I have sent almost my complete project to Megan, my friend and unofficial supervisor. I feel a bit guilty about this because actually there is quite a lot of material for her to look through. In the covering email I observed that the project seemed incongruous in the Covid pervasive climate. We are now in national lockdown again. Logically, train travel has changed over the past few months with far fewer people travelling by rail
So the question is, how do we get people on to trains again? How do we make train travel safe and attractive for the future? I travelled on a Heritage Railway one warm summers day – see previous post. To protect passengers, the Keighly and Worth Valley Railway was only using rolling stock with compartments. This seemed very sensible and was enjoyable for me because I had a compartment to myself. There was a party of six, making the compartment next to mine, full.
Almost all main line services use open, non-compartmentalised coaches which hold more people than older coaches with compartments. I would like to check this though. It is difficult to imagine how future transport can be made safe. A vaccine is imminent but does that mean we HAVE to go back to packed carriages? Can current carriages be compartmentalised, even partially? Can air-conditioning be improved so as to filter and kill viruses? Surely squeezing as many people as possible in to coaches can not be acceptable any more?
The purpose of my project is not examine the interior design of rolling stock but how can typography encourage passengers back on to trains and pave the way for new transport initiatives which are safe and healthy? At present I only have the belief that typography can ease the transition in to a new era of train travel but is that enough? I also believe it is a good place to start.
I have collaborated on a new volume in my series of Typographic Railway Manuals with Paige, an ex-student of mine. We shared the design of images and type and at present I am combining our different approaches. There is no rationale to this apart from wanting to mentor Paige and also see what happens if two different generations of graphic designer tried to work together in lockdown. I’m very hopeful for the result. The image at the top of the post is the first one I put together and the one above is waiting for type.
Last Saturday, 13th September, there was a 1940’s weekend at my local Heritage Railway – Bolton Abbey & Embsay Steam Railway which I decided to go to. This is a transcript of what I wrote at the time. Battle of Britain Day is the 15th September.
To begin with, I feel quite uncomfortable. It is a very unfamiliar situation. I have been on steam heritage railways before but have not been interested in the nostalgia events that are run on them every now and then. The train compartment is lovely, full of old mocquette and six seats which make a creaky sound as the train bounces along. I can hear the little engine, “Beatrice” chuffing away. I admit, I was very excited at travelling in my own compartment. The train crawls along and the smoke smells divine. Sun streams in to my face as the countryside slips slowly past. The engine whistles every now and again.
On the station at Bolton Abbey, I was surprised to see a young lad of 16 or 17 dressed as a US GI. Most other participants in the dressing up brigade are much more senior. I’m not very good at talking to people. It seems very alien to me, dressing up and, (as I see it) approximating the 1940s. I really don’t know what to make of it all. I want to laugh but I know I shouldn’t. I want to be the Black GI who dances to Jazz.
Its an odd feeling because I like – maybe love – old trains and planes. A while ago, after a trip to the RAF Museum at Hendon, I felt the urge to equip myself with a pilots headset, goggles and oxygen mask. These are not from the 1940s but from the late 70s when I was an Air Cadet. I have also found a Vegan flying jacket, like an Irvine pattern as worn by WW2 pilots. What does this mean? I do not know at all. I also have a preference for fountain pens and a straight razor for shaving. I put this down to sustainability but… I just feel confused. I suppose I must interview some one who takes part AND take part myself. They are playing ‘We’ll Meet Again” as the train pulls off.
To my joy I found my sunglasses on the luggage rack. I didn’t even know I had left them in the compartment. Perhaps the type of nostalgia I need to think about is much more subtle – perhaps even a form which is subconcious or affects the subconcious mind and operates at a subliminal level. I had bread and butter and a cup of tea when I got home.
And the Antiques Roadshow TV programme was broadcasting a ‘special’ to commemmorate The Battle of Britain, opening with Fiona Bruce flying in a Spitfire (training version) over Biggin Hill aerodrome and the Kentish Weald. “No valuations tonight,” assures Fiona. Battle of Britain Day is 15th September and Sunday 20th is the official rememberance day.
Perhaps nostalgia is a big ‘pick and mix’. Perhaps what I pick personally is not what other would pick. I do not know but I do know that I have huge respect for the few.
Someone asked me how my PhD was going. I didn’t really know how to answer. The truth is it has been a bit of a struggle since Sharon died. I have questioned everything – life, work, existence. In the end, I have decided to try to get my research moving again￼. I have been working with Paige, who graduated from LCC last year. We are making a journal for no other reason than it might be interesting and the Covid19 situation has meant we are working distantly. I wrote a brief and we split the tasks between us so that she was handling some of the type and some of the image work and I was handling the opposite. So my type will go with her images and vice versa. Who knows what will happen?!
Part of my plan is to send some writing to Megan, my “supervisor” so that she can give me some pointers and/or critique. Lastly, I need some inspiration. 🤔
This is awkward. I decided to come to Crewe because of it being a famous rail junction and because I’ve never been here. The town is dull and the station is not much better. It seems very out dated and drab. I’m wondering how to approach observing or recording here. I have had lunch in the unprepossessing ‘Pumpkin’ cafe and have set myself two hours to do – I’m not sure what. The typographic information for travellers is particularly unstructured. The architecture has some interest being partly run down but retaining a trace of former glory. That could be a way forward. It is a pity that there is no attempt to reference the heritage of Crewe Station.
On 8th October 2019 my beautiful, clever, crazy, soul mate, Sharon, my wife, died suddenly. Everything gets turned up side down. I will miss her always. My mother had died a few months previously and our two cats that Sharon and I had known for 18 years died too. Consequently, any thoughts of working towards a PhD disappeared. However, I had to deliver a lecture to my students about research and realised that I had prepared a questionnaire on nostalgia which had been passed by York College Ethics Committee. I decided to conduct the questionnaire as part of the lecture and it has kick started my research again. A pattern has emerged in that if I have to think or work on what on earth my research is about, I have to go to a railway station. In this case it is Crewe, although it seems trapped in time and not really in a good way.
The two levels of text appear to be contra-rotating and messing with your cultural inclination to try to read it from left to right. The result is mesmerising because you have to read the words as they appear to you and decode them in your head. The context of each word changes as the column rotates. It is brilliant. I love the way it undermines language and demands that you re-structure your ability to read a text.
I read my Chinese 1988 copy of the great text. I already believed that it informed everything I did, art, design teaching but it is good to confirm that for yourself sometimes. The question I posed for myself was am a proletarian? Can a lecturer, artist highly educated person be proletarian? The answer is yes because I exchange my skills for money to be able to live – and it is not very much money! For the eight or so hours I am at work I actually get paid for five and half. I get sick pay but no paid holiday. I do not get paid at all in August and September. There is a more contemporary term for this type of employment. PRECARIOUS. And I am a member of the PRECARIAT class of workers of which there are a growing number globally. See:
This class is exploited by employers who do not provided permanent contracts or full employment rights.
One of my typographic heroes is Jan Tschichold and I love that era of typography and design – Rodchenko, Stepanova, Swart, Bauhaus etc. I’m not sure what this has to do with my PhD quest but I guess I want to make it easy for people to get to work and home again. It has just been announced on the BBC that train fairs are on the rise again and that a ‘ 70/30 joint partnership between Scottish travel firm First Group and Italian owned rail company Trenitalia, the successful bidder will take over the running of the franchise currently held by Virgin Trains on December 8 this year.’
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just as much an artist as a designer. For some time now I have not been interested in the normal things a graphic designer should be interested in like branding and corporate identity. I’m only interested in learning or, more precisely, causing learning to happen. I maintain that the primary way people learn is through words, especially the printed word, its history etc. and also the word as it appears on screen. So what I should be doing is producing printed stuff that causes learning. Type has always been accompanied by images and that interests me too but I think it is the letterforms that interest me the most. Although a great many words appear on a screen in our world, the printed word interests me most. My next task I’ve set for myself is to re-read the Communist Manifesto.
These started life as ideas that formed the pages of my book, To Trains. The ampersand did not actually make it in to the book but I continued to work on the idea of the graph paper and dots because of my interest in breaking up letter forms. The ampersand has become a kind of branding for my research.
I have submitted my proposal for a survey of students at York College to the Ethics Committee there. I’m not sure when it will be looked at but I’m eager to start because I plan to discuss some early results in my first Nostalgia paper. The paper aims to make the case for Nostalgic approaches to information design in the railway industry but the survey is really a test to see if I am using the right type of questionnaire.