Archive for the ‘trainspotting’ Category


Commentary: SPADs

17 April 2009

Reading the various articles and blog posts (such as Lord Tyler’s post in Lords of the Blog) about the Damian McBride affair, my mind keeps coming back to the use of the term ‘Spad’ (or ‘SpAd’, or however one chooses to write it) as an abbreviation of ‘special adviser’. As both a political and trainspotting anorak, I have to say that I can’t read ‘Spad’ without thinking of the railway use of SPAD: Signal Passed At Danger.

In this case, as I commented in Lords of the Blog, the trainspotting term seems surprisingly apt to describe this situation. A whole series of extended metaphors could be employed about special advisers ‘misjudging the braking distance’ — or more wicked ones that might refer to ministers or civil servants as ‘dim or dark signals’. But again, as with automatic signals, signals can be passed at danger if drivers receive explicit clearance from a signal operator (a minister, perhaps?). I wonder, would it be worth looking to the new rules and technology established by the railways after the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash for even a hint of guidance on how to proceed with a suitable code for the SPADs in Westminster and Whitehall?

Or perhaps I’ll just go back to my line diagrams and/or book reviews, and leave the political commentary to my fellow anoraks.


Collected Poems by John Betjeman

9 March 2008

I ended up rewriting this review from scratch…which was hardly a loss, as it meant I had a much better chance to go back and revisit some of my favourites out of this collection.

Collected Poems by John Betjeman

John Betjeman (1906-1984) is one of those poets whose works are either loved or loathed. I’m fond of many of his poems, but I can see how other people would find them twee or overly sentimental — they tend to call upon a romanticised version of an England of the past, redolent of Ovaltine at bedtime and bicycles on country lanes and salt-stained lodging houses along the seaside. But there’s a faded sort of sadness to many of his poems, a sense that even this romantic past is seldom as lovely as we would like it be.

I believe that Betjeman himself spoke of his Collected Poems as being more ‘verse’ than ‘poetry’, and it is not difficult to see why. He has an ear for rhythm and rhyme that at times is more suited to a music hall than a formal poetry recitation, often bordering on outright doggerel. His personal tastes come through quite clearly, as in this excerpt from ‘May-Day Song for North Oxford’ which highlights his longstanding dislike of former tutor C.S. Lewis:

Oh! well-bound Wells and Bridges! Oh! earnest ethical search!
For the wide high-table
λογος of St. C.S. Lewis’s Church!
This diamond-eyed Spring morning my soul soars up the slope
Of a right good rough-cast buttress on the housewall of my hope.

Betjeman’s distaste for redevelopment and modern planning show up in many poems in this collection, such as his semi-notorious call for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on Slough and his sharp parodies of young executives and bureaucrats. Yet mixed in with the doses of vitriol are some of his brighter poems, such as the bouncing joy of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, and more sombre pieces like ‘Devonshire Street W.1’. The Collected Poems show off the range of Betjeman’s work, the silly and the sad together, and provide a fine single volume of most of the best-known poems of this popular Poet Laureate.

On my recent research trip, I stopped by the newly renovated St Pancras Station to take a photograph of the Betjeman statue that has a place of honour inside the station hall. Betjeman fought to preserve the station from being torn down in the mid-1960s, and the statue attempts to capture him, with a heavy bag in hand and his coat caught in the breeze from a passing train, as he stops to look up at the great vaulted ceiling of the station. I think my photograph came out rather nicely.


Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

12 October 2007

I freely admit to being something of a trainspotter. Not in the sense that I write down engine numbers in little books, but in the sense that I admire the organisation involved in the smooth running of public transportation. I do hope that this review doesn’t make me sound a complete anorak.

Metro Maps of the World, 2nd Edition by Mark Ovenden

I’m fond of maps, and the development of maps and map design. The ways in which we display information intended for public use is a particularly fascinating subject, bringing together all kinds of aspects of semiotics, information management, graphic design, and overall aesthetics. So Mark Ovenden’s Metro Maps of the World sets my heart a-fluttering in a way that rather defies its status as a book that seems to be meant for display on a coffee table.

The book shows the development of underground/metro systems in cities all over the world, and more specifically, the development of their mapping systems. Due reverence is paid to Harry Beck, the Englishman who revised the way that metro maps were created — instead of showing how the London Underground lines really looked to scale with a London street map, he simplified the design into a cleaner, more readable format that is more of a diagram than a proper map. (Here’s an image of Beck’s revised Tube plan from the early 1930s; compare it to one of the pre-Beck maps.) But Metro Maps of the World covers more than just London. Ovenden’s book compiles historical maps of the world’s major metro systems, from the Moscow Metro to the New York City subway, from Berlin’s U-bahn to Tokyo’s TRTA/TOEI system. There are sections in the book devoted to smaller systems that are no less intricate in design, as well as metro systems whose construction is still being planned.

Gorgeously illustrated and rich in detail, Metro Maps of the World is utterly fascinating to anyone who has attempted to navigate the metro system of a major city. And if you plan to visit any major city in the near future, the book might also be terribly useful from a practical standpoint. Better to get an idea of how the maps work when you’re still at home, after all — it certainly beats standing in front of a metro map and feeling panic rising in your stomach when you realise that you’ve no idea how to get where you want to go.