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For days last week, the road outside our front door was filled with the hiss of steam and the puff of smoke as a procession of vintage steam tractors and steam rollers toot-tootled past on their way to Welland, the next-door village, where the famous and very popular steam rally was taking place at the weekend. You could hear them coming from one hundred yards away, travelling at barely 5mph, with a tailback of 40-odd cars driven by (mostly) cheerfully patient motorists. Plenty of time to rush into the front garden to wave at the enthusiasts driving these beasts and to marvel at the dedication and craftmanship that must have gone into their restoration and maintenance. That was the limit of my interest, a passing nod to a bygone era. Engineering – in fact, any form of DIY – has always left me stone cold. My brother-in-law, sadly no longer with us, would have been fascinated. An engineer by trade and adept with his hands, he would have observed with a keen and knowledgeably eye, fully understanding the mechanics involved and scarcely disguising a desire to join them in getting his hands dirty. His hero was Humphrey Davy, a fellow Cornishman, the chemist and inventor, famous for, among many things, electrolysis, the arc lamp and the miner’s safety lamp. I rather think that my brother-in-law would never have been happier than being a part of the team in Davy’s workshop back in the early 18th century.


My three-year old grandson, thankfully very much still with us, loves his tractors. Thus, a family gathering was combined with a visit to the steam rally. At first, I was disinclined to go but further importunities prevailed, and I agreed. I was jolly glad I had. The hillside fields of the farm host to the rally were covered in cars, tents, camper vans and caravans; not to mention the long queues of visitors at the entrance. The place was packed. With my knowledge of football crowds, I attempted to make a ready-reckoning of the number of people present. The later published attendance figure was 35,000, which was not far off my guess.


The business end of the rally was an assault on the senses. The first of the five senses assaulted was olfactory. Those old enough to remember the unmistakeable smell of the steam engines on the railways will know exactly what I mean. The second was auditory. I have already mentioned the hiss of steam and the toot-toot of the passing engines. This was magnified a hundred-fold as those mighty machines belched smoke and steam into the atmosphere. “I wonder what sized hole this lot is punching into the ozone layer,” pondered one of the family, “But who cares? Certainly, nobody here.” Then the full majesty – I can describe it in no other way – of the serried ranks of beautifully restored steam engines, big and small, was revealed to us as we entered the main field. Most were up and running, some on the move (at a snail’s pace, thankfully) but others simply flexing their powerful muscles. ‘We could beat a wide path through this throng, if we had a mind,’ they seemed to tell us, ‘But for the time being we choose not to.’ I was reminded of the sonnet, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (what an extraordinary name is that!).

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

One can imagine the thoughts of the ordinary labourer in England’s fields, whose job had not greatly changed for a thousand years, looking at these infernal machines, the future laid bare before their very eyes, and experiencing something like despair.


It takes a leap of my imagination to call a machine beautiful. Solid, efficient, workmanlike, useful, it does what it says on the tin – these would be my favoured epithets. These engines, motors, appliances, mechanisms only enter my affection if they work and are useful. If they do not, for whatever reason, they provoke me to an inchoate rage. “Nothing infuriates me more than the innate hostility of inanimate objects.” I forget who said that, but he has my wholehearted agreement. Yet these machines did not appear to be inanimate at all. They had a life, a power, a function all of their own, and the proud mechanics, standing beside or on top of their steam engines were not mere superintendents of their beloved apparatus but parents, intent on protecting their beloved charges from the ravages of age and time. They had the shining light of ardentdisciples in their eyes.


The devotion, the attention to detail, the hours spent in upkeep, must be all-consuming. “I bet some of them love their engines more than their wives,” offered another one of the family, “Sorry, darling, no time for the washing up. Got to go and attend to Puffing Billy.” I bet that scenario is not so far-fetched. Some of those Puffing Billies were cleaned and polished to within an inch of their lives. The mighty beasts of course caught the eye but from time to time a peep-peepalerted you to an oncoming engine. The crowd would part and there, chug-chugging along would be a miniature steam train with the driver’s knees pointing skywards, way above the puffing funnel. No laughing matter this, no grins of perceived incongruity; these aficionados were every bit a serious about their tiny engines as those of any of the huge appliances.


Of as much interest in the steam engines was the demographic of the mechanics and their admirers. Like most people, I am a keen people-watcher and here was much to observe, the great, eccentric British public at play. The drivers, the stokers and their dutiful sons, whose sole job was to toot-toot the whistle,were dressed in the obligatory blue overalls, and were of course filthy, covered head-to-toe in grease and soot.


The engrossed spectators fell into two broad categories.


“It’s amazing,” remarked my son, “how many steam engines are at the Welland Mobility Scooter Rally.” He certainly had a point. I have not seen so many (allegedly) disabled or infirm people under power in one place in my lifetime. “If only some of them would get up and walk!” sighed my other son, a GP, who knows all about the lack of general fitness of so many of his patients. But this is a country-wide scandal, not a problem confined exclusively to a corner of the SW Midlands.


The rest, who were under their own steam, as it were, underlined what a mongrel, unappealing, unprepossessing race the English are, ill-dressed, shapeless, tattoo-adorned and pony-tailed – and that’s just the women. I looked knowingly at another member of the family, and he raised his eyes to heaven.


Then I immediately repented of my derision. This was not Lord’s, Wimbledon, Henley or Ascot. This was no fashionable, exclusive club for the upper-middle classes. This was a celebration of the skilled labourers and blue-collar workers who had driven, quite literally, the Industrial Revolution and brought prosperity, through their effort and endeavour, to a nation that would rule the world. More power to their elbows. It does not need a social scientist to point out that that the working class back then were exploited under capitalism and forced to accept meagre wages in return for operating the means of production. We should, rather than scoff, raise our caps (flat, of course) in their honour.


Besides, I have rarely been in such a large crowd that was better behaved. There was no drunkenness, now rowdiness, no disorderly conduct. There was not a single high-vis jacketedpoliceman in sight. There were plenty of fire engines but that would be expected in view of the drought-like conditions and the number of boilers belching smoke and hot embers. Everybody was cheerfully and good-humouredly enjoying the experience. The Brits might be quirky and crass, but they know how to have a good time.


The irony was the presence of a speed cop just beyond the village. I doubt any of those steam engines would have even registered on his speed dial.

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