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Saturday, 3 July 2010

Conferences, Academics and Railways...a busy week

Well I has been a very busy week. I attended an academic conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, at which I talked about railways, and then on Thursday I took a trip to York to see my supervisor who is based at the National Railway Museum. In these few days of activity I used, touched, caressed and talked about Britain's railways almost constantly. In fact, everywhere I have gone has meant that I have been in contact with railways in some way, shape or form. While far from a terrible thing, I suppose this is my own fault having supplemented my 'enthusiast' interest in railways with an academic one. Indeed, I find increasingly that my academic interest has usurped the enthusiast perspectives I used to take. This hasn't however diminished how the railways have affected my life and I find that they consume my mind in even more ways than I could have ever thought possible.

Predictably the story always starts with a journey 'riding the rails.' Interestingly, this week I have travelled the Hampton Court to London Waterloo journey on three occasions at different times of the day, early morning, rush hour and late morning. On the flip side I have got the exact same train back home each time. Thinking about the outward journey it is not really surprising that you get a different breed of traveller on each of the different trains. The 6.24 train from Hampton Court on day 3 of 3 was not, as may be expected, completely filled with business people. They made up the bulk of the travellers, but woven amongst them were a number of others laden with bags that looked as they required heavy lifting gear to be moved. I suppose they were heading for the slightly ambiguously named 'London Terminals' departing for northern or western climbs on holiday. The slightly later train that I caught on day 2, the 7.54, was as expected filled with men in suits and women in more varied attire. It is an injustice in this world that men essentially have to wear a uniform to work, whereas women feel far more pressure to wear make-up, have different clothes each day and invest far more in their appearance than their male counterparts. But I digress. The train I caught on the first day, the 10.24, was probably the most pleasant by virtue of the fact there was more space to spread out. Those individuals on their way into London at this time were an odd bunch, comprised of students, day-trippers, the late businesspeople (some of which I suspect were hungover). Evidently, London draws in its stragglers after 10 am.

While I went through the usual sweat, sweat and tears (stuck under someone armpit) on the tube all of the days, I had the joy of travelling to York by 'East Coast' on the last (York Station Shown). For all of you who are regular followers of my blog, you will know that some months ago I had a right-royal rant at First Great Western, who failed to provide me with a first class service even when I was residing in a first class carriage. Even though I didn't experience East Coast's First Class accommodation on Thursday, a glance through the window of the carriages proved to me that my assertions about the company's elite services were correct. There were cups and saucers on tables, newspapers ready to be read, and table cloths on standby to absorb the inevitable spillages. As I passed I lamented the fact that FGW had a long way to go and my mind questioned how such two companies can have two widely differing services even when they call them the same thing. Alas, I fear that is how my mind works now. I suspect everything railway-related is dissected as part of a construct of factors, policy decisions and balance sheets. And so, with those thoughts, I settled in my seat in standard accommodation and had a pleasant, but uneventful, journey to York.

It was on the way back that I realised just why sometimes encountering the travelling public is a trial. I should specify at this point that I journeyed to York with my model railway club colleague Richard. On arriving at out allotted seats to journey south we realised that firstly we were booked at a table, but also that we sitting diagonally from each other. As we sorted ourselves out a woman who was booked to sit next to us piped up, “er...have you young gentlemen got seat reservations?,” in a tone that betrayed the fact that she evidently believed we were 'stealing seats.' We replied we did and Richard sat down. The woman looked disgruntled, but went to sit next to her friend who had secured two seats next to each other that weren't booked up. I suppose there will always be an element of society that will always naturally distrust youth, (even though I am at the tender age of 28), and while Richard an I had consumed a few beers, we were polite and sensible. I suppose that is the problem with being in an enclosed space, people become protective, even territorial, about the space they have been assigned and it is at social flashpoints such as these that their prejudices come out.

Moving on, I should say that it was in York that I had the reality of my 'railway-filled' life brought home to me. My department, the grandly named 'Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History,' is housed in a rather ramshackle building next to the National Railway Museum. It is there that I have to go to meet Colin, my supervisor, roughly every two months for supervision sessions. It is for this reason that I am not really that excited by the museum or its contents any more, its all old hat as I have passed through it so many times in the last four years. The only discoveries I usually make are related to which parts of Flying Scotsman are strewn about the workshop. However, Richard's reaction was somewhat different considering it had been close to a decade since he had been to the museum. He was interested in everything and eager to see all. He was like an excited puppy who loved trains. I find this sad as it means I have been immunised against the joy of being interested in railways simply for the sake of it. I no longer see the objects of the industry as the sole interest, and in my mind frame every signal, every carriage, every locomotive as part of a process of management decisions. The physical objects associated with railway operation are now imbued with greater meaning, but diminished joy.

This is because of my academic life that has evolved since 2006. Part of this life occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday as I attended at the Institute of Historical Research's postgraduate student conference at Senate House near Russell Square. The conference title was, 'Politics and Power.' On the first day I volunteered to chair a panel of historians who presented papers on 'Print Culture Politics and Texts'. OK, I confess I know nothing about this subject, but it was very interesting all the same and I think I did well in the chair. Further, the day was peppered with papers on a range of interesting subjects regarding politics, as well as enough sandwiches to feed a small country. Throughout I answered the usual question I get, “so, what are you studying?” It is one of the strange and wonderful things about my own topic that people can relate to it easily. When I am asked about my PhD, my response almost always triggers from the questioner an anecdote, family story or opinion regarding the railways. This, I think, is a wonderful thing and stems from the fact that railways are something that everyone has to relate to, ride on and struggle with. Therefore, it was on the first day of the conference that everyone (who didn't know before) learnt what I was doing and subsequently I took joy in the universal appeal of my PhD.

It was on the second day that I had the highlight of the week. After another day of very interesting papers on politics, there, located at the end of the conference schedule, was my contribution. (In the picture above I am on the far right. Also on the Panel was Dr Helen Glew and the Chair was Peter Sutton) My paper was titled 'Moving a Locomotive Works: Politics, Agency and Decision-Making within a Nineteenth Century Railway Company,' a sample of which was featured in my last blog post. I have found that a feature of giving a paper is that the expressions of your audience do not change, that is unless a joke is cracked. I suppose if they were changing their expressions regularly it might indicate that they weren't listening and by default that what you are saying was duller than a paint-drying conference, or that they didn't like what you were presenting. But, having only ever presented three papers, the experience of unchanging faces is still somewhat unnerving for me. This said, I am sure I will get used to it. The paper tracked the London South Western Railway's plans to move its locomotive, carriage and wagon works to somewhere 'in the country,' and how the different managers engaged in internal politics to stop this happening.

Why was this the high point for me? I discussed how the joy I took in the physical objects of railway operation has diminished, and how I tend to view every object as part of a management process. But then again, when thinking back on the paper I presented, there is a new joy that I now have with regard to railways. Simply put, I love that my understanding of Britain's railways is more complex than the simplistic 'object-by-object' view. I now intimately understand why Britain's railways are the way the are and have a deeper understanding of the processes of their construction and operation. Therefore, it isn't a bad thing that I am consumed by railways, as those aspects of Britain's railways that previously gave me joy have passed, being replaced by a whole new set of wonders.

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