Monday, 28 January 2013

Marxist trainspotting



Looking at the poet, painter and film-maker Humphrey Jennings’ notebooks. In one margin he has doodled a charmingly naive sketch of a typical steam locomotive, like Thomas the Tank Engine, with chimney, dome and cab, above which he writes:

You know when a locomotive is streamlined it loses its smoke stack, sometimes altogether;  
      and that produces a sort of worry in us. The sequence funnel, dome, valve and cabin, turns 
      into a class-series: top-hat, Bowler hat, cloth cap. 



'A sort of worry' when faced with a cultural signifier anticipates the reaction of later commentators like Roland Barthes. Jennings' view reminded me of the very different appearances of the American space shuttle (gleaming white, smooth, swept-back wings and sexily aerodynamic) and the Soviet space station, which appeared to be bolted together in a totally functional way, like an allotment shed. It had visible rivets and was (unless I'm making this up) painted a kind of bauxite colour like old railway trucks, with a stencilled hammer and sickle on the hull. One had the impression that the whole thing wasn't so much welded as caulked. This suggested a kind of collectivist integrity and 'all-hands-on-deck' quality that continues to exercise a strong appeal, to me at any rate. I've always preferred the unadorned, the utile and the functional to the modishly tweaked.  Russian engineers were clearly in charge of the project, not designers and (yet-to-be-invented) brand managers.

Whooo-hoooo!

Streamlined locomotives were much in vogue in Britain in the 1930s - the Mallard of the London & North Eastern Railway, designed by Nigel Gresley, is the most famous of the breed and remains to this day the fastest steam locomotive ever built. But the three other major private companies (the Southern, the Great Western and the London, Midland & Scottish) each had their own streamlined fleet, employed on crack express services. Perhaps it's just as important that streamlined engines look very fast, even when stationery - engineering's equivalent to modernist gestures in architecture. On display in York's National Railway Museum (where eager dads drag their underwhelmed offspring), the garter blue, red and black Mallard is coupled to a dynamometer car, an antique, wood panelled vehicle with clerestory roof and Edwardian doorhandles, packed with sensitively-calibrated devices for recording speed, fuel consumption, tractive effort, etc. and the contrast is every bit as striking as that between the space shuttle and Soyuz.

Streamlining was as much an aesthetic gesture as a speed-enhancing feature and following the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 these locomotives were stripped of their casings to allow easier maintenance and to reveal perfectly orthodox machines, beautiful in their own way and - yes - with the 'class-series' now visible.

Jennings was writing in the 1930s, a time when class distinctions were immediately legible, not least through headgear - toffs wore toppers, clerks wore Bowlers and flat cloth caps were for the proletariat. It's interesting that, in Jennings's notebook entry it's the loss of the chimney (ie the top hat of the ruling classes) that provokes disquiet. Is he unconsciously asserting the legitimacy of the established order? Or simply that a locomotive without a chimney is aesthetically troubling, like a face without a nose?

Jennings is concerned with class distinctions (which will always be with us). Distinctions are not the same thing as barriers - and much was achieved in the last few decades to erode the very barriers that are now, alas, being rapidly re-erected. Distinctions are part of the texture of any society - not as the basis for hostility and discrimination but simply for recognition and understanding. Although, to be sure, we don't wear caste-defining hats much any more. Jennings would find modern Britain a far less legible culture.






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