Trainspotting, autism and what it means to be normal
Saturday afternoon on Platform 1. Freight trains and passenger trains coming and going. My notebook filling with engine numbers. The packet of sandwiches that Mother made me. The summer sunshine burning my bare knees. An excited shout goes up. I rush to join the throng and taste again the oily tang of steam.
Yes, I enjoyed my visit to York last Saturday and may well go again this weekend. Yet when I look around me, I see that trainspotting is thoroughly out of fashion.
I do not refer to the adventures of Begbie, Spud and Sickboy: they are very much in fashion. Though, as I said in my review in Steam Railway Quarterly, anyone who watches the film of Mr Welsh’s book in the hope of gaining an insight into the operation of Gresley’s A4 Pacifics on the LNER is likely to be sadly disappointed.
Rather, I refer to the hobby which enthralled generations of schoolboys. It flourished in the decades after the Second World War as families became affluent enough to spare the cash for their children to explore the railway system.
That sort of trainspotting is more than out of fashion: it is rapidly being turned into a mental illness. The other day I was looking at a piece on the narrow gauge railways of North Wales written by Bill Bryson. He said: ‘I had recently read a newspaper article in which it was reported that a speaker at the British Psychological Society had described trainspotting as a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome.’
It is just as well that he or she did not describe it in those terms in my hearing, but we have come far from the days when boys were expected to be interested in trains. I can recall, as a young practitioner, having families referred to me because the son did not want to be a train driver when he grew up. ‘We’re at our wits’ end, Doctor Strange,’ the tearful parents would say. ‘We have tried everything, but he’s just not interested in railways.’
I was able to reassure them, puffing on my pipe, that it was just a phase the lad was going through and that they should not worry too much – though some parents had found Strange’s Herbal Supplements™ wonderfully efficacious in similar cases.
Not that trainspotting was without controversy. Popular stations could be overrun with children in the holidays. Questions were asked in the House about problems at Tamworth, and when overzealous spotters were picked up wandering around locomotive depots, magistrates would call for the hobby to be banned.
Yet it is not the criminogenic properties of trainspotting that have led to its decline, nor has it been the result of advances in the understanding of autistic spectrum disorders. In part it is because we are all – children included – far too cool to be interested enough in anything to call it a hobby. And in part it is because there has been a change in our idea of what it means to be normal.
When I was young, to be normal was to be male, white and upper middle class and to wear a tweed jacket and smoke a pipe. I must say that always seemed perfectly reasonable to me, but as I was male, white and upper middle class, wore a tweed jacket and smoked a pipe, I suppose it would.
Today to be normal is to be female and quite often it is to be a mental health professional too. Just think of the articles which treat a willingness to take part in workshops as a sign of normality in psychiatric inpatients when this activity plays no part in the lives of 99 per cent of the population.
So ‘normality’ is a slippery concept, and what it means has changed markedly over the years. That is why I have never made any great efforts to appear normal myself.