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He breathes in a familiar rhythm, sucking in air over his teeth.

His speech pattern dips in and out of the smooth, staccato tones of a station announcer.

A litany of station names, ordered, correct, slip from his lips in a conversational lull.

He discriminates a train by the acoustic fingerprint it sends shuddering down the tracks, before it heaves into sight*.

Transit maps bloom on the blank page.  The coloured ribbons of real and imagined journeys snaking from the tip of his pen.

I get asked a lot why Spike likes trains, and the honest answer is "I don't know." It's not a question he has an answer for.  I can only speculate based on the evidence before me.

Trains are never more than a neuronal flash from his uppermost thoughts. I would not be the slightest bit surprised if an MRI or CT scan revealed that his neurological pathways had aligned themselves along the routes sketched out in Harry Beck's famous map.

Trains are the lens though which Spike processes events and describes his experiences.  Those with a passing knowledge of the highways and byways of the British rail network, will find themselves able to communicate with Spike more deeply and effectively.  And if you are short of such knowledge, you will accumulate it quickly in his presence.

In an earlier post I alluded to the extent to which trains have inserted themselves into Spike's psychogeography. But he speaks a kind of train language, too. At the surface, there are references to all kinds of classes of trains, stations both famous and obscure, coupling manufacturers and railway jargon. There are also chunks of speech borrowed from the mouth of Geoff Marshall**, Spike's ever-present guide to The Secrets of the Underground (a favourite DVD). And there's the metaphysical stuff - Exhibits 1 and 2 of countless:

Today, Spike was enjoying a rare doughnut and said "I'm eating '325 food!'".

Me:  "Why is it a '325 food'?"

S:  "325 is an odd number!"

Me:  "Are odd numbers good?"

S:  "Yes.  And you can see class 325 trains on the West Coast Mainline.  I looooovvveee icing."

Me: "Icing is the best!"

Later in the day, when returning from a train expedition (naturally), I was reminiscing about Spike's babyhood and mentioned that he was born in 2009. "I'm 2009 stock!", he replied. Part boy-part train. 

I do know that Spike's passion for trains is not inspired by the romance of the railways. There is no nostalgic pang drawing him to the burnished, sooty engines that used to haul themselves from city to city. His first Rail Love was the electric cars of the London Underground, quickly followed by their dirty diesel mainline brethren. Spike remembers every detail and the emotional punch of each journey taken, but he is not wistful about the memory or potential of journeys by rail. His is a different type of remembering. He is a young boy, of course. The nostalgia will come. Threads of it are appearing already. This year saw the last of London Underground's fleet of D-stock trains put out to pasture. Their single-leaf doors will no longer stem the flow of commuters along the District line.  They are sorely missed by Spike.

I think logos were where it started. They were how Spike started to make sense of the wider world beyond our home and street. While we bemoan the ubiquity of the high street, the spread eagle of Barclays Bank plc and the Santander flame (and many others), cut through the roar of the traffic, the thrum of conversation, the bleep of pedestrian crossings. They made him feel safe. It didn't take long for the iconic roundel of the London Underground to creep into Spike's consciousness.

The segue from logos to trains was slow, steady and inevitable - but never completed. The design language of the London Underground and wider rail network is chief among Spike's railway pleasures. He fills entire notebooks and significant amounts of RAM with carefully-drawn liveries, logos, route and transit maps, coupling mechanisms, and interchange infographics. 

Spike doesn't yet have much of a completist or collecting bent to his passion. He isn't noting down numbers. So he is perhaps more of a "rail enthusiast" than a "trainspotter". He is like a bird watcher, simply enjoying the variety of bird life, rather than a list-building "twitcher". Timetables hold little interest, either. But perhaps those aspects will come.

Spike's relationship with trains seems visceral, forged over repeated deep body experiences of travelling by train.  All rail travel, but particularly travel on the London Underground is akin to an immersive sensory event.  Constant announcements in the weird cadence of public address, the bleep of doors closing, the rumble-then-squeal of approaching trains, the visual cacophany of cautionary and directional signage, and adverts greedy for your attention. The warm metallic tang of turbulent dust.  The hungover fever dream patterns of the moquette and mock-terrazzo rubber floors.  The thrum and vibration and knocking and barging.  City dwellers may be inured to the sensory assault, but I am constantly surprised that Spike can tolerate trains at all.

Despite his highly attuned senses, I think the predictability of the environment and operation of the rail network is what makes it tolerable - enjoyable, actually - for Spike.  He also has a prodigious memory, absorbing the minutiae of railways wholesale into his brain. Consequently, he gets railways. He understands them. This can be helpful. Recently, when we took the boys away for a weekend break, Spike was unhappy in our holiday accommodation.  For respite, we took him to the local railway station where everything is familiar to him. From my own experience, even overseas, railways are reassuringly equivalent.  In Japan, where I have never felt so abroad, the station-city of Tokyo was navigable and understandable once the initial overwhelm ebbed away.  

As you can imagine, we spend a lot of time on the London Underground and Overground. Typically, Ben or I will take Spike on at least one or two journeys each weekend, or at the very least, to some vantage point where he can watch trains. We do it because it is his passion, but also because it rebalances him.  It smooths out the jags on his internal equalizer and leaves him calm and resilient.

The journeys are always of Spike's choosing.  There is usually a reason why he wants to visit a particular station or a theme underpinning his route choice. He might want to travel the length of the Bakerloo line, or visit all the stations which interchange with River Boat services, or copy a journey he has seen on YouTube.  Sometimes the reasons are transparent, sometimes they are not.  He frequently wanted to take a journey which took him on all the London Underground lines, except the Jubilee line.  "What's wrong with the Jubilee line?" we would ask, but no answer was forthcoming. We are used to these obtuse puzzles, but I confess to committing a lot of mental energy to this one. Why all the lines, but one? It's aggravating because There is Always a Reason. And then one day, after school, Spike requested this journey again and I asked the usual question. Miraculously, he gave an answer: "Because the Jubilee line is the only line with no 'Extras and Outtakes' on my 'Secrets of the Underground' DVD." Oh.

When we first started taking these journeys with Spike, they felt frustratingly aimless for this non-train lover, but over time I have come to enjoy them. The principle reason for this is the obvious joy that Spike experiences.  And it is actual joy.  Not happiness or pleasure, but "intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness". It radiates from him as we fly along the fast bits of the Met line, or when he is buffeted by the turbulence of a fast mainline train passing the platform at Harrow & Wealdstone, or when the unfailingly sweet drivers allow him to sit (or on one notable, probably highly illegal occasion, ride) in the cab. The joy is infectious and we have all caught Rail Love.   


* Perhaps he can hear their trainsong? If you're a fan of young adult literature and haven't read Philip Reeve's "Railhead" series - fix that.

** Geoff and the lovely Vicki Pipe (as I can't help referring to her in my head) are currently visiting all 2,563 stations on the British rail network.  At the time of writing they have 97 stations to go!  Follow their adventures, here.    


Want to read more? The different ways my family speak.



Spectrum Sunday