Friday, 19 September 2014

The Lennytown Express

It strikes me as peculiar that I live in a world in which the complete works of Led Zeppelin can be stored on an After Eight mint, Louis Armstrong has set foot on the moon, and yet the span of my own life has encompassed a not quite industrial age during which one man was once required to milk a hundred or so dairy cattle by means of bucket and stool. I don't actually recall my father milking all of those cows by hand, and in any case I doubt it would have been just him on the job, but I vividly remember the day when trucks arrived at the farm bringing with them the new mechanised milking machinery; and I recall being aware of this representing a significant change to the way things had been done before. The waste ground at the side of our tenant housing was briefly occupied by huge metallic structures, great angular beams of sculpted aluminium or steel shining in the sun and awaiting installation in the milking parlour. It was impossible for me to even guess at what function these things would soon perform, and it seemed as though they could have been deposited in our midst by a spaceship from a futuristic civilisation.

The building work began, and one by one the silver machines went into the building, leaving in their wake great mounds of sand at the back of the landing site, near the workshop. Being about five years old, I began to carve out channels in an effort to control water I had bought from the standpipe in a bucket. The gutting and refurbishment of the milking parlour yielded lengths of old piping, possibly lead, which I would bury in my mountain of sand, pushing the end of one limescaled length up against another in an effort to carve out my own private sewer system through which water would course according to my will alone.

Inevitably the fun was not to last as Alan, who was probably about ten and who lived in one of the other tenant houses, saw me building my kingdom of sand and irrigation, and decided I could use a little help. I disliked his plans for my water system, none of which seemed to represent an improvement so far as I could see, and I had been doing just fine without his advice. Worse was that he somehow managed to get out of me that I had recently inherited a Mamod steam engine.

Mamod of Birmingham began making their tiny replica steam engines in 1937, and the toys had been popular ever since. My father had been given one of their stationary engines, a boiler of either tin or copper mounted on a metal base, heated by a small fire lit beneath, and driving a wheel which could be used to provide motive power for the similarly popular Meccano construction sets to which most male children aspired during the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, one could simply fire the thing up and watch the wheel spinning around for the sheer thrill of it. Steam had mostly been replaced by electricity or diesel as the driving force of industry by the time I was born. A few steam engines were supposedly still in operation, working out their last few years prior to retirement, but we all knew what a steam engine looked like, what it could do, and even how it worked. It made for a great toy. My father's steam engine was red and black, the paint slightly chipped, but otherwise beautifully hand-crafted and very robust. Alan took it to pieces, and then explained which parts of the gutted engine I would be allowed to keep. The shinier parts were to remain in his hands, payment for his sterling work in destroying the steam engine. With hindsight it seems almost like some genetic imperative to strip the copper piping out of abandoned buildings for sale as scrap had driven his hand even before he fully understood what he was doing, although an equally valid explanation is that he was simply an evil little tosser.

When my father got wind of the enforced privatisation of the steam engine which had brought him such pleasure as a child, he said nothing, but then he didn't need to as his brow darkened to an Old Testament hue of righteous fury. We got on with Alan's family, but mainly because there were only four families living on the farm - including that of Mr. Harding, the owner - so we were obliged to get on whether we really liked them or not, and so far as I am able to recall, we sort of didn't. I don't know whether Alan was punished, although even if he was, he was a repeat offender so I'm not sure it would have made much difference.

A couple of years later - I would guess around 1974 or maybe 1975 - I was bought a brand new Mamod steam engine for Christmas, and even better, this was a steamroller, the mobile kind which I knew a few of the kids at school in Ilmington also owned, although most of them seemed to have the traction engine variant. It was wonderful. One filled the tray with methylated spirit - or wood alcohol as it is known here in the US - set it to burning beneath the cylindrical boiler, and as soon as you had steam you were away. It almost seems strange to refer to it as a toy steam engine given its operating on the same principle as the real thing. It was simply a scaled down steam engine and was therefore quite different to toy cars of the day, none of which ran on a tiny internal combustion engine. By this point I was either wise to Alan or he'd been sent to borstal or something, so his help was no longer a problem.

The first public event to which I took my engine for the appreciation of other kids was at our school. Mr. Davies our teacher had told us we could bring in our steam engines if we so wished, and we would get them all going in the playground. Apparently being the last steam generation, we made quite a show of it with fifteen or so different engines brought along by various kids, mostly traction engines, my steamroller, and a few of the older stationary versions similar to that which had been asset-stripped by Alan the tosser. My best friend at the time was Matthew Beecham, a boy from the year above my own with an unusually dry sense of humour.

We stood looking at the miniature engines lined up on the tarmac. The presence of wheeled variations seemed to suggest the possibility of a race, which had apparently dictated the arrangement despite that half of the kids were bent over stationary boilers fiddling with their matches and cigarette lighters.

Matthew pulled his characteristic face of incredulity and drew my attention to Len's steam engine. Len was one of those kids whom we knew with some certainty would never get the call from NASA, but he had a rounded, likeable quality that inspired empathy. Oddly, his short blonde hair and squinty face made me think of those kids who apparently did so well selling American Seeds that they just had to tell us all about it on the back covers of imported Marvel Comics. Len made me think of potatoes and 1955 and The Waltons, and in a good way. He did not quite belong to our modern world, and neither did his red and black steam engine. It was a stationary model, and one that had lost its shine some years before. It seemed possible given that Len's family weren't millionaires, that it had been put to actual work for most of its life, perhaps sharpening knives with the Mamod grinding wheel in the name of supplementing whatever bacon Len's dad was able to bring home. Len's engine, in comparison to our cleaner, newer, better-oiled models, was identified by Matthew as an old banger, and was accordingly already belching out smoke of an entirely more ominous caste than that of the other engines.

Gradually the trill of tiny whistles sounded across the playground as our boilers built up motive force. We engaged the gears and a few of the traction engines began to trundle off in the general direction of the monkey bars.

I'm not sure if either Matthew or myself had yet learned to say fucking hell, but if we had, then one of us probably did.

Len's engine popped and spat angrily, its chipped red base plate vibrating on the ground as it began to surge forward like a drunk relative at a Christmas party, overtaking at least one of the traction engines. Matthew describes himself crying with laughter, which I don't recall, but probably because I was stood watching with my mouth hanging open as Len's stationary engine somehow overtook its wheeled brethren.

We all felt a bit sorry for Len, although I don't remember him being particularly ashamed of the performance put on by his engine, or even
particularly traumatised by the pleasure that his old banger had brought us. We recreated the incident in conversation over and over.

'Here comes the Lennytown train.' Matthew would furrow his brow into grim resolve, then piston his hands to invoke the mighty power of steam before stalking angrily forward with onomatopoeic determination. 'Lenny-puff-puff, Lenny-puff-puff, Lenny puff-puff—' He reached up a hand to pull the chord, letting out a blast of an imaginary whistle, an elongated falsetto Le-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-n! Le-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-n!

The story still brings us pleasure even now, or did when we met up around 2007 or thereabouts. Len should be proud to have given us such a lasting and happy memory.

In 2011, I moved to Texas, bringing my Mamod steamroller, and still with its box too. Having acquired a stepson I liked the image of my passing it on to him, just as my father had attempted to pass his own Mamod steam engine on to me. The problem is that I'm not sure Junior would really appreciate it, which isn't necessarily to cast aspersions on him so much as to acknowledge the fact of a working die-cast metal steam engine being so far outside the realm of his experience that I don't think he would know what to make of it, and so it would join that legion of more contemporary physical and technological novelties which hold his attention for a half day before he returns to the games on his iPad. He has grown up under circumstances bearing little common ground with my own, just as the world I entered was at least a little different to that from which my father sprang forth; and yet those worlds were perhaps not so distant from one another, for technological progress had none of the breakneck momentum it has acquired in recent times. Even if my world had moved on from steam, I understood the principle just as I got the jokes in the comics I once read, written by people referencing their own austere childhood years immediately following the second world war.

This is a different world, and I live in a very different part of the world, which is to acknowledge nothing more qualitative than the influence of change. Sometimes it is simply enough to be able to look back and see how far we have come, and that is probably more important than who gets it and who doesn't.

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