Off the rails

Platform Souls: The Trainspotter as 20th-Century Hero by Nicholas Whittaker Gollancz, pounds 14.99 Christopher Hirst enters the weird world of the trainspotter

Nicholas Whittaker blames "right-on comedians". As traditional comic butts have increasingly become no-go areas, the trainspotter has been adopted as "everybody's favourite wally ... a gormless loner with dandruff and halitosis". Certainly, the drably clad, strangely obsessed figures who populate the far end of station platforms have attracted a certain amount of unwanted attention over the last couple of years.

Features editors snatched at the chance to probe this bunch of oddballs. Last year, Stephen Dinsdale's acclaimed play Anorak of Fire was based on a trainspotter, though it was not an entirely sympathetic portrayal. (Seduced on a lonely trackside, the hero believes he is bringing his partner to an ecstatic orgasm. In fact, what he hears is the wheezy tooting of an approaching loco.)

Now we have this spirited defence of the spotter's craft, rather in the style of Nick Hornby, the presiding genius of lads' fads. Unfortunately, the auditing of motive units somehow lacks the emotional charge of football or pop music. Dress it up how you will - and Whittaker, a freelance journalist, writes with humour and considerable evocative power - trainspotting just isn't sexy. But there's no reason why the pastime should be so vindictively ridiculed. Protesting about those who direct the weary cliche "Get a life" at trainspotters, Whittaker quite reasonably inquires: "But what life exactly are they talking about? Shopping at B&Q? Visiting McDonalds?"

For anyone who will admit to having had a childhood brush with this now derided hobby, Platform Souls brings it all rushing back: the Ian Allan books of engine numbers in which new sightings (known as "cops") were carefully underlined; the desperate panic of trying to jot down a slew of numbers when the train you were on passed an engine-packed siding (today's spotters murmur into Dictaphones).

It was my utter hopelessness at recording three-inch high numerals whizzing by at 70mph which led to the cessation of my trainspotting activities after a one-month involvement at the age of eight. Nicholas Whittaker's career as a hard-core spotter continued for over two decades. Venturing far afield for new cops, he repeatedly criss-crossed the country on Railrover tickets and inveigled his way into engine sheds ("bunking"). Eventually, the obsession began to fade for the usual reason: "Glad as I was to have the day alone with Jean, I couldn't help having a twinge of envy as Jinx and Aidie set off to bunk the sheds at Haymarket and Polmadie."

Occasionally, the strangulated tones of the caricature obsessional intrude ("We certainly had some rip-roaring fun on our trips") but Whittaker is at his best musing on the minutiae of railways, like the locos named after racehorses: "I imagined two LNER directors sitting in the bar at Kempton Park, sticking a pin in Sporting Life".

There remains something a bit creepy about him, both in the meticulous recording of every brand of confectionery consumed during his platform vigils and in the vein of paranoia running through the book. With appalling inappropriateness, he remarks that the transcription of the tapes of the Moors Murderers reminded him of the grilling he suffered when caught bunking an engine shed.

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