|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|
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|
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|
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...