The Future Doctor of Railways | Conversations on the Train

The Doctor of Railways
The Doctor of Railways

I meet David at the British Library. We go to the shop , then walk round the corner to King’s cross, get tea and a panini, and board an 11.00 train.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“York,” he replies.

“What for?”

“I’m going to see my PHD supervisor.”

“How long have you been doing a PHD?”

“Four years, four months.”

“How much have you written?”

“A lot. I have to re-write a lot though. I submit it in chapters.”

“How long is it?”

“About 90,000 words.”

“That’s novel length,” I say, “does it have a beginning middle and end?”

He laughs.

“How much longer will you be doing it?”

“I’ve got to have it submitted by October next year, but want to have it done by the end of this year so I can get on with some other stuff.”

“What’s the title?”

“Running Round Screaming…” he says.

I laugh.

“No, something like; Management on the London Southwest Railway from 1870 – 1910. Basically, sounds very dull but covers the sociological aspects too. Questions like, who were the railway managers and where did they come from? What were their lives like? There were two types of staff – clerical and non-clerical. The clerical had a career laid out before them – inter-management. There were very specialised entry requirements, there were exams, and you had to get references from people like vicars etc.”

“So it could be a bit nepotistic?”

“Yes, it was full of nepotism. You tend to find that most managers were middle class and upper working class families who put their children into school – though that obviously wasn’t  so relevant after universal schooling was put into place after 1870.”

“What did you do before you started the PHD?”

“I did History at St. Mary’s, then an MA at King’s. I was always going to do a PHD – I initially had one in military history lined up but then thought – do I really want a PHD in military history? I thought about it and I’ve always been interested in railways and considered that I might be able to do niche journalism afterwards, so went with it.”

“So you’re doing it at York Uni?”

“Yes, York and the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the National Railway Museum. In fact, my department is right next to the NRM.”

“When I finish I will be a Doctor of Railway Studies, which I think sounds pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I think you’ll be in there with all the ladies,” I say, “So you plan to be a journalist?”

“Or a teacher, I’m not sure there’ll be many jobs for writers of railway history. I might even try and be a freelance journalist. At the moment I have my job in the library, which pays quite well.”

“Which library is that?”

“Kew Public Library. I’m the manager, part-time.”

“Is the library destined for closure along with all those others?” I ask.

“I don’t know what’ll happen to it yet,” he says.

“Are you angry about the library closures?”

“Well, I think it’s true that there are some libraries which are open just because they’ve always been open. They might not need to be. And we do have to face the fact that people just aren’t using libraries as much.”

“Because of the internet?”

“Not necessarily – books are cheaper now. Then there are all the other forms of entertainment. Luckily there’s nothing to suggest people are reading any less than they used to – which is nice.”

“What else do you do?”

“In the ten minutes I have left over? Read, go to the cinema… I’m a big fan of beer festivals. Doing a PHD is pretty all-consuming though. Oh – I do go to the humanist group quite a lot.”

“Where’s that?”

“By Euston.”

“And how many people go?”

“It’s the Central London Humanist Group – the largest. We’ve got about 200 members.”

Not a lot for the largest, I think. A shame, I always think of humanists as being a collection of very gentle types.

“What do you do there?”

“Well, humanism offers a way non-religious people can celebrate the important events in life – people coming into the world, marriages, people leaving the world. So we have discussions about those things and drink,” he smiles, “that sort of thing.”

“I’m also a seminar organiser for History Lab – which is a community of post grad and early career historians. It’s a good place for early historians to give their first paper or present.”

(that’s present-ation – not gift)

“One of the problems a lot of people have is being able to relate their PHDs to the public. People perceive the public won’t be able to understand the complexity of their work, which is a mistake,” he says, “something History Lab have been doing to help break these misconceptions is running a blogging project. We hope this will go some way toward helping disseminate ideas.”

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