Time to come back to nowhere:

Continuing with the gripping story of a writer’s early laugh – sorry, life. Before “The Wildcat’s Burden” was released and I dived into an orgy of publicity – no, I’m not serious – I had reached as far as twenty years ahead of where I started. Of course I’d skipped a lot of detail to get there.

The point I was after was to explain how Gisel Matah had been lurking in my head ever since I was a kid. I think she’d been trying to get out and into print for many years, but I had taken the safe route and gone into some profession that offered a living wage, I thought, and kept away from living the dream. Ah yes, aeronautical engineering – safe as houses. You probably notice that this is the opposite of the advice all those life coaches offer.

Ever notice that they are not offering to pay the rent while you live this dream?

Aircraft engineering was definitely interesting, but by the end of my second year I wised up to the fact that I was never going to design Britain’s next Spitfire (if you’ll excuse the hyperbole). If I worked really hard and studied until my hair fell out, I might get to design the fastening widget for the left flap override safety stop on the next aircraft to be cancelled. The romance just wasn’t there.

When I imparted my decision to depart to my instructors they asked – very reasonably – what was I planning to do instead. Oh, I’m going to find a few adventures and then devote my life to writing. Yah sure.

I propose to keep from mentioning these great adventures right now – a stratagem to keep you coming back to see if I’m writing anything interesting. I intend instead to delve into the origins of some more artifacts out of my head that prompted other features of the Iskander series.

When Henrik Matah, Gisel’s father, is faced with planning a development strategy that will make the Iskanders wealthy by plunging Gaia into an industrial revolution he fixes on one sure way to go from pre-industrial society to high technology. It was sure because we already did it in our history. What we need is steel and steam.

I was raised in the final flowering of the steel and steam age. Just out of sight at the side of the picture of Cockwood harbour (see photo somewhere below) was the main railway line to Plymouth and the West Country. Right up until the late fifties you could face that track and see a steam locomotive dashing past pulling a train – every day of the week, and almost any hour. I became one of those small boys who stood on train platforms with my Ian Allen train spotter’s booklet marking down the number of every locomotive that came past.

It just wasn’t the same when they were replaced by diesels. For a start, they didn’t even have a steam whistle. Gone was the shrill desperation of a high pitched whistle calling out a warning to everyone who may have strayed onto the track. In it’s place was the dull honk of a klaxon that sounded like a somnolent goose. They always reminded me of the Urg–ur–Gah sound of a 1920s Austin or Morris Minor.

The railway people tried to gussie up the diesels – they gave them names instead of only numbers, but they didn’t have the same ring as King George V, or Powerstock Grange, or Launceston Castle. In fact the most fascinating of the new dull green boxes was called 18100, if I remember correctly. (It may have been black.) It was almost the only gas turbine electric locomotive to go into service. When we moved to Dawlish, when I was 10, I could always tell when 18100 was standing at the station with its train bound for Plymouth and Cornwall – the smell of partially burned kerosene would drift across the town and fill every nostril.

I spent other portions of my life with steam. When I went to work in an oil refinery, the plant I operated was a sulphuric acid alkylation unit that turned some natural gas ingredients into octane. The plant had been built in WWII to provide the anti-knock gasolines that aircraft engines needed, but my luck would have it that almost all the pumps were steamers, both turbine and reciprocating. The fractionating towers had steam heated reboilers to maintain operating temperatures, and hardly an hour of a shift ever went by without the need for us to run a steam hose somewhere to ginger up a part of the plant that needed help. It was an old and cranky unit by the time I got to it.

When I went to work in a gas processing plant the management insisted on everyone studying for the steam engineer certificates. I won a prize for the best marks of the year when I took the 3rd class stationary steam engineer certificate but it was a bit of a fraud. When we went to the award ceremony I found that all the men in the regulating department were Scots (a real cliche, eh Scotty?) And all had the same Brit certificates I’d taken in my aeronautical engineering days – clearly I’d been on the same wavelength as the examiners, so no wonder my answers had impressed them. I decided to stay at 3rd, while I was ahead.

Anyhoo, at that plant I got to run quite modern steam generators – boilers to you – with 650psi superheated steam and a couple of large turbines that almost bounced off their moorings when going through their out-of-balance phases when starting up. Shut off all the safety interlocks and start them by spinning open the steam valve by hand and ignoring the thoughts about the thing flying to pieces like a huge bomb. But I have to admit, I’ve never driven anything steam powered that moves. Maybe one day …

I did get to see a steam loco come past the home I have now. CPR sometimes dust off their old locos to run promotion trips, and one of their big steamers, #2816, brought a variety show train a few years back and parked at Blairmore in the mountains to give everyone a free show. I have a number of pics, but unfortunately none are digitised – maybe I’ll do something about that. But I have to tell you a little story. My wife sat in the Explorer beside the track when the train was due, so I could take some pics with the mountain range behind it. The train was quite late , no comment, and someone drove up to ask if we’d seen some particular vehicle come past. We hadn’t but he asked what we were doing sitting in a vehicle at the approach to a field in the middle of nowhere. “Oh, we’re waiting for a train.” There has been no passenger train on this line for 50 years. He gave us a strange look and departed rather quickly.

Please look at the first chapter of “The Wildcat’s Burden”, it’s next.

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One Response to “Time to come back to nowhere:”

  1. joylene Says:

    It proves that one can’t keep their life experiences out of their stories. My uncle designed jets for Boeing. I wonder if he really wanted to do something else. Never would have thought to ask him.

    Great post, Chris.

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