A Journey To The Buffers Ch 1 (2)
As an engine cleaner I was taught to tie a cloth around my wrist, over the gauntlet glove. This in theory stopped the trickle of Emulsol down my arm. Trouble was, as the cloth became soaked, so the fluid ran down my arm. An added pleasure was the non-availability of gauntlet style gloves that the re-fuelling staff used and which extended to the elbows. Many a time I had to use ordinary gloves that ended at the wrist. My arms would then look as if I’d been scrubbing them with wire wool and scouring powder.
I was left more or less to my own devices and unless Lenny had any special tasks for me, he let me carry on cleaning cab windows inside & out. Often chatting to the fitters and their mates about the locos they were servicing. I don’t know how the drivers of today are educated about the trains they drive, but even before my training began, I knew a great deal about most of them. And this is how I went on for three months, working mainly in B and C sheds, which were the servicing bays for locomotives,’ A ‘shed being for the units. So I prowled the sheds keeping myself busy, whilst I dreamed of greater things.
I soon made the acquaintance of one of the driver-instructors. A bloke named Jackie Searle. I knew Jackie because he would often appear at the end of Platform 8 at Kings Cross, trying to sell his photographs to the hoard of train spotters who congregated there daily. He must have got a bit fed up of me pestering him about the next Traction Trainees School (where we were taught the basic rules before being let out on the footplate) and when it was going to happen. I was desperate to ‘leave the nest’ so to speak and pursue my dream but my arriving when I did, had meant waiting until there were at least three of us to begin a training course. Jackie assured me it would happen, but like a child waiting for Christmas, it seemed like forever. I can’t remember now how I learnt of my promotion to Secondman (the old fireman) but that only served to increase my frustration. The promotional list was advertised nationally and every other month. So I had apparently got one of the eleven vacancies that had appeared and was appointed in the November of 1971. I still had to wait for the minimum three people to make a school and this finally happened in the January of 1972. The three week course was tiresome, but I was on my way at last.
Every time I met Jackie walking across the depot, I would stop him and ask for a progress update on the Training School. He was very patient, but he must have secretly thought ‘not again…’ I was later to be trained by Jackie on the boilers at Stratford/Ilford. The methods of heating a train back then was to pipe steam through the radiators in the passenger coaches, which gave way to electric during my time on the footplate. So I was a fireman of sorts. Still making steam, but with an oil-fired boiler and not lumps of coal. Jackie had long fallen out of love with the treadmill of the eternally changing irregular shifts. The magic of the footplate is a myth that many created to endure the uncertainty of constant change. Sleep patterns were snatched moments and looking back, I left the table still feeling hungry so to speak. Jackie was now in the comfortable world of training staff 9 ‘till 5, Monday to Friday. It allowed him to follow his passion and if you got him onto his favourite subject of photography, you had the morning made if you get my drift.
During the time I travelled to Stratford on ‘regular days’. That is, I started at 08.15 and finished at 16.15; clocking on and off like the old style factory worker. This brought me into contact with the fabled commuter for the first time and a place that I found intriguing and amusing.
I used to catch the 07.10 train from Chelmsford; travel into Liverpool St and back out by tube to Stratford. Now, commuters are by my definition creatures of habit, or at least they were in my day. We all stood in the same place in the corridor; all had the same order of filing onto the train and the same small habits to boot. If one ever boarded the train and found an occasional traveller standing (or occasionally even sitting) in ‘our’ place, one was tempted inside to throw them off the train for having the impertinence to be there at all. Usually we just shot them a ‘you’re not welcome’ icy glance and settled down to the crossword. I didn’t always get the same train home, but the homecoming commuter’s habits were as died in the wool as the most set routines you could imagine, and most of them were probably as ingrained as breathing.
Each traveller would enter the compartment and execute the same ritual and by the way, this was repeated again and again by each and every person as if they had been cloned. I say ‘clone’ because that is exactly what these poor buggers looked like. Stripped of identity, clothed with the standard pin-striped suit, bower hat and wooden handled umbrella (slate grey of course. Anything else just would not do!) And finally, the brief case. Usually there was nothing in the case. It simply had to be carried if one wanted to look the part and not stand out. They all looked as if they had been fashioned in the same hell-factory, like Autons or zombies and cursed to travel the same train for ever; like some sinister horror story where the travellers were condemned to travel forever and never arrive.
Having found that rarest of commodities, a seat; the triumphant clone would now enter the declaration of territory ritual by placing a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph nice and square, by the intended seat. This mini-ritual can be compared to a lion marking out its territory. Having secured the prize, the commuter could now enter the second phase. Triumphant at his capture, he would now begin to show off. Not unlike the peacock preening his feathers. The briefcase would be reclaimed from the luggage rack above his seat and placed carefully on his seat. Next came the removal of his gown of honour, the raincoat, which was once again neatly folded and lovingly placed in the cavernously empty briefcase that I can only imagine had previously been home to his sandwiches that morning. Now he entered the final phase with no little pomp and a great deal of ceremony. The briefcase would now be placed meticulously on the rack, just in front of the umbrella. Dead centre mind or the whole thing had to be repeated without errors. When he was satisfied, he would pick up his newspaper and make several brushing motions on what I can only assume must have been a dusty seat, that or a ritualistic genuflection of great importance. The last act was to open the vast broadsheet paper with a flourish that had only one purpose. ‘I have now completed my ritual and do not wish to be disturbed!’ This final gesture was vitally important in establishing his territory and designed to ward off any lurking elbows or newspaper clenching hands of his nearby rivals.
One particular individual exceeded and out-performed all his peers. He did all the usual stuff, but out of the briefcase came a small rubber sheet, which he placed carefully on his seat, so as not to come into contact with anyone else’s germs. On that day, the guy next to him fell asleep, as most commuters did. This particular fellow’s head slowly began to slump sideways as he fell into a sleep. Each time he did so, the poor fellow to his left (the one on the small sheet) would begin to turn away stretching his neck as if he were made of rubber, clearly paranoid about making contact with the exhaled breath of his sleeping neighbour. The sleeper would suddenly jerk upright, the sufferer would self-correct and then the process began all over again. It was like a sort of sit-down tango of the most stand-offish proportions and hilarious to watch. The offended commuter was far too polite to remonstrate and instead suffered that most British of British’s silences.
You’ve seen the zombie movies or heard of Pavlov’s dogs and how each is drawn or summoned forth. Well for the drowsy commuter it was a familiar sound that sub-consciously beckoned him back to the world of the living. For those of us who lived in Chelmsford, it was the sound changes the outside world made as the train passed under the three bridges on the approach to Chelmsford station. Reinvigorated by his power-nap the now wide-awake commuter would start suddenly and leap gazelle-like from the still moving train and sprint at top speed to be first through the ticket barrier. So ends the day’s ritual and tomorrow? Again, another day, but just the same. By the time I got out of training school, I was as near to insanity as a still sane person could get. God knows how they do it year after year. Even those who knew each other; wives, husbands and friends remained motionless as if in a vow of silence. I never worked in the City and I am glad that is so. No disrespect to the many and varied careers that abound there, but the price paid by a commuter must be emotionally huge and one I have never been tempted to pay.
When I did eventually reach training school, it was a three week course and I was taught not by Jackie, but a bloke called Dave Tucker. H was a roly-poly sort of a chap who bore a striking resemblance to Oliver Reed. He was a character just like his film double and apparently nearly as fond of a drink. I remember the three of us in the class clubbing together to buy him a half bottle of his favourite Teachers Whisky and as usual, we played the inevitable prank… Cliff, one of my fellow trainees spent half the evening with his missus getting a mixture of cold tea to look exactly like the tipple and put it into a bottle. When presented, Dave felt only too obliged to offer a small ‘nip’, which we accepted, hoping he would not see the broken seal. It was worth it to see his face! We afterwards presented him with the real deal and got on with things. It was a tedious school. The method of teaching was as plain as I remembered from my early days in Primary and even Secondary education with learning consisting of copying from the blackboard hour after hour. All I remember was Bloody Rule 55 (the procedure for reporting a train’s presence and a general safety rule), which we dutifully copied out in its entirety. I don’t know why, it didn’t make sense of it. Rather we could quote something without understanding it.
We were being trained on the old, black, rule book that had been in existence since 1950 and shall we say that it didn’t make for good bedtime reading. Those of you reading this that are of a certain age will remember the old Highway Code and the drawings of policemen on point duty and those huge white gauntlet gloves. Well, that is the sort of thing we had in the old rule book.
In the schoolroom we had a set of vacuum, air and steam pipe to practice on and we would have competitions to see who could do them all in the fastest time. These pipes were the ones we had the responsibility of connecting between the engine and the train. They were nothing like the grubby, stiff, twisted-pipe and downright awkward versions of the real thing. Funny, looking back, the rules didn’t mean much to me despite learning them by rote and regurgitating them in my sleep, but when I was leaving Norwich and coming back to Stratford at the end of 1973, I began ‘swatting’ the newly produced rule book and getting my drivers to question me. It all made sense the second time around and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning more about my own ‘learning style’ than I ever learnt in full time education up until I was sixteen. Unlike the first time round I now had mental images of what the book was trying to describe to me.
It was the coupling and uncoupling of the loco that I enjoyed the most. In the Training School, it was the only practical thing we did and on a good day, we would prowl around Liverpool St Station meeting the incoming trains and asking if we could perform the Secondman’s duties. The older Norwich Secondmen were particularly delighted to see us. I guess the novelty had worn off for most of them after the first thirty years! It may seem nothing now, but to me it became a matter of pride at how fast I could achieve the task and in those days and in particular the uncoupling. Most trains were vacuum-braked then and separating the hoses broke what little vacuum was left. The driver would see this total loss of pressure and placing the pipe on the dummy coupling gave the driver the signal to restore his vacuum brake and squeeze the loco against the train. As this happened, the Secondman would crouch down and wait for the coupling to ease. When it did, he would ‘throw’ it off the hook and let it crash down against the loco fender. When the driver heard the noise, he would shut off power and the hydraulic buffers would spring the loco away from the train, thus enabling the Secondman to spring back up onto the platform. Well, that was the theory at least. One famous tale was of a half-wit who had better remain nameless, even after all this time. The same procedure worked when coupling. The idea was to throw the loco coupling over the train draw-hook, but it was advisable to be sure the coupling actually went over the hook. This particular numskull threw the coupling alright and let go, but failed to get it over the hook. Mistake number two; he didn’t move out of the way and promptly rendered himself unconscious.