Research: Trainspotters

John le Carre at the Hay Festival 2013 on his first research in the Middle East: ‘I set off… first to Israel, where Shlomo Gazit, who was Head of Military Intelligence took me over, showed me that world.  And then I went, sometimes by way of Cyprus, sometimes directly over the Allenby Bridge up to Beirut, where the PLO were still hanging out and with some difficulty I got alongside Arafat.  And Arafat took me on for probably altogether ten days and sent me down to South Lebanon to Sidon where I stayed with Salah Tamari who was the chief of fighters down there.’ 

Interesting.  My first research interview was with a train spotter, and I was terrified.  I was writing a ‘western’ about trainspotting and thought that it would probably be best if I found out what they actually did.  Their local hangout is Platform Five at London Bridge.  Men with rucksacks and notepads, all facing in different directions.  I was certain they would tell me where to go, so I approached the nearest one cautiously and asked if he’d mind a few questions.  Twenty minutes later, after he had told me about carriage numbers, and the York Railway Hotel, and ‘Units’ and ‘Wagons’, and the websites and magazines, and being on sick pay, and the notepads he had that went back to 1965, I said my thank-yous and started to walk away.  ‘There’s also plane spotting!’ he shouted after me. 

What I learnt was that most people don’t mind being asked about what they do.  In fact, like most of us, they’re dying for someone to ask, and to listen.  Doesn’t matter if they’re in the Jordan Valley or the wilds of Platform Five.

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