passengers, when we all moaned about the railways but we all felt a secret pride that they belonged to us; when stationmasters in black raincoats blew whistles and waved flags, and no-one threw them or their families on the scrapheap because some clerk in London thought he could save a few quid; when the sandwiches were rubbish, but the open fires in the station buffets made up for it; when the coaches creaked and the under-seat heating burned your feet, but you could still stick your head out the window and experience the joy of speed, the smell of the coal, and the haunting sound of the steam whistle; when, at the end of the journey, small boys were taken to say thank you to the driver and fireman, and, if they were lucky, would be lifted into the cab to stare awestruck at the dials and levers and pistons.
Oh, to have my hair ruffled by an engine driver, and to be called “Son” by a man in oily blue overalls!
Virgin trains may be sleek and quiet and, usually, punctual, but it is true that the past is a foreign country, and it is also true that, usually, they do things better there!