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Monday, 11 January 2016

Flying Scotsman

The den Sushing  press office has been overwhelmed by requests for interviews since news broke of my role as chief technical advisor to the recently-completed restoration of Flying Scotsman, the Class A3 ‘Pacific’ locomotive known and loved around the world as an icon of the ages of steam and British engineering supremacy. Each of the requests has been declined, as my memories of the restoration have been so tainted by an incident towards its completion that I have not felt inclined to speak publically about the matter. However, in the hope that it might be cathartic, I will lay the details before you, so you might decide for yourself whether my reticence is justified.

My well-known interest in steam locomotion was instilled during a childhood summer in which I accompanied my foster mother to a six-week archaeological ‘dig’ which she was to oversee at Avebury, the Wiltshire village whose vast and imposing ring of huge stones is, to my mind at least,  a far more impressive monument to the efforts of Neolithic man than its more-famous neighbour at Stonehenge. I quickly tired of my Mother’s project, which seemed to my six-year-old mind to be run at a glacial pace, and she eventually succumbed to my pestering to be allowed to visit the GWR’s famous engineering sheds at nearby Swindon.

The Swindon ‘shops were esteemed throughout the world of steam as the pinnacle of engineering excellence, and virtually every advance in locomotive design was engendered there under the  steely direction of my step-uncle, Sir Roderick Biggers, the Chief Superintendent of Locomotive and Wagon Engineering of the Great Western Railway. As the adopted nephew of their revered Chief Super’ I was understandably somewhat spoiled by the Swindon engineers, whom I impressed by my trick of multiplying six-figure numbers in my head, and my precocious mastery of the integral calculus, both of which I quickly learned to apply to questions of boiler efficiency. I was allowed unfettered access to any part of  the ‘shops that took my interest (these were the days before ‘Health and Safety’ remember), including the drawing office archives, where I un-scrolled the production drawings for one historic loco after another, virtually following the evolution of steam traction from the earliest single-cylinder ‘simples’ to the giant technical artworks in steam under-production is the sheds next door. In the six weeks I spent in the company of the Swindon engineers- men steeped in practical experience of every nuance of steam propulsion- my avid young mind absorbed all that could be known about locomotive engineering, and I developed an instinctive understanding for the workings of the giant machines of steam.

Given all that followed- from my early monograms and treatises on virtually every steam question, to my notorious spell in command of the Cоветские железные дороги in Moscow- it was only natural that my office should receive a tentative approach from the National Railway Museum, asking whether Professor den Sushing might be persuaded to offer advice in connection with the restoration of the Scotsman, or 60301 as we know her, and coyly trying to ascertain the likely scale of his fees. What, by contrast, could not be understood was the NRMs decision to supplement my judgements with those of an ‘expert panel’  of so-called celebrity engineers, whose sole function appeared to be to provide its members with opportunities to meddle in return for providing large charitable donations to the Museum. Had I known what the composition of the panel was to be I would never have accepted the role of its chairman.

It is possible that someday my memories of the panel will become sufficiently soothed by the passage of time that I will feel able to release my full records of its quarterly meetings. In the meantime I will just mention that the chief barrier to its smooth proceeding was the presence of the so-called ‘inventor’ James Dyson. [Pauses to take successive deep breaths to ward off rising blood pressure.] How a man with a handful of patents can be described as an ‘inventor’ in the same press announcement in which I am described as merely ‘Professor’  is quite beyond me. Leaving that aside, however- in case you suspect my feelings are tainted by those of professional jealousy- whatever Mr Dyson might know about plastic mouldings and Hoovers he knows ******-all about steam engines. Without reverting to my notes I honestly could not attempt to estimate the number of minutes that I and the other more-technically minded members of the panel wasted in in dealing with Dyson’s absurd suggestions. If it wasn’t cyclones to purify the feed-water it was cyclones to improve the flue vortex efficiency or cyclones to eliminate sparking, or could the driver’s seat be made of injection-moulded polyether to save weight! On Flying Scotsman! He clearly had never spent weeks as a child listening to the stories of the old express drivers as they recounted how their cast-iron seats became so hot as they built the fire up for the ‘Lickey incline’ that bacon and eggs could be fried upon them for consumption on the downhill coast into Birmingham.

It was when reading an email from Dyson that the event occurred which capped the whole sorry experience. There had been some correspondence with Riley and Sons- the engineering contractors performing the restoration under my guidance- about the exact admixture of elements which should be used to cast the white-alloy main bearings for the four huge wheels that convey Scotsman’s immense tractive force to the rails. The email from Dyson was a simple one-liner: had we thought of plastic inserts? I was taking breakfast in the study of my Bermuda office in the hills above Hamilton, and the snort of indignant contempt which followed my reading of his moronic suggestion propelled a mash of coffee and croissant all over the Bacon triptych, wiping at least ten-million off its value in a stroke. I would have been better off if I had funded the restoration of Scotsman myself.

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