Miles Kington: Don't get dewy-eyed about those good old steam trains

The lovely white plumes they emitted were not steam but filthy smoke, as you knew if you were unlucky enough to get in the way of it
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The Independent Online

Hello, children! Fed up with all that Christmas shopping? Too jaded even to turn on the telly? Worried about getting obese and apathetic? Then let's go on another nature walk with Uncle Geoffrey and his ever-eager nephew and niece, Robert and Susan!

As the three of them strode through the wintry woods, their breath made steamy patterns in the chilly air. Not unlike the vapour trails made by an aeroplane, thought Robert. He was so pleased with the thought that he repeated it out loud.

"Our breath is a bit like the vapour trails left by a plane," said Robert.

"Not really," said Susan. "Our breath is simply condensing in the cold air and making a sort of steam. What comes out of the back of a plane is not steam. It's filth, carbon, gases, nasty stuff."

"We always try to dignify pollution by calling it something else," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Vapour trails, we call them. In the old days, we called them steam engines, but the lovely white plumes they emitted were not steam at all; they were filthy smoke, as you knew if you ever were unlucky enough to get in the way of it. Then your eyes would sting and your hair would be full of cinders."

"Very well," said Robert. "Having been shot down in flames, I'll rephrase my remark. Let me say that our breath is not at all like the vapour trails left by a plane."

"Very well observed," said Uncle Geoffrey.

"I'll tell you something else," said Susan. "Listen to that strange noise."

They stopped walking and listened. They heard nothing, except for one or two rather depressed-sounding birds.

"What do you hear?" said Uncle Geoffrey.

"I hear the total absence of any planes," said Susan.

"I'm with you!" said Robert. "Britain blanketed by fog! Heathrow and Stansted at standstill! No planes flying in or out!"

"Biggest Christmas party of all time takes place at Heathrow!" said Susan. "Thousands of stranded holidaymakers say: 'This is the best fun ever!'"

"It's like nature's revenge, isn't it?" said Uncle Geoffrey. "We pump billions of tons of pollution into the atmosphere, and no one seems to care. Then the atmosphere pumps billions of tons of fog back at us, and we go berserk."

"Actually," said Robert," we don't really go berserk at all. There is a certain pleasure in seeing other people trapped. You know when you're driving down the motorway and the other side is jammed solid, and you're sailing through at 70mph? And you think - Glad it's them, not me..."

"So," said Susan, "are you glad that all these people are stuck at Heathrow?"

"No!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "You must never do that! I am superstitious about these things. I always think that if I am pleased at the discomfiture of others, it is bound to happen to me next."

"That is so unscientific, Uncle Geoffrey!" said Robert.

"But it's very moral," said Uncle Geoffrey. "If my superstition makes me behave in a kinder way, is it not justified? Man is the only animal who behaves superstitiously. Perhaps there is something to be said for it."

Just then, a robin landed on a branch and sang cheerfully.

"Funny how robins always like human company," said Robert.

"You are quite wrong," said Uncle Geoffrey, delighted to be able to correct his nephew. "Animal behavourists think that woodland birds followed pigs and boars when they snouted in the woodland, so they could eat the worms and seeds the pigs had dug up. Bit like seagulls and tractors. Pigs don't root round in the undergrowth any more. But humans do, especially when gardening. So the birds now follow us. That robin thinks we're pigs."

"Sounds like a superstition to me," said Robert.

"Sounds very sensible to me," said Uncle Geoffrey. "Mankind is ruining the environment. That's pretty piggy of us."

"Everyone says pigs are dirty and selfish," said Robert, "but..."

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" said Susan. "Not the misjudged-pig argument again! We had that in Walk Nos 23 and 59! The readers will be sick of that by now!"

Yes, new for Christmas, the best-selling nature book! 'Uncle Geoffrey's Country Rambles - The First Hundred Walks'. Don't deprive your children of it!

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