Concerning French steam locomotives and Italian espresso machines

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French railway stations always seem to me to be of a certain age, younger than Victorian English ones but older than their shiny modern German counterparts. They seem somehow to be stuck somewhere around the 1940s with a few hastily added updates and even these manage to avoid being as contemporary as they really are. Plasma display screens may bristle but, unlike their English cousins with their massive steelwork, galvanised trunking and armoured cables, their bristling is done with Gauloise-stub-stuck-to-bottom-lip French blue-collar nonchalance from elegantly corroded wrought iron columns where they have the sense of coming from an earlier and qualitatively different time to their cousins in equally French but temporally different airport lounges. Here they are truly modern and form a signature part of the environment in which they operate but, back at the station, in their bleu de travail, they simply fail to integrate and remain an anomalous part of a time-warped place.

I like French railways: in fact I like continental railways in general. One of my favourite journeys is on the overnight tourist train from Calais to Brive-La-Gaillarde, the main access point to the Dordogne for English holidaymakers. The station at Brive has this strange quality of being somehow outside of time with its plasma screens juxtaposed with mechanical clocks from the 1930s. In the mist of an early summer morning, the power of light in the beginnings of the day is already apparent. Stepping down from the Calais train, sleepy holidaymakers straggle along the platform to what was once the engine shed but is now the breakfast room for overnight travellers, overdressed from the North and berated by restless children.

This post-industrial hangar retains the original focus of an engine shed with all structures pointing to where the massive turntable once stood – so finely balanced that a shed-boy could rotate a massive steam locomotive by his own hand – but where now the machineries of volume catering have taken its place. Principal among these on my last visit was an almost equally massive Italian espresso machine boasting a bewildering complexity of gleaming pipe work and valves and other less identifiable devices of un-guessable function. This magnificent steam-driven behemoth could hardly have been better placed for its resemblance and almost painfully exact evocation of the bewildering complexity of the even more massive yet oddly similar locomotives that had once occupied its space.

As a child, I had been fascinated by continental steam engines with their mass of exposed pipe work, compressors and other mysterious and arcane systems none of which were to be found on the austerely simple English equivalents whose numbers I vainly strained to collect as they flew through my local station. It was a technology so similar yet so different that it was hard, from the perspective of an eight-year-old to begin to understand how or why it could come to be so different and yet serve the same purpose. The idea that technologies enjoyed a diversity of manifestations was something of which I had become aware but of which I had only the dimmest of comprehensions. Such subtlety was, for me, wholly subsumed by the hugeness, the loudness, the sheer intensity of the technology that forced itself upon me.

This, my earliest recollection of such an encounter was, to a child’s eyes, on an epic scale. A hundred odd tons of thundering, hurtling, burning steel impresses, to the eyes and, indeed viscera of an adult. To a child it was terrifying yet magnificent, representing as it did, huge power and immense sophistication, way beyond my ability to comprehend. Only much later did I discover that what I was witnessing was the last gasp of a tired and barely functional system. The railways of England were, in the days of the late 1950s, on their last legs: the technology, like so much of post-war England was tired, backward looking and unimaginative. Not so to the youthful trainspotter whose enthusiasm enjoyed a fine and delicate balance with his abject terror. It is often so: we admire and fear in almost inevitably equal measure as if this balance is a natural state to which others converge.

So it was that the exoticism of the continental steam locomotive with all its complexity and sophistication became alluring and so it was that a railway station espresso machine evoked a nostalgia and the sense of an almost romantic relationship with technologies that had remained nigh-on dormant for many years. This is a dormancy perhaps unexpected in the context of the work that I have recently proposed: however, a lifelong fascination does not necessarily take the form of an obsession and may wax and wane in a cycle of indeterminable length and for reasons that can be wholly obscure.
There is, however, the almost unavoidable need to re-visit, re-examine, re-consider and finally to re-present ideas as they cycle thought various forms, contexts and incarnations. It is, by the lights of many, verging on criminally neglectful not to find a means by which one’s ideas and other creative output may have public expression. The purposeful public exposure of one’s work is, a former colleague once argued, the principal distinguishing quality between the “artist” and the amateur. Most of us don’t mind being referred to as artists in our chosen media but few would welcome the alternate apellation!