I must have been about 7, maybe 8, but definitely still in short trousers when I first encountered Ian Allen. Didn’t actually meet him but I became a cult follower like thousands of my contemporaries. We were the young lads (exclusively male I think) who stood on draughty stations noting the steaming and wheezing engines as they passed and underlining their numbers with stubby pencil in one of Ian Allen’s little grey books. In this competitive pastime I had quite an advantage because we had a railway line literally at the bottom of our garden which meant I could collect numbers any time of the day – which I did for a while until I discovered that the same few engines were trundling to and fro each day.
Single-handedly Ian Allen inspired a national, nay international craze, and I was sad to read of his death a few days ago. Trainspotting has not had the most positive press, and indeed the term ‘trainspotter’ like ‘anorak’ is a term of mild derision. But let’s put a case for the defence. Trainspotting expresses a deep human instinct to observe, categorise and give order to the phenomena one observes. The same goes for any serious study or collection, be it railway engines, Renaissance art or natural history. Perhaps Ian Allen should be honoured as the Linnaeus of the mechanical age. Any way it was good to see the National Railway Museum do its bit to rehabilitate the pastime by its recent Trainspotting exhibition. http://www.nrm.org.uk/PlanaVisit/Events/trainspotting/main.aspx
Beneath the trainspotting phenomenon is a bigger and more pervasive obsession – the boys’ toys fixation on big shiny transport contraptions. For a lot of men the interest in travel is not so much in the destination as in the means of getting there. Jeremy Clarkson has built his career on that simple truth. And when it comes to collecting no class of device has failed to inspire passion. Is there a country in the world with more preserved railways and tramways, old buses, motor cars, boats, bicycles and planes? Long may they prosper, and may their breakdowns be few. Our focus may be on destinations, but we salute those for whom (to quote Robert Louis Stephenson) ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.