Give me the crisp packet of a child who is seven
OF ALL THE THINGS to prompt a Proustian rush, the sight of two Max Pax plastic coffee cups, an empty tuna and cucumber sandwich wrapper and a Kids Out Quids In! swirly red hat ought not to number among anyone’s top 10 of the subconscious.
They didn’t number among mine; at least, I wasn’t aware they were in there, jostling for position alongside the smell of tarmacadam at lunchtime or the opening bars of Nick Heyward’s Whistle Down the Wind.
But it turns out they are, and they were ready to work their bittersweet charms as soon as I sat down in the carriage of the Intercity 125.
I can’t stand coffee, I don’t eat tuna and I’ve never liked swirly hats. But line them up, along with other motifs of train travel from the 1980s, and I’m reduced to an emotional compost.
The National Railway Museum in York is to blame. Or rather, to thank, because this wasn’t an disagreeable degradation back into my younger, less sceptical, more leavening self.
Instead it was quietly fabulous – even a little moving, for it’s always this sort of thing in museums that tugs at my emotions more than your giant set-piece exhibit or ritzy installation.
Give me the crisp packet of a child who is seven and I will show you the man.
As I sat in this empty, stationary carriage, in seats that I and my family would have scrambled for, fidgeted among and snoozed in a quarter of a century ago, a British Rail advert from a safely post-Savile period started playing on a screen in the background. The Proustian rush became a deluge and I wondered if I was feeling particularly sentimental because of this part-contrived, part-unexpected flashback or because I missed the taste of BR Leaf Tea.
I settled for a pot of the museum’s own tea, plus a slice of tiffin, in the awkwardly-named Brief Encounters cafe.
I looked around me and suspected I was in a very small minority of people who appreciated this kind of place as much (maybe more) for the supporting features than the headline act.
The Mallard and the Rocket are both in the museum, and both are very nice to look at, but then so is this:
That’s both nice to look at and to relate to.
Likewise this poster:
It’s a shame British Rail worked out how to sell itself at precisely the same time the government worked out how to sell British Rail.
These and other posters weren’t attracting anywhere near the same interest as the big shiny engines or the Japanese bullet train or even the wooden bridge that goes nowhere but from the top of which you can take a nice photo. And that’s fair enough. If everyone wanted to look at the posters, I wouldn’t want to.
The museum also had a fair preponderance of other halves, looking not at the engines or even the wooden bridge. Instead they just looked nonplussed. One spent a good half hour on a bench reading a book. I wondered if she realised the bench on which she was sitting was itself an exhibit:
I also wondered if she was at all concerned as to where her other half was. The museum is enormous and I imagine couples could easily become separated for hours – perhaps to the delight of both parties.
One other type of visitor much in evidence when I was there was the foreign student. Two dozen French teens charged around the place for an hour or so. I don’t recall ever being allowed to do any kind of running, let alone shouting, on school trips. But because I knew they weren’t British, I somehow felt safe taking indulgent photos of myself. If they’d been from this country, I’d have fled to the cafe or shop until the coast was clear.
Also lost on our French cousins would have been the significance of this:
When Scott was here a few months ago, Sir Jimmy’s name had been very artlessly covered up. But now, perhaps in some act of post-Stalin-esque counter-revisionism, it was back on display, albeit bearing traces of its former fate. Maybe next week the sticky tape will be back. Or maybe the entire section of the museum devoted to anything to do with – whisper it – the 1970s will have been curtained off.
It’s better, surely, for the whole of our railway history to be here. Good or bad, it all happened. The identikit sandwiches flourished as well as the identikit steam engines, and both are now extinct. So is Jimmy Savile. But they all belong to the story of Britain’s railways, and should be there for us to take or leave. That way we can pose for our photos, sit on our benches or succumb to our Proustian rushes however and whenever we choose.
And with that thought lurking coherently if nervously in my head, I made for the museum shop to buy an InterCity mug. Well, it was the closest I could get to a BR sandwich.
Must be >10 years since I was there last, must go back soon.