Tuesday 14 June 2011

Fulfilling a lifelong ambition

When I was a small boy I fell deeply in love with five things: my Mum’s cooking, steam trains, gaslights, trolleybuses and pre-decimal currency.

This was unfortunate because, by the time I was 16, all had vanished apart from the food. I compensated by eating far more of it than was good for me: a lifetime of self-destructive behaviour I blame on 1960s “progress”.

I often wish for a time machine to whisk me back for a 3d ride on the number 38 to Swarland Avenue, a big slice of Mum’s steak and kidney pie for lunch, then an afternoon jotting down locomotive numbers at Little Benton sidings.

Little Benton North: I did my childhood trainspotting at Little Benton South

I have grown out of trainspotting, let me assure you. I look in bafflement at those grown men one occasionally sees on station platforms, urgently whispering the numbers of passing wagons into Dictaphones in the intervals between cramming sandwiches down their throats from the huge Tupperware boxes that are the other essential tool of their trade. But I confess that a steam engine can still turn my head.

And yesterday, when I would normally be writing this column, I finally took delivery of my Christmas present from my wife and went to fulfil a boyhood ambition by learning to drive a trolleybus at the National Trolleybus Museum near Doncaster.

You probably did not know such a place even existed, and are stunned by the originality of my wife’s gift selection. Believe me, you have no idea of the number of remarkably detailed hints that were required, given that her starting point was “What’s a trolleybus?”

A Newcastle trolleybus at Delaval Road - right by my Auntie Maisie's house
The trolleybus I actually got to drive

Well, I said, it’s like a tram but without tracks, and two power wires instead of one because a tram returns current through the rails … but her eyes had already glazed over.

Bless her, she’s coming with me and bringing our son, who luckily really likes buses. I’m hoping that they will allow her to dress up as a conductress and wield the long bamboo pole that is needed to put the trolley heads back on the wires when some idiot has steered too far away from them.

Mrs Hann didn't get to do this - but I did

I have written before about the romance of the trolleybus, and received puzzled messages from readers who just did not get it. Perhaps my psyche is strangely wired. Because huge chunks of my brain are occupied by the flash and crackle of the trolleys on the wires on frosty mornings, the rumble of the overhead booms passing through junctions, the purr of the number 39 on its fast run down the Great North Road, and the swaying mass of nerds occupying the seats in front of me on the 35c from Byker to Delaval Road on the last day of operations in 1966.

All of which must be taking up many megabytes of memory that could have been devoted to subsequent triumphs in the boardroom or bedroom. Perhaps this explains why I never actually had any of those.

How it could so easily have turned out
Relaxing on the bus after my drive
Receiving my certificate of ... er ... it did not actually say 'competence'
There were training opportunities for smaller boys, too
And the coffee cake was very good

I would like to think that my enthusiasm was a sign that I was an environmentalist before it came into fashion. As well as trolleybuses, I warmed to milk floats and the whispering electric vans from Provincial Laundries. In short, clean and quiet electrically powered road vehicles struck me as a rather wonderful idea. It has only taken half a century for the wheel to come full circle and for nearly everyone else to agree with me.

Idly tapping “Newcastle trolleybus” into a search engine the other day, I was gutted to find that I had just missed my chance to bid for an original Newcastle trolleybus destination blind on eBay. Hint to Mrs Hann: I simply cannot think of a better Christmas present.

Now what can I do to convince the world at large of the merits of gas street lighting and pounds, shillings and pence?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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