John's Jottings

132. Spelling It Out - June 2017

Posted on June 1, 2017 at 3:40 AM

We’d been at the Catfields show. One exhibitor obviously had a thing about pre-grouping covered vans. On his ‘historical’ layout he’d got examples from most of the railway companies in the British Isles, each proudly displaying its company’s livery and lettering.

While the owner was on his lunch break, his understudy started to form up short groups of vans. When he saw the owner re-enter the hall, he marshalled the vans into a single train in a departure road. The owner was surprised to see an all-van train, but agreed that it was an operational possibility. His friend sped off for his lunch.


The owner set the train in motion. As it emerged from the siding onto the main line, the audience began to titter, and point, and snigger. The owner couldn’t understand why. Then the audience got out their phones and cameras, started taking pictures, and laughed even louder. This was followed by lots of phone calls to their friends: “You must see this.”


The mystified owner could stand it no longer. He asked the cause of all this interest and excitement. There was a roar as the audience realised that he hadn’t the foggiest idea as to the source of their merriment.


“Look at what the vans spell,” the audience told him. He looked along the line of vans, but could see nothing amiss – just the initial letters of each owing company.


“Stop the train. Come round the front,” the audience told him. The wagons had been so ordered that, from the audience’s point of view, their company initials spelt out a very risqué message, far too crude and cruel to be reported here. The poor owner was most embarrassed.


He returned to the back and realised that though he and his audience were seeing exactly the same letters, they weren’t in the same order on the two sides of the train. His side wasn’t even the reverse of their side. Prove it to yourself with, for example, two letters on each of two vans, that together make up a four letter word.


He hurried the train into the fiddle yard and dispersed the wagons to the stock shelves, making sure that they no longer formed rude words. Once normal service was restored, the audience dissipated. But details of the incident had spread though the exhibition halls. For the rest of the day, visitors came over to see for themselves, but were disappointed to find that every combination of wagons had been carefully scrutinised before dispatch, and any that yielded dubious sequences of letters were separated.


We recognised that the friend had pulled off a very clever prank. It took considerable imagination to realise that livery letters could be assembled into words, and mental dexterity to form them into a message, especially as the precise sequence of letters on one side of the train is not the same on the other. We wondered if this could only happen with the great number of companies that were around before 1923. On the train home we tried our hands at making words, polite or impolite, from livery lettering.


“It’s not often that literary censorship is a desirable attribute for an operator,” our chairman commented with a grin. “I wonder how many times words have appeared previously on that model, on other models, and in real life without anybody noticing.”


The rest of us also contemplated what happened to his friend when he returned from his lunch. We all agreed he’d have to face the wrath of the owner at some time.


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