Friday 17 October 2014

Autism and trainspotting

Here's something.  A sprawling hospital complex in Austria where meals, prepared in a central kitchen, are delivered to the wards by an elaborate narrow gauge railway system. It's amazing. Have a look. Was the practice derived from the thousands of miles of railway lines built to supply the trenches in the Great War? Was the original system constructed from army surplus?

Further investigation (or, if you insist, further unstructured mooching around the internet) confirmed, alas, that the railway closed in 2011. How food is distributed around the vast site today is a mystery. Drones?

I came across this hospital railway while researching (too grand a word) my hypothesis that autistic spectrum behaviour of the kind exhibited by the middle-aged trainspotters who congregate on station platforms today must pre-date the coming of the railways in the 19th century. If that's the case,  I ask myself, where did autistic males (and it's mostly males) in the 18th century find a locus of engagement? This is to assume that a condition only recognised and labelled in modern times pre-dates its discovery and did not emerge suddenly, and fully-formed, in the 20th century. I started Googling railways + autism and, well, you already know where this led me - a network in a krankenhaus.

So, before railways, what did trainspotter types (rather cruelly described by some as 'anoraks') find to occupy their obsessive and essentially non-utile interest? How did they find fulfilment? Turnpikes and canals offered little in the way of variety and complexity, so my theory is that it must have been the Church: religion and the related fields of alchemy, sorcery and so on, all highly ritualised and repetitive and regulated systems. Later with the Age of Enlightenment came the various branches of the natural sciences which involved calculation and categorisation and, in a word, lists. Think of botany and chemistry and geology and astronomy. Think of the maniac clergymen who collected and labelled thousands of birds' eggs. Think of stamp collectors (a breed inconceivable before the introduction of the Penny Black).

What if (and this is a wild speculation) the rise of secularism in the machine age reflected the sudden widespread availability, especially in cities, of these alternative interests? Timetables, railway infrastructure, signalling, numbering and so on, all form part of elaborately complex but finite systems that met (and appear to continue to meet) the needs of that part of the population that is mildly autistic, and especially those with Asperger's Syndrome.

Many of us, most of us, perhaps all of, us have quasi-obsessive and essentially impractical interests or preoccupations that might be categorised as Aspergerish. Here's a little test. Go back to the hospital railway link above, click on it, then click at random on all the other little clips of railway trains in the right hand column. These clips are not crowd-pleasing stuff like Flying Scotsman steaming heroically out of King's Cross station, but weird obsessive shots of decrepit backwater lines in post-industrial Germany. Are you (as I am) drawn to this kind of thing? See what you make of the Feldbahn des Sodawerks in Staßfurt. a mesmerisingly bleak environment that will appeal to admirers of Andrei Tarkovsky and a clip that has attracted tens of thousands of viewers. If you can bear one more, try this, shots of diesel engines shunting wagons in a decrepit Ukrainian china clay works.  If you admire this third clip and find it strangely beautiful and compelling then join me at this end of the spectrum - there's plenty of room, and the views are breathtaking.

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