In 1947 George Orwell wrote this:
Mr Harold Nicolson… perceived [that] the only positive satisfaction in growing older is that after a certain point you can begin boasting of having seen things that no one will ever have the chance to see again. It set me wondering what boasts I could make myself… Mr Nicolson had seen the Czar, surrounded by his bodyguard of enormous Cossacks, blessing the Neva. I never saw that, but I did see Marie Lloyd, already almost a legendary figure, and I saw Little Tich… and I have seen a whole string of crowned heads and other celebrities from Edward VII onwards.
But my subject today is things which happened in my lifetime but which I didn’t see, and which were quite different from the world I thought I lived in then as well as the one I live in now. For my taste this is best illustrated by railways.
I was a child of the Southern Electric – and my particular corner of it, in south west Middlesex, had been electrified before the first world war. I understood that steam, though much talked about, was now dead; only diesels and electrics were to be found. As far as I know I never saw a steam locomotive in passenger service. My first encounter with a working steam locomotive was a footplate ride on an industrial locomotive at the Steamtown museum in Carnforth – and this was, decidedly, an exotic novelty.
I was in fact nearly five before British Rail finally dispensed with steam, and their last steam locomotive, as is well known, was built in 1960, only three years before I was born. These may be thought of as residual. But the former London & South Western Railway main line to Southampton and Bournemouth – perhaps the principal main line of the Southern Region – was steam worked until 1967. Many of the minor railways which were closed post-Beeching were operating into my lifetime. We went on holiday to east Devon in June 1966, and paid a visit to Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis had lost its railway only seven months before, and it was worked as late as 1960 by William Adams’s radial tank engines of the 1870s, which would have seemed to me quite impossibly historic.
Steam, then, played no part in my emerging consciousness except as something legendary. I thought I not only never had seen, but never could see steam in regular service, but other people were then regularly seeing Oliver Bulleid’s by now decidedly grubby Merchant Navy pacifics as close to our home as Surbiton, and I certainly could have seen them at Waterloo on family visits to London. The historical record shows that it was so. But what the record shows is not something I have a sense of, even though it was contemporary with me. When I examine the record of this part of railway history, especially in photographs, it requires an effort of imagination, just as a genuinely remote age does, to use what the documents show to re-create it as an age of living, feeling people. We all have a sense of the ages we have lived through; but here is a corner of life where two quite different senses were formed concurrently by different people – and they do not touch.