Sunday, July 08, 2007

All this--and beauty too

Remember the teen flick "Titanic"? In the North Atlantic chill the heroine twirled about the deck in a gauzy dress, and the sinking ship filled in an orderly, level way with crystal-clear water. Yes, parts of it were pretty silly. The bits I really liked, though, were almost incidental–the scenes with the machinery. How did they do that, those shots below decks with the monumentally beautiful coal-fired steam engines, the tall brass pillars of the pistons, the great steel flywheels?

As a little girl I recall being mesmerized for hours by similar engines, this time on the seagoing paddle-wheel ferry that plied between mainland England and the island my family hailed from. Never mind the ocean view from on deck–as soon as the boat got under way I was down at the open engine-room door, spellbound by the massive, flying machinery. The huge brass pistons lunged, the flywheels spinning the shaft of the paddle-wheels. There was always a secret shiver of fear that all might break free, wreaking dreadful havoc. The brass was polished to within an inch of its life. Not a speck of dirt was visible anywhere. The whole room roared and clanked with life, and was fragrant with hot machine oil.

There’s something very fine about the unintentional beauty of well-kept machinery. Above all, it’s functional, engineered to very accurate specifications and fulfilling its purpose for many years, like an obedient and faithful animal.

On a visit to the Mediterranean island of Malta recently I got to know the famous yellow buses that form its transit system, a marvel relied on by tourists and locals alike. It’s cheap, frequent and reliable, which is all the more amazing because the buses are over fifty years old.. Made in England, they’re lovingly maintained by skilled local mechanics who have to make all their own parts to keep them in running order. Bright yellow, picked out with orange trim, each bus is adorned with masses of glittering chrome. Each one is different, but they all shine like mirrors. It’s obvious that each bus is somebody’s baby. The driver’s cab is a shrine--garlands, lights, statues, medals, pictures of saints and family members.

It’s a wild ride; as the bus swings round the bends you stand a good chance of sliding out–there’s no door, and the old leather seats are burnished to a fine polish like chestnuts. The manual gear lever, tall and slender, has to be wrestled into position with much grinding of gears and some nervous glances from passengers. You’ll see a local get on, sink thankfully into a seat and promptly cross himself. Or a nun pull out a rosary and begin to pray. These people obviously know a great deal about the buses and aren’t leaving anything to chance.

These old buses will disappear soon. Since Malta’s joined the European Union they’ll be legislated out of business, but it’s worth a trip to Malta just to see them, besides being a wonderfully intimate way to see the island.

Islands seem to breed colourful workhorse buses–perhaps the most artistic are the Tap-taps of Haiti with their bright hand-painted decorations and vivid slogans painted in Creole on the front.
Let’s not overlook our own home-grown brand of fine old machinery. The last locomotive of the Grand Trunk Railroad, the Moccasin, sits on a few yards of the original track on Highway #2 just west of Upper Canada Village (which also has a dazzling antique car display of its own on Transport Day, this year on Sunday August 12th.) Fancy a trip on a working steam train? The Hull-Wakefield train runs on a daily basis in the summer and early fall, with original cars and locomotive. It travels at a stately pace, with a fine plume of steam, enabling riders to appreciate the knockout scenery on the way. Jolly Tours runs a day trip with dinner in October, if you like to go in a group. The highlight of the trip, for the machinery fans, is the up-close and personal check of the locomotive as it’s slipped on to the turntable in Wakefield, and four strong young people spin it slowly round to face south for the homeward trip to Hull.

We’re getting to appreciate these gems of engineering much more. Speed and convenience, after all, aren’t everything. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to give my 11-year-old VW van a hug.

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