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Never too old?

I bet there's a hole in that fire somewhere but I'm damned if I can see it!

In the old days, steam firemen started young. I met an old chap at Bitton on the Avon Valley who said he passed out the day after his 16th birthday and was told to be at the shed at 05.00 the following day because he was firing The Devonian to Leeds!  An awesome responsibility.

Similarly, my first firing instructor on the Glos Warks had been a fireman at Kentish Town in the early 1960s and he would do a 10 hour shift on expresses as far as Nottingham and back to St Pancras and then go and play 90 minutes football!  ”I had a 6-pack hard as a rock in those days”, he said to me wistfully.

So, did I not wonder whether, at 60, this was a skill that I could master quickly?  Yes, I did, but I hadn’t bargained for how hard it would be.  As a tutor in schools, colleges and universities for years, and later as an education consultant who spent hours behind a computer screen or in the car, I could hardly have been worse prepared for the job!  But I went to the gym, did Pilates and yoga and thought I was getting there.

I got dirty, gained aching muscles from wrestling with couplings, steam heat and vac pipes, raked coal forward in the tender, cleaned out pits and smoke boxes of ash, polished safety valve bonnets and tried to get the coal in the right place on the grate while looking out for signals, dogs on the line and joggers with a death-wish at ungated crossings.

In fact, I have made some steady but mostly slow, intermittent progress in, I hope, the direction of competence.  The problem is that it has indeed been painfully slow and, recently, almost in reverse.  I have had to admit that I have been a slow learner, or even, as I might have termed it in educational language, one with ‘moderate learning difficulties’!   At least in this sphere of work.  Well out of my comfort zone, and with most of my peer group friends opting for books and DVDs and a glass of red wine in their favourite armchair, I kept making mistakes: I couldn’t always multi-task when it mattered (c.f. looking out for signals when the pressure is dropping alarmingly and there isn’t enough water in the glass).

And of course other factors than just learning where to chuck the coal play an enormous part in the learning process, not least of which is the existence of ludicrous ( and I do mean laughable) levels of personal pride and ego at entering my 7th decade of life and getting used to the idea that I am a total beginner in this whole world and my new instructor is 26, hugely competent as a fireman and driver and, to cap it all, a supremely nice and positive guy.

So, it is safe to say that I have struggled and got very uptight and anxious about the whole process, particularly the issue of assessment (I knew this education assessment stuff would come back and haunt me!), so much so that by mutual consent I have agreed to give it all a rest for a while and, perhaps come back to it later.

The problem is that steam enters your blood stream and you know that, in your heart and gut, there is almost certainly nothing you want to do in your life more than, say, stand on the swaying footplate of a Modified Hall, with the regulator open, blasting cacophonously up through Greet tunnel with 7 carriages behind you and only the fire to see by.  It is addictive and it is utterly marvellous.

As for those BR firemen of old - it has been said many, many times what a wonderful breed of men the steam railways created but now I know from experience exactly how good they were, how skilful, subtle, intelligent and competent. And they made it look oh, so easy!!!

So, am I too old? Maybe, but I shall continue to get up at unholy hours to drive for 80 minutes up the motorway to get on shed at 06.00. I just wish I had started at half my current age.

Am I mad? Almost certainly! But one of the few advantages to getting older, is that you care less about all that!

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