Off the Rails with Jan Needle

Mallard in all her glory at the the National Railway Museum at York. Picture by Rich Bacon 

Research has always been one of the bugbears of writing. In the old days, if one was doing a book based on factual matters, part of the process was finding out where you could find out things that were important and germane. This, as you all know, could take hours, days, weeks, months – it was a pain.

Rich and Muava with Adam Fozard in museum colours
It hit me hardest when I was writing one of my historical naval fictions. Because of a misspent youth I knew a vast amount about the technicalities of square rigged ships and how to sail them. But suddenly, well into a novel set in the mid-eighteenth century, I wanted to investigate some of the nuts and bolts of gunnery at sea.

Simple, I thought. I'll find a book. That in itself wasn't easy, as it turned out. Or even possible, in the area that I was specifically after. And many of the volumes I needed were either in obscure libraries, or distant libraries, or not in libraries at all. I had to search them out in antiquarian bookshops, then shell out vast quantities of pelf just to see if they contained in the information I was looking for. Sometimes they didn't. And believe me, nobody wanted to buy them back.

A better picture of Muava
God bless the Internet, then - and good mates. For sometimes, nowaday, research can be a lorra lorra fun (sorry Cilla). Like when my former Brookside colleague Andy Lynch came up with a cracking idea for a TV play about the British steam engine Mallard, and how she came to win the world speed record just before World War II.

Basically, he wanted to weave a drama about the attempt, and some of the shenanigans associated with it. Germany had just won the record, and Herr Hitler had a vested interest in making sure it wasn't taken away. One imagines that he guessed there was a war coming, and, gongs notwithstanding, fast and efficient railways were going to be one of the keys to winning it.

The Germans, being possibly more imaginative innovators than the British, had already invested a vast amount of money and brainpower into diesel locomotion, as had the French in petrol railcars. But Nigel Gresley, one of our homegrown greats, was still convinced that steam had the best answers. It was not just a national thing for him. He saw the LMS as his greatest rivals, and he wished to keep his own company, the LNER, ahead in the speed race. LMS held the record at 114mph.

Toys for the boys. Me, Andy Lynch, Rob Shorland-Ball
It was not just boys’ games. Commercially speaking, then as now, kudos meant everything. LNER was not the richest company by a long shot, but if Gresley could give it the fastest engines, it would be phenomenally useful for its financial development. And let’s face it, what kudos is there in a steam loco, however fast, named after an airborne snack? True. The Germans called theirs the Fliegende Hamburger.

But their record stood at 124.5 mph, ten miles better than LMS had managed. It would take some beating.

Then as now, industrial espionage was rife, both for cash and nationalist reasons. It seems highly unlikely that the powers behind LNER would have left any stone unturned to find out what their rivals were up to, at home – and in Germany.

The TV programme did not get made, which I consider something of a tragedy. There's almost nothing more dramatic than high-speed steam battling it out, and nothing more exciting than human beings pitting themselves against technology at the cutting edge. Mallard’s boiler pressure was an astonishing 250 pounds per square inch. At full speed, she was basically an unexploded bomb (with passengers.)

One hundred and sixty five tons of locomotive and tender screaming along the open countryside, with driver Joe Duddington staring intensely ahead through blinding smoke and cinders while his fireman, Tommy Bray, shifts hundredweight after hundredweight of coal into the furnace. Now imagine this unstoppable, uncontrollable, unstable behemoth climbing slowly from the steaming, juddering ‘off’ to speeds that were almost unimaginable.

You're underneath now. Clinging on at 125mph. Crazy 
Picture further, if you will, a desperate German spy hidden on the train, to spy or sabotage for the honour of the Fuehrer and The Reich. With only a young Doncaster railway engineer aware he might be lurking there, and certain that only he can search him out and stop him.

Andy Lynch is a great television dramatist, but he has never attempted a prose work – why bother if you want to earn a living? Prose is the medium I’m most comfortable with though, and over a series of conversations (not to mention glasses of the darlin’ liquor) we decided to kick it around between us to see if we could make it a novella. Basically, as it's turned out, he doesn't really need me at all, but he's far too nice to say so. And one thing I do have is contacts. Which leads us on to another friend of mine, Rob Shorland-Ball.

Rob and I met up when I was having a second bite at my Toad of Toad Hall saga, Wild Wood. Strangely, I can't remember exactly how or why, but we became firm friends and he managed to wangle me into the organ (yes, inside the organ) at St George's Hall in Liverpool. He had this scheme that I should write a story of Mr Toad sailing up the Mersey in triumph, although again I can’t recall exactly why. Rob is a museum consultant among his many talents, and he played an enormous part in  revivifying the magnificent railway museum at York. Got the connection yet? York is now the home of Mallard, and Rob has even driven her!

An early German train enthusiast
Andy, for one arcane but vital area of the story, needed to get underneath Mallard to see if a particularly dangerous manoeuvre involving our hero could possibly be attempted. That was our excuse, anyway. Us boys need toys, okay? Any objections in writing, please; a postcard will suffice.

Mallard, from the outside, is magnificent. On the footplate, she is wonderful. On that footplate the three of us met three more enthusiasts, Adam Fozard of the museum staff, and two innocent visitors, Rich Bacon and Muava, whom we enjoyed ourselves showing off a bit to. They were very kind! Rich took the lovely shot of Mallard above, and sent it to me to go with this blog.

Andy is not such a hectic writer as I am, but the book is coming along very nicely thank you. Its provisional title is Mallard and it will be a thriller. Technically speaking, thanks to Rob, it will be absolutely spot-on, and who knows – maybe some TV wallah will have the good sense this time to snap it up!

Incidentally, Mallard beat the German record by a gigantic (!) half a mile an hour, and the timing methodology was, by modern standards, out of the Stone Age. I think Sepp Blatter might have told a rather different story...


Wendy H. Jones said…
This was fascinating. I love steam trains and was actually fortunate to be able to drive one once. I will be buying your book when it is out
Our son was heavily into trains for a while when he was a little lad. We used to have to go and ride on open steam engines at Dalmellington - exciting, but perishingly cold - and I remember going to see Mallard in York - such a beautiful piece of work and such a wonderful museum! - and then spending about an hour in the station there, just watching trains coming in and going out. It was surprisingly involving and soothing, although I do remember hoping that he wasn't going to turn into a trainspotter when he grew up! (He didn't) But he'll definitely be interested in the book and so will I. I remember going on steam trains from Leeds to the seaside, as a child: nothing quite like the smell and the sound of them. No surprise that one of my favourite movies is still the Railway Children!
glitter noir said…
Fantastic post, Jan. I'm still not sure what LMS means. (According to Google, it means Learning Management System, which seems a bit out of synch with your piece.) But you had me at Hello with this:

"Now imagine this unstoppable, uncontrollable, unstable behemoth climbing slowly from the steaming, juddering ‘off’ to speeds that were almost unimaginable."

I've simply got to read your book--and hope you too will put on some unimaginable speed.
Jan Needle said…
Reb, it's a culture thing! London Midlands and Scottish was the company name. LNER is London and North Eastern Railways. As to unstoppable, when I went underneath I was amazed and horrified by the so-called braking system. A system of layered pads pressed against the circumference of the steel wheels. The drivers must have been mad, the passengers ditto. I don't know what the all-up weight of a full train of coaches, plus passengers was, but...well! I'm not the driver on this project, more the fireman, but I'm pretty sure it'll be a cracker.
Lydia Bennet said…
Mallard is indeed a beautiful thing, your book sounds great, do let us know when it's oot and aboot. I just about recall being scared by a steam train in Newcastle Central station when I was a tot but we too had to take our bairns on restored steam trains, including a Santa train. And of course getting some cinder in your eye could be a good meet cute as in Brief Encounter! Steam engines had of course been used for years down the mines, Geordie Stephenson's father was blinded by one exploding as they very much were bombs under immense pressure. Oddly enough it seems to have been the amazing speeds never before experienced by humans which worried potential passengers rather than steam and metal shredding them.
Dennis Hamley said…
Damn you, Needle, you got in first with the LMS and LNER? Do you think Reb would like to know about the GWR and SR as well? But a wonderful post. Yes, the Mallard story has every feature going. I will be one of the - or even THE - first to buy it. On my much delayed two comments on my own post I tell of a friend's experience learning to drive an A4. But I thought Mallard beat the Nazis by 2mph. Surely Adolf wouldn't believe half a mile, especially when translated into kilometres? Still, we bloody did it, mate. Val, I did a very small gig at the NRM in 2006. I'd love to do another one. What a fabulous place.

Popular posts

Move Your Tired Old Ass Like a Writer -- Reb MacRath

Twelve hours and several lifetimes: a day sail on the Deben with books

Be True to Your Inner Imposter --- Reb MacRath

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee