This summer I got the opportunity to go to a few of Wales’ steam preservation railways. I had a great experience visiting all of them. But the nostalgia of steam is one thing, and the smell, sound and sight of steam engines of all sizes fills us with nostalgia on many levels; perhaps an evocation of the times when steam engines were the principal means of rail transportation for goods and people, but also personal nostalgia for childhood trips to steam railways, which were in turn perhaps attempts to forge nostalgic connections between parents and children. Of course the reality is that steam engines were terrible polluters: destroying lungs, lives and landscapes. Even more perverse is the nostalgia I feel for these items. They are a distinctive feature, not only of the age of steam, but the Mark I BR coaching stock that was still in use through the 1970s and early 1980s when I grew up. An ash tray.
My father was a terrible asthmatic in his childhood. My brother and I suffered likewise, although benefitting for better medication. Even in my teens and 20s, going into pubs and other public spaces was an ordeal because of the wall of smoke. It was a wonderful day indeed when smoking was banned from public places, long before I myself had kids to worry about the health concerns.
So, I never used these ash trays. I did however, play with them. I was probably told off for playing with full ones and making a mess as a young child. Then I played with them as an older kid travelling by train. I didn’t particularly like them however. I remember struggling for breathe as an asthmatic child while some wanker used these to tap ash from a cigarette into them in a closed compartment coach. If we had sat in a smoking coach like this, we rapidly left if we could.
Yet their association with many childhood journeys and my joy at travelling, both by diesel and by steam, is distilled into them. It is a perverse nostalgia for a piece of material culture associated with a habit I detest.
I won’t even start ranting about the smoking practices of archaeologists. But it is a thing of the past right? No-one smokes on public transport in the UK anymore right?
Toilets on trains often stink of cigarettes and many of my commutes involve seeing desperate people of all ages trying to get into toilets but prevented by fare dodgers and/or smokers.
Smoking is banned on all stations on Network Rail, enclosed or open to the elements. Yet in Wales or England – on smaller platforms and halts – you will see smokers lurking at the ends of platforms, creating a contrived distance from fellow passengers even if the wind blows their smoke over their fellow passengers.
No-one dares complain. No-one dares object.
On my local railway station, they don’t bother lurking at the end of the platform like social deviants or malcontent teenagers, they come and stand in the middle of the platform. Sometimes they have their young children close by.
The complex etiquette and perception of this is interesting. For outside pubs and other buildings, you can smoke. Platforms are open-air, but smoking is banned.
So I detest smoking, yet I find myself perversely nostalgic for its material culture.
So when I see these in the context of a heritage steam railway, they are right to be there, they denote the original fittings of the coach as it would have been used in the 1950s and 1960s during the dying years of steam and early diesel haulage. They don’t entice me to smoke, but they are a mnemonic on multiple registers to the childhood struggles to breathe and the childhood joys of travelling by train.
Of course, even the heritage advertisements on steam preservation railways are purged of mention of smoking. So, in a way, these artefacts have become more important as a crucial signature of a habit that shaped the lives of generations of British travellers.