The Fifties Railway by Greg Morse
A bit Janet and John.
Just a museum leaflet.
Little more than a Wiki entry.
These are just three of the comments I’ve seen aimed at the short summary book like those that form Amberley’s Britain’s Heritage series. And I daresay the writers of those reviews felt themselves to have done a great job in alerting the world to what anyone could ascertain within a few moments of web surfing or bookshop browsing: that books of this type are short, and are intended as naught but a first step in a subject: the alpha, not the omega. As an author of a number of these “tome-ettes”, I think there are two things that need to be said. (Actually there are three, but this is a family blog.) First, just because a short book ‘adds nothing new’, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t add something new. There may not be enough room for footnoted first-hand scholarship, but the broad brush can often paint interesting juxtapositions that might not be made manifest by those authors blessed with more pages to fill. Secondly, there is an implication that no research can possibly have been undertaken. Not so.
Take my latest book (please – take as many copies as you like to the counter or basket). The Fifties Railway is about 12,000 words long. Like the rest of the Britain’s Heritage series, there’s a list of further reading at the back. All those books were re-read during the writing of it. More than this though – and it’s a technique I used in The Sixties Railway and The Seventies Railway too – are the insights that reading old magazines can evoke. We all know that later research can reveal the falsehoods that are sometimes unwittingly pervaded by contemporaneous journalism, but period periodicals are superb windows on what the world was like then, back before we “knew better”.
What I want from a book like The Fifties Railway is what I want when I go to a heritage line: a time machine. This is why I will avert my gaze when my steam-hauled special passes its owner’s twenty-first century carriage shed. Glance upon the architect’s pet project and the illusion that I can party like its 1959 is gone forever. With a magazine, I can read what an enthusiast or railway employee might have read when the world was changing, but had not yet changed. The 1950s was a decade of great change on the railway, for it marked the beginning of a truly concerted effort to abolish steam – an effort that came so soon after the erection of so many new steam classes for Britain’s newly nationalised rail industry.
Thus we can see the real, original, reaction not only to the coming of the Britainnias and 9Fs, but also the appearance of Deltic, the first of the ‘Pilot Scheme’ diesels and the apparent revolution offered by the diesel multiple units. This is to say nothing of what passengers thought of British Railways new carriages, the reactions to the Harrow & Wealdstone accident of 1952 and how the staff took to General Sir Brian Robertson when he took over at the British Transport Commission. I could go on of course… but I won’t, lest I run the risk of writing a blog that’s longer than the book!
Greg Morse's new book The Fifties Railway is available for purchase now.