Reading, with its mixture of freight, InterCity and suburban services, is a big place for spotters and, should you walk right to the western end of the platforms, you will find them, waiting in stolid unobtrusiveness, silhouetted against the rails like some lost chorus.
It is at this point that your smart metropolitan hack usually slips in his first sneer and his first 'anorak'. Sentences will follow using key words like 'lank-haired', 'spotty', 'sandals', 'grubby Thermoses' and 'dog-eared notebooks'. There is something about the contained absorption of the spotter that offends your smart metropolitan hack, as if crossing off train numbers were any more futile than producing tomorrow's yesterday's newspaper. Now, too, there is the sad, bad example of Michael Sams, abductor of Stephanie Slater and killer of Julie Dart, to label them with.
So this hack is prepared, too; but not for the complete absence of anoraks, sandals, etc; nor for the atmosphere of gentle amiability as is found on the better river banks and cricket boundaries. Here is Martin, 31, civil servant, and his dad, Alan, retired civil servant, down from Manchester for the day, with camera and tape recorder, for the numbers. Here is Bill Friend, 50 years at it, using a camcorder now. And Simon Owen and Julie Bell, postman and bus driver, from Poole. And Bob Carrick and Steve Williams, from Birmingham, spotting chums since childhood.
None of them is very clear about why they do it. A good day out, a reason to get around. Martin and his dad are admiring a Thames Turbo: 'You don't see those in Manchester.' Bill has only one more 08 loco to spot and he has seen the lot. It's somewhere up round Carlisle and he's going there this summer to find it. Bill invites friends round to watch his videos. He doesn't understand why people collect stamps, and Julie doesn't understand bus spotting. Bob and Steve are off after this for a bit of bus spotting round Maidenhead and Bracknell and Aldershot. They plane spot, too.
Bill goes to air shows and says spotting is quiet and you don't get wet. Simon remembers a bad night on Leicester station and Bob remembers a worse one in Newport freight yard. Julie remembers the thrill of just standing on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman. Big, big freight trains rumble through with aggregate and rubbish and everybody gets quietly excited. They will not be stopped spotting, whatever. But there are fewer youngsters doing it now. At the same time, according to the Henley Centre, millions are switching off television because they find it so boring. Get yourselves to Reading, York, Crewe or Tamworth . . . 58935, 58336, 58881, 5634, 5665 . . .
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