Station To Station

Entry by: redmug

24th July 2015
Clifton 327
The Improving Life of Jack Freeman, Engine Driver.

You can put anything in a box and forget it except questions and, by definition, memories themselves. Dad is in a box and so is everything from his home that isn’t in the skip outside. I am left with many boxes, memories and questions.
Now his many railway postcards are boxed, a partial record of his life. Some of the earliest cards are addressed to the young woman who became his wife and so, at many removes, speak of their courtship. I know that he met my mother in the buffet at Temple Meads station Bristol during the war. Odd isn’t it, the way that successive generations of a family can inhabit the same streets and send postcards from the same tourist spots without being even tangentially aware of each other presence? Is this evidence that we live for ourselves?
His 78 rpm records now in a box. I noticed one, ‘Give Yourself a Pat on The Back’ sung by Albert Whelan. This must have been the latest thing in its day, now forgotten but good advice anytime. ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’, by Scout Teddy James, boy soprano, must have held memories for him. Were they happy ones or ironic or perhaps merely hopeful. I shall never know.
The old song I remember most is now in my hands, ‘Like the Big Pots Do’, by Jack Morrison. This song lauding the good life has more than a touch of irony but I know that it used to rile plain honest Jack, born too near the tracks. Did he come to envy the rich or despise them? He didn’t tell directly say and I didn’t ask. There are many things we didn’t talk about together. Maybe that’s why there are two copies of ‘Forgive Me’ by Harry Bidgood in the box.

I remember him once reeling off a list: 900 Eton, 901 Winchester, 902 Wellington, 903 Charterhouse and on up to 939 Leatherhead passing by Clifton, 327.
I was impressed but also bewildered.
“Those big pot bastards named the engines I drive after their schools. They let you know where your place isn’t! Realy rubbing your face in it, eh boy?”
When I found no answer being only a boy he continued,
“No ‘Filton Tech’, then? No sir.”

He had similar lists for engines named after Kings and Dukes and Earls, after the fancy mansions they lived in, and other establishment strongholds. Not one engine, he said, was named to honour the men who built or drove them. I think that was the extent of his politics. He had understood where he was in the system.

On the surface his life story is simple. This is what I remember now.

Dad’ earliest view of the trains was of them passing along the viaduct below his bedroom window, aged 18 months. The tracks, the smell of the soot, the names of the engines and the waves from drivers were all in his very blood from his first breath.
Dad started work as a young lad of 16 in the repair shop, a cathedral of trains. He was proud to be given a locker and some overalls (but no mask, not in those days) but then was instructed to crawl under a locomotive and scrape out the body parts of a suicide that were stuck there. The family had to have something for the funeral. He never learned the name of the deceased but found parts enough to know it had been a woman.
This was followed by 12 years in the repair shop. Long years maintaining the boilers (you crawled inside to file off carbon deposits, scrape off the skin from your knuckles and breathe in air that felt like sandpaper). Later, through union connections, he was given a chance on the footplate, to become a driver. This was a big, big promotion. Most of your former mates couldn’t, yes couldn’t, talk to you any longer. Had he learned that to advance in the system you need friends?
Think about the position of engine driver if you haven’t already. One man at the controls of 100 tonnes of a metal fireball at 90 mph and 500 people riding behind! He became a member, in a real sense, of an elite.
Now my question is this. What happens to a working class lad who becomes a train Driver and gets a bloody good wage, as much as the salaries of many a ‘Big Pot’ middle class professional? Does his station in life, as it were, change too? Or, does a life time of following the tracks laid out ahead limit your thoughts and lead to predictable, though padded, buffers?
I have no memories of him at football matches, whippets or greyhounds, or drinking like miners used to in the D H Lawence books I guide students through at school, only a spot of fishing. Well this is the West Country, not the north. We had free rail tickets though – family ones for any destination. So we had days out and vacations in most of the holiday places you’ve ever heard of. He was teaching himself, and his family, geography, history and as we have seen, politics.
I was never quite sure what he made of my career. I finished as a housemaster at Clifton College (Engine #327). Sometimes I felt he was pleased I was a successful professional, other times I suspected he felt I was even more a servant of the Big Pots than he had risked being.
On retirement he bought the house in Clifton that I am standing overlooking Brunel’s suspension bridge. The house is now worth a great deal more. I could if I wanted sell this place and buy a real Nob’s house and all that goes with it. So, do we perhaps live for our children’s future?
During 20 odd years of retirement he drove a succession of stylish foreign cars and had angling holidays abroad with my mother and ,after she died, with his friends. He worked hard for a charitable group and represented them on trips to Africa. Had his station in life changed? Was he promoted to the middle class and did he assume middle class attitudes?
Did he heck! My main memory of my Dad, what his life is teaching me at this very moment as I contemplate the boxes of memories that have replaced him is, and I can hear his voice clearly, “ Live your own life, not somebody else’s description of it, you bloody fool!”
Jack Freeman: Engine Driver and much more. He saw people where old boys from #s 901 to 939 only saw classes.