The inside story of a strange cult

The Skeptic, 8.3

Readers of The Skeptic will, I'm sure, be familiar with the phenomenon of the cult. Whether or not to label a particular congregation of people a cult is a matter largely dependent on your outlook, analogous to the sometimes arbitrary choice between `terrorist' and `freedom fighter'. Although cults are almost always skeptically viewed as evil by everyone except their members, this need not necessarily be the case.

For many years one cult has permeated the very fabric of our society, and affects many families. Its members practice their rituals in public places with religious fervour. Traditionally, they have scribbled with pencils in notebooks, but today we see the hi-tech trappings of dictaphone, video camera, and the laptop computer. This group of individuals has a hierarchy of members, often a highly-respected `leader' figure, a secret jargon, and a shared set of values. I speak with confidence because I am going public with the confession that I am an ex-member of this cult. Dear readers, I used to be a trainspotter.

Now that I am `out', allow me to lay to rest once and for all the calumny that trainspotters are invariably spindly-legged geeks with ill-fitting spectacles and anoraks. This is pure spotterism. I, for one, certainly never wore an anorak.

The vast majority of spotters are interested solely in the registration numbers of diesel and electric locomotives, but some expand their horizons to include multiple-units and passenger carriages. Others specialise in tracking the movements of the red and yellow permanent-way maintenance machines, alien craft from the same planet as those incomprehensible vehicles which scurry across the tarmac at airports, and which appear to have been built with the plans upside down. Yet others wish to take the number of every single goods wagon in the country. And some actually manage it.

There are several strata in the complex social structure of the trainspotter cult. At the apex are those who have not only spotted every number possible, but they have done so several times over. Such people are addressed in hushed tones. They are the Zen masters of the art, dispensing sage words to those inquiring the type of engine expected to haul the 1755 Football Special from Dundee. Lower in the hierarchy are the souls whose enlightenment hinges on locating just one or two elusive numbers, and so on. But there is no ultimate goal. If you have all the numbers, you just start again.

A cursory glance at the eager hordes at the end of the longest platform at any large main-line station reveals that spotters are almost exclusively male. Why? I have heard it suggested that the psychological motivation for trainspotting derives from the deep urge of mankind to be a hunter-gatherer. Perhaps, but what a comedown from arriving back at the hut with two bison pelts and a bag of berries.

As with cults in general, there is more to trainspotting than this simple explanation. Despite their grime, delays, noise, smells, cancellations, strikes, tattiness, unreliability, ugliness, tedium, poor catering, high cost and general unpleasantness, railways are romantic. And this is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.


©Toby Howard 1995

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