Lesley is often surprised when I come out with some obscure fact. 'That dog has got a funny tail!' she’ll say; I reply 'It’s a Basenji.' Or pointing to a car with a strangely angled back window she'll say 'I’ve not seen one of those before.', to which I reply 'It’s a Ford Anglia or to be more precise the 105E model which was superseded by the E 93A side valve – usually referred to as the 'sit up and beg' version.' The question is always 'How do you know these things?' Maybe it should be 'Why do you know these things?'. Either way the simple answer is 'I don’t know.'However something crossed my mind the other day, a memory from my past. I spy books! They were pocket size books full of drawings and descriptions of objects on a single topic; I-spy cars, I-spy dogs, I-spy On the farm. The idea was that once you had seen one of these, you wrote down the date and where you saw it and for each item you were awarded points according to its rarity. A Cocker Spaniel (golden) might have got you 10 points but a Saluki was worth 50! A Morris Oxford was 5 measly points but a Borgward Isabella or a Packard was worth a whacking 75. Designed to foster an enquiring mind and to keep children quite on long journeys, they worked on both levels for me. Meticulously writing in the details of my successful quest was extremely satisfying yet at the same time a little sad because you were one step closer to finishing the book.
In one sense, I Spy was pretty multimedia as the News Chronicle – the proto Daily Mail - carried a small section every day dedicated to I Spy. There were all sorts of allusions to hunting and the North American Native Indians or Indians as we called them back then. There were messages in code, though you would not have required Alan Turing's help to decipher them. They consisted of say substituting every letter by the next in the alphabet - quite easy to break, especially as the sign off every day was always exactly the same - Good hunting!!
I suppose that train spotting was a natural extension of this. Its hard to imagine what pleasure there was to be gained from standing on a railway station, often in the rain, waiting to write down the number of the 3:15 from Paddington but clearly there was. Trains, and more precisely, steam engines were all different. Some even had names, whereas the less important shunters and goods engines were classified by the configuration of their wheels and in particular to the wheels that were powered and as I’m writing this I realise that deep down inside there's still a bit of that nine-year-old carefully underlining the number of the 3:15 from Paddington in my Ian Allen all region combined Volume. It was 11 shillings and sixpence (nearly 65 pence) worth of engine information – the Bible of steam engines. Many engines had slightly glamorous names Rood Ashton Hall and the 5080 Defiant Castle class. Then there was the beautifully streamlined Sir Nigel Gresley and the Mallard and finally the magnificent 2-10-0 Evening Star - the 999th and last steam locomotive to be commissioned by British Rail.I think my generation was fortunate to have enjoyed the steam locomotive age, probably in the same way that every era of teenagers think their music is the best there has ever been. That’s not really the point though because as Bertrand Russell said 'There is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from useless knowledge.' He was definitely right and think - one day maybe I might just see a Beyer Garrett engine or a Rhodesian Ridgeback and I can finally claim those elusive 100 points.