I did it when I was a child, for the shortest of times – trainspotting. I had a book I recall, given to me by my parents who thought that ‘getting out there’ might ‘do me good’, printed with rows of numbers which, to the best of my knowledge, I was just meant to tick off every now and then. You could go on the stations back then – a platform ticket was a penny I think – as long as you didn’t get on the trains. You could put your tanner in the chocolate machine for excitement. It never gave you what you wanted. Mostly it gave you nothing at all. And you never got your money back – no matter how hard you kicked, you never got your money back. Better to spend it in the buffet really. You could get a terminally watered-down orange squash and a penguin biscuit for your sixpence, but not a Fudge bar. They were only in the chocolate machine and it wasn’t letting them go.
More often than not I spent my money on the ‘I speak your weight’ machine because I was fascinated by it, but I was so thin that it never knew that I was on. I imagined it tutting at me – but it never gave me my money back.
Whenever a train chugged into the station I marked the number off in my little book, but I felt no excitement: just the slight rancour of a wasted life everytime I realised that it was a train I had already seen. Sometimes I just marked a different number anyway, and I felt like a real maverick. I began to mark numbers off at random every time a train pulled up to the platforms. It got so that I could do a whole days spotting in the bus on the way into town.
I was aware that for most of my fellow social outcasts, Saturday morning trainspotting was a real collective deal. They gathered in little groups and chatted about what to expect from the day. “567431 is coming in about ten,” somebody would say and there would be a general murmur of appreciation. I was never invited into the groups. I stood on the edge and marked off 567431 as soon as the number was mentioned. It was as good as. No point in wasting the whole morning waiting to actually see it. If it was a diesel train, then I knew what it would look like. Instead of becoming closer to my fellow hobbyists I was aware that I was growing ever-more distant to them. There was them and there was me and we had absolutely nothing in common but for our little books of numbers. They had bright hooded anoraks and nylon over-trosers whilst I had faded loons and a Gratton’s catalogue tank-top. They had waterproof rucksacks and I had a Tesco carrier bag. They had tea and cake from the buffet whilst all I had was a sense of loathing for the solid state that wouldn’t give me my money back. They were interested. I was not.
I did like it when the occasional steam train thundered through though. I lived through the very tail of the steam age and it was always a thrill to see them. They were not the gleaming red and green leviathans of today’s tourist lines, but decaying, smoke-blackened hulks chugging their way to the knacker’s yard. The best thing in the world was to stand on the bridge as they passed below belching lung-crippling blasts of steam and smoke into the air. The power was palpable. It went up through your feet, along your legs and reverberated around your chest like a firework in a can. The steam trains were always the highlight of any day – they had names rather than numbers – but they became fewer and further between. Mostly it was just diesels. Powerful, but clean and bland, and to me, the trainee trainspotter, very boring.
So I began to find other things to do with my time. I wandered from the station – no point in wasting a perfectly good penny on a platform ticket – to the town, to the castle, to the cathedral… You could wander on your own then, and mostly I was on my own. I loved the cold silence of old buildings and I would meander around them endlessly. There was a little hexagonal stone building in the Cathedral grounds – which I now know is nothing more than an ornamental well-head – where it was rumoured that with the right number of circumnavigations, you could summon up the devil. I tried every weekend, but he never came. Shame, I could have done with the company. Then one last wander back to the sweet shop, or best of all the joke shop, where I spent my precious accumulated 7d before crossing a few random numbers off my book and heading home for dinner. (In my world, ‘dinner’ was always taken about mid-day. Anything after 1pm was ‘tea’ and seldom involved potatoes unless chipped.)
Dinner over and Saturday afternoons throughout autumn, winter and spring were spent in our own little corner of the Sincil Bank stadium watching the Mighty Imps get trounced by whomever it was that was lucky enough to be playing them that day. It didn’t really matter that they lost so habitually back then, I was part of the crowd and we all wanted the same thing. The fact that we so seldom got it was of little consequence. Two hours on the freezing terraces in the company of the same group of people every other week was what weekends were made for: stewed tea out of a steel urn, a slightly faded Garibaldi biscuit out of a crumpled paper bag and a nip from my grandad’s hipflask if I was lucky. People around me that always seemed happy to see me and all I had to do was sing, cheer and groan as appropriate: one of the gang. There have been ups and downs for the team in the half century and more since, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed my football more than I did back then. From the ground at full time, the whole world it seemed traipsed as one over the two railway bridges back to the steaming buses home, and I would often spot a determined little gaggle of weather-proof anoraks on the distant station, waiting still for the 4.45 from Peterborough. I had no desire to be with them then – even their little tartan vacuum flasks of now lukewarm Bovril were unable to ward off the clawing cold by that time, their fold-away kagoules no match for the stalking wind and biting sleet – but never-the-less, when I got home, I always crossed another number off my little book, just so that I still felt at least a little bit a part of it…