Traces of railways have the capacity to interest, intrigue, excite even.
Standing on the doorstep of Mountmellick Rectory, a railway signal was visible beside a stone building, another nearby building had the look of a station about it. What line had run through this place? Where had it gone? Who might have alighted here to do business in this neat midland town? What goods had been sent from here and where had they gone?
My host explained that the station had been the end of a short line from Portlaoise, that there had once been plans for it to go through to the next main line but that the 19th Century ambition had never come to fruition. ‘You are not another clerical railway enthusiast?’
‘Not really’, I answered. ‘I don’t know anything about railways really, it’s just that I’m intrigued by the culture around them’.
Railways have a peculiar capacity to draw together people of diverse backgrounds and diverse viewpoints. Among clergy, people who might antagonise each other on almost every other imaginable subject will concur on the details of a particular locomotive or in their recollection of a particular steam railway.
I have often wondered at colleagues who developed such passionate interests in unlikely things – steam railways, ancient buildings, obscure books, esoteric scholarship – but perhaps there is a thread running through it. Perhaps it is about investing one’s feelings in things that are impersonal and even remote.
Isn’t there a process in psychology called ‘transference’ where feelings get redirected? Maybe it’s something similar that is going on amongst clergy when there seems to be inordinate enthusiasm for odd things.
Perhaps it is a way of coping with the pain of some the stuff that has to be dealt with and with the isolation that comes from never ever being able to share things heard. A 1940s steam locomotive or the workings of a semaphore signalling system represent stuff that is going on out there, stuff that can’t hurt you.
The colleague whom I most respect in the whole of our church once passed by an encounter, that many people would have regarded as an opportunity of a lifetime, in order to spend a day travelling around the steam railways of Kent. He spoke with delight of his meeting with the men who kept those lines going; he had not one moment of regret for not accepting the invitation he had declined. It seemed an odd decision yet if we are surviving by transference, or whatever process it might be, then there was sense in the choice.
Perhaps the fascination with the remains of Mountmellick station is about not so much an interest in the culture of others as an escape from self.