English preservation societies

If it's old, decrepit, obsolete, and requires inordinate amounts of tinkering to keep it going, then it's odds-on that there will be a society dedicated to doing just that, says Michael Bywater
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The Independent Online

It is a curiously British obsession. Not for us the helpless romanticism of Scott Fitzgerald. "So we beat on," he wrote at the end of The Great Gatsby, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." There's Americans for you, noses pointing towards the future, paddling like hell towards the shining future, innovation, modernity.

It's different over here. Here we turn around, going with the current, hell-for-leather towards a golden, wonderful past filled with milestones and hedgehogs, greasy spoon cafés and lighthouses, beer and sandwiches, tall ships and glossy, panting steam locomotives smelling of salt and tar, and of hot brass and coal-smoke respectively. And diesel engines, too, even though they aren't in the past yet, which you could also say of computers and software and old computer games: are they in the past? Really?

They are. Look up "computer preservation society" on Google and you get 11 million hits. Given the nature of Google (how curious that you get no little advertisements when you google "organ preservation"; you'd have thought that would be a goldmine for the big-schlong-and-Viagra crowd) that 11 million doesn't tell us much, except that there's a sizeable crowd of obsessives out there, spending their weekends munching beetroot sandwiches and talking fondly of the golden age of computing.

Or of cinema organs, church organs, fairground organs, barrel organs; of public clocks, The Goon Show, television programmes in general, old films, railways, the Trident, the Humber Keel and Sloop, the great British Breakfast, Waltham Windmill, windmills in general... whatever it is, if it has outlived its usefulness, two or three will be gathered together in its name, drawing up the articles of association to preserve it.

Other nations do not do this. The French, whose cafés are disappearing (some sources claim up to 75 per cent have closed down since the Sixties, driven out by McDonald's, television and le stress) restrict themselves to a noncommittal grimace.

Americans don't so much preserve their past as reconstruct it without too much concern for historical accuracy, or even for whether the past they are preserving is actually their own. One technology guru - Larry Page of Google - reportedly visited the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas to take a ride in a fake gondola along an artificial canal in what sort of looked like Venice but was really a shopping mall. "Cool," he is said to have observed. "This is just like the internet."

You can see what he means. Real reality is rapidly becoming overshadowed by not only on-screen virtual reality, but by online virtual life. We are used to having everything at our fingertips, the world a click away, our lives mediated and flattened by the LCD screen. Real reality is too limiting, too dangerous, too dirty, noisy and unpredictable.

Yet we go on wanting to preserve it. There is a strange fracture line at the heart of British society - and, in particular, English society. The Scots don't really go in for this sort of thing, and even when they do - in the case, for example, of inexplicable animal feedstuffs like oatmeal and herrings - they don't form preservation societies and make a fuss; they just get on with it. And the Welsh seldom let go of anything long enough to want to preserve it (take eistedfoddau, for example) as well as being so notoriously touchy that we will say nothing more about them.

But the English, sunk in an affably geeky nostalgia, preserve like mad. I used to work with a man who would spend every moment of his spare time driving up and down the country buying up redundant organ-pipes, bellows, and other organ parts (have you any idea how many parts there are in an organ?) in order to preserve the instrument in his own local church. When I asked if I could come and actually play it, he looked at me as if I had suggested we pop outside and sodomise a goat. Playing it was not the point of preserving it. The point of preserving it was preserving it, so that, presumably, you could point at it and say "We preserved that organ. If we hadn't preserved it, it wouldn't have been preserved, and then where would we be?"

The instinct must be a standing and terrible reproach to a deracinated man-of-the-"future" like Mr Blair. Charles de Gaulle wondered of France, how it was possible to govern a country which had 246 varieties of cheese. How much harder to govern a people who don't really care much for the modern world and are far happier hand-grinding gudgeon-pins, hand-punching new paper player-rolls for Gavioli fairground organs, hand-painting 19th-century narrowboats and generally hand-gilding the lily of a very ungilded past.

The nostalgia and the genuine care that motivates preservation societies is also a great luxury, born of our freedom from the very things we wish to preserve. The people who run the Cyber Telephone Museum can only do so because modern, sophisticated communications have supplanted the dreadful old telephone system which they wish to preserve. Railway-engine enthusiasts get to the yard or the train-shed at crack of dawn on Saturday morning in their modern, reliable cars, free from windswept platforms, smuts, and delays due to sheep on the line at Twazzocks. The members of the Milestone Society, with its magnificently formal Objectives ("To represent the historical significance and national importance of milestones in appropriate forums... To establish regional groups through which to delegate and devolve the Society's business") and archetypically 21st-century safety concerns ("The fact that milestones, because of their original purpose, are most often located at the sides of roads means that a serious study of milestones involving measurement, recording of inscriptions, photographing, etc, can be hazardous in view of the juxtaposition of the researchers, road traffic and other pedestrians") would, at the time milestones were of any real significance, be lucky to have seen more than two or three in the average lifetime, and those at the periphery of their home town or village.

Preservation, then, is a luxury with an irony at its centre: we preserve only that which has lost its contemporary significance. If it's still useful, it's not being preserved.

Nor does preservation, in general, restore anything resembling the original. The private-line steam locomotive, glistening in the summer sun, is the avatar of an imaginary lost world of Fry's Five Boys chocolate, pasteboard tickets, cheery station-masters and guards who were guards, not "train managers" (and passengers who were passengers, not customers; not to mention buffet stewards, not "customer service hosts"); a world where everyone went to church on Sunday, and there wasn't all this sex, and children knew their place.

The real working steam locomotive was dirty, smoke-blackened, jerky, and unreliable; the carriages smelt and the upholstery scratched your legs; the buffet car had stale tea in an urn and one Jurassic ham sandwich, lightly curling under its bacteria-farm down. But in Preservation World, it is still Adlestrop, and you can hear all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

British Preservation is a kind of mechanical saudade, that Portuguese lament for the loss of something you never actually had. It establishes the stage set on which its aficionados can live other, non-existent lives. The smiling solicitor at the regulator of his society's immaculately restored locomotive is not, to himself, a solicitor driving a restored engine; he becomes someone else, a "real" engine-driver in a "real" world which may have never existed, but for which he has a deeply satisfying internal narrative, like Snoopy on his doghouse roof ("Here's the famous WWI fighter ace...").

But for all their make-believe and all their wonderful loopiness (and their complete lack of self-consciousness, posting pictures of unidentifiable bits of wood or, in the case of the Trident Preservation Society, the wingless, tail-less fuselage of G-AWZK, propped on blocks like a big, white tube -- just a big, white tube - the preservers are engaged in a genuine shriek of justifiable outrage at the modern world.

"Look!" they cry; "Look how the world could have been, and once was! Look at the texture! Look at the lovable inconveniences, the almost-alive quality of the thing, the colours, the care, the craft, the love! Look how this thing is different from all other things; how it is, above all, itself."

In a world, now, when things are somehow interchangeable, and there is nothing to distinguish, fundamentally, your computer from your camera, your digital darkroom from your iPod, your electronic notebook from your mobile phone, or your television from anything else; when life is increasingly lived on screen and that life which is not on-screen aspires to the on-screen condition (odourless, smoke-free, affectless, harmless and, above all, deeply inauthentic); then the desire to restore or preserve things which break (or whistle, or creak, smoke, smell, clank, rattle, get hot, bite, peck, shriek, burst into flames and all the other adventitious qualities of reality), and which require skill and knowledge and experience to work - things which are emphatically not user-friendly, from the windmill to the Tiger Moth, the parrot to the paddle-steamer - then this urge becomes all too human, a defence against the far stronger current which is bearing us ceaselessly into a future in which the individual human being seems to have little to do or say.

Not fade away: our most eccentric protection groups

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society ( www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk)

is the sort of organisation that makes one simultaneous proud and appalled to be British. While we continue to devote our attention to preserving hedgehogs, we will never become a thrusting, cutting-edge nation at the forefront of global economic success. Thank God.

The Classic Café Preservation Society ( http://snipurl.com/greasyspoon). Under siege from the terrible inauthenticity of Starbucks, Caffè Nero and the like, we are offered hope by the self-confessedly ramshackle and ineffective CCPS. Classic Café coffee may be indistinguishable from Classic Café tea, but have you tried asking for a Special with extra beans in Starbucks?

The Traffic Cone Preservation Society ( www.trafficcone.com) is dedicated to "preserving and studying these 'Helpers of Humanity'" and on the principle of "know thy enemy" alone, as well as - in memoriam - John Major's Cones Hotline, we must applaud and support them.

The Milestone Preservation Society ( www.milestone-society.co.uk) is not only a magnificent exemplar of preservation because of its "unique collection of over 2000 photographs of milestones taken by the late Ken Diamond during his travels in the UK", but also because milestones - sessile, inaccurate, superceded and often indistinguishable from pointless random rocks - are such a splendidly improbable thing to preserve.

The Fair Organ Preservation Society ( www.fops.org)

Terrible music, terrible sound, a redolence of nausea and fear of the rough boys who would beat you up behind the waltzer to the sound of the mechanical drum, and nick your candyfloss... ah, happy days brought back to life.

The Parrot Preservation Society ( www.parrotpro.com) We don't need to know any more. In fact we would rather not. The fact that there is an organisation which preserves parrots is enough for us.

The Software Preservation Society ( www.softpres.org). But we remember when software was new! And now you're saying it's old? Thank goodness someone is preserving it.

The Deltic Preservation Society ( http://www.thedps.co.uk/) The Deltic was one of the early diesel locomotives. We all hated it. It drove away steam. Free of glamour, ugly, brutal, smelly, dirty and charmless, its preservation says more about the British than any steam-powered Adlestrop-yearning revivalism ever could.