The Train Man, the Owl Man, and Others

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Like a lot of British writers of a certain age, I’ve got an obsession with unsettling stuff from the seventies and eighties. Everyone’s always harping on about Ghostwatch or The Stone Tape, or the giant, teasingly-climbable pylons looming over the analogue landscape of our youth, and it’s an area I frequently return to in my work. Almost the entirety of this disconnected sense of dread is rooted in our collective childhood, and consequently, hauntology’s biggest treasure chest of nauseous memories can be unearthed from our early schooldays.

Obviously, I’ve been unable to attract a mate with which to sire children, and as such, have no idea what goes on in today’s schools, or what kind of classroom visitors are allowed though the gates in a post-911, post-Limp Bizkit world. 1980’s junior school assemblies seem inherently strange through adult eyes; jammed-packed with prayer and hymns, and threatening allusions to God’s ever-watchful eye. The enforced daily sing-a-longs now seem more at home in Jonestown, with each song wilfully composed to instil various good-boy behavioural traits, including the one that went “Milk bottle tops and paper bags,” which gives a Pavlovian urge to violently beat anybody I see littering to this day. Occasionally, these morning gatherings would deviate from the Godly into something more entertaining, like when the PE teacher played cassettes of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor sketch, or Benny Hill’s novelty single Ernie over the speakers, or, when a special visitor came in to give a talk.

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“Slip on the wet floor, did you?”

Most who grew up in that era will remember their school’s visit by the Owl Man. Unfortunately not the Cornish Owlman — a terrifying man-bird that stalked Mawnan cemetery — the Owl Man was, as the name suggests, a man who brought in owls and other small creatures, to educate us on owl-facts, such as how owls don’t poo, but sick it all up instead. If he came to your school, you’ll recall that the Owl Man had snakes too, although inviting schoolkids to touch his snake to demonstrate that it wasn’t slimy seems like the laziest possible set-up for a Yewtree joke. Incredibly, if you Google for the Owl Man, he’s still going today. That is, a franchised ‘Owl Man’ mantle that’s worn, like a falcon on the arm, by numerous men from zoos and bird sanctuaries nationwide, like Santa’s Helpers at the mall. There is no Owl Man; there are Owl Men.

But I’m not here to reminisce about Owl Men, or the writer of ITV’s After Henry, who came in our class to critique some stories, or even the lady whose puppet told us about recycling, which I remember as being very badly received, and pure Legz Akimbo. The latter was surely the result of a ‘green’ phase at our school at the time, with teachers telling us we’d all be underwater by 1996 and there was only 5 years of petrol left, painting a very Mad Max view of the future that made learning seem rather pointless, when we’d all be scavenging rat carcasses to feed our mutant children. But there’s one visitor that’s the most vividly burned into my brain, no doubt due to its status as a Public Information Film made literal flesh. This is the Train Man.

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Picture it. It’s 1988, or thereabouts. 150 of Thatcher’s children are sat on the floor of a dirty school hall. At the front stands the television on wheels; an always exciting intrusion of technology into our midst. Colour, with a VHS, and at least 18 inches, it was usually rolled in to display some of childhood’s most golden hauntological offerings. Sickly BBC Schools countdown clocks, Look and Read‘s Boy from Space, and on one occasion, a wildlife program that got me into trouble when I said “Bottoms up!” as a duck went under the water, causing the tape to be stopped under angry teacher-demands for the culprit to identify themselves (I did not, and consequently, remain on the run for my crimes). But today, its jittery track-lines are frozen on the image of train tracks. Then a man — not a teacher, but an adult nonetheless — asks a question. “Who here wants to see a dead body? Stand up if you want to see blood and gore!

Of course, the young Millard was up on his feet in a flash. Despite the show of bravado, and years of frankly vile and depraved output as an adult, I was a scaredy lad. An only child raised by a single mother, I simply didn’t have access to horror films, missing out on the slashers my classmates were raised on, thanks to older siblings and dads with a Rent-a-Film membership, and therefore, was unused to terrors beyond the plasticine stop motion of The Trap Door. In fact, at the height of my youthful cowardice, I pleaded to sit up and watch the television premier of Rocky II, only to cry during the opening scene, due to the frightening prosthetic swollen eyes, and beg for it to be switched off.

But then, “Who here wants to see a dead body?” There was glee in his voice; an invitation. He was one of the lads. Even now, I remember in that moment, I was trying to be one of the lads too; trying to look tough. Girls will gaze up at me, I thought, from their position down on the floor, and think “That Millard’s so hard. He’ll see slides of corpses and not even blink. What a hunk.” I looked around. Joining me were maybe half a dozen other boys, all from the category we’d now call ‘troubled’. Boys with poor discipline and bruised knuckles; boys whose dads were football men from the pub. I suddenly felt tall and exposed, amid the sea of cross-legged children. Teachers with folded arms met my eye from the edges of the room, and the eyes of the other gore-hungry standers, as though taking stock of this degenerate minority, to mark it down on our permanent records.

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Sensing I’d walked into a trap, I panicked and sat back down, my hurried manner suggesting my standing had been an accident. It’s okay, I thought, nobody saw. It’s with relief I was not one of the boys still on my feet when the Train Man’s tone suddenly changed, from tempting to berating. Instead of inviting everyone to watch a video of dismemberments while high-fiving the lads who’d stood, he had the room turn their eyes on them; to look at the “sick, stupid little boys” who wanted to see the horrible sights he saw, every day. “Sit back down,” he barked, with disdain.

You see, Train Man was familiar with dead bodies and innards. His job was dealing with the consequences of children like us using the train tracks like a playground and getting flattened into boy-pulp on a daily basis. He’d seen it all — severed heads; little fingers wrapped around the wheels; probably even an arse up a tree — and wore a distant stare that suggested he’d personally scraped dozens of dead kids off the tracks with a spatula. His visit that day was as if the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water itself had wandered in, with the sole purpose of scaring kids away from the tracks. They weren’t a place to play; not to skip or build dens or lay pennies; because if we did, there was but one unavoidable outcome — we’d be killed. We’d be killed, he said, and the police would knock on our door to tell our families, and then, our grans would immediately suffer a fatal heart attack from the shock. So, he told us with absolute certainty, not only would we be killing ourselves, but murdering our grandparents. I’d never been more glad to have sat down.

The talk was concluded by his telling us that, not only was it stupid to play on the tracks, it was illegal. To every school he visited, he brought along a video of some boys who’d been on the tracks, spraying graffiti on trains, and gotten caught on CCTV. He’d shown them to our headmaster before the assembly, but the suspects didn’t go to our school. But one day, he promised, with the haunted obsession of a man who forever felt he was finally within fingertip reach of his White Whale, a headmaster would recognise the faces in the video, and then, during this exact moment during the talk, he’d play the footage, with the boys themselves in the audience! No doubt, they’d be hauled up to the front and arrested on the spot.

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I always wondered if Train Man ever found his boys, or if this was another pointed fear-tactic to keep us off the railways, like the nan-killing, or other teacher urban legends; quadriplegics who were crippled after leaning back in their chairs; eyeless girls blinded by paper aeroplanes and elastic bands. One teacher wove a tale of a beloved paperboy who always wrote a Christmas card to her cats. One year, the card mysteriously failed to arrive, and she later found that, too hip and trendy to wear gloves on a cold winter’s day, he’d cycled his route with both hands in his pockets, and gone under the wheels of a van. Maybe someone reading this remembers Train Man visiting their school. Did he tell the same story, of faces that would be identified “some day,” or had they been found by the time he got to your assembly? Perhaps his later talks had footage of the boys being led off to borstal? Leave a comment below if you can add another piece to this puzzle, especially if you were there the fateful day the boys in the video were in the audience too.

Soon, sometime around that same year, we did see death and gore, no doubt due to the same staff-member who’d been behind the planet-conscious puppeteer. One afternoon, a large group of 9 and 10-year-olds took their floor-space in front of the wheely television. Just being told we’d be watching TV after lunch was enough to rouse excitement, though it would’ve been less so if we’d have known it was a video of animals being tortured. Battery chickens and vans crammed with sheep; laboratory monkeys and rabbits having shampoo squirted into their eyes; the thrash-scream death of slaughterhouse cattle. This was the era of hardcore animal rights activists, frequently on the news for blowing up cars outside of labs, and throwing paint over catwalk models. Perhaps the video was a mail-away shock tactic propaganda-piece for people to show their McDonalds-quaffing friends where their meat really came from.

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The finale of this legitimate video nasty lingered for many long minutes, on footage of baby seals being clubbed to death, over, and over again. One of my clearest childhood memories is the “ahhs” of children who’d been subjected to relentless images of panicked monkeys being force-fed bleach, at the sight of a puppy-like seal, inching its way along the snow. And then the shrieks, as an arc of red and brain-tissue stained against the white, as its head was smashed to fuck by a man with a club. Baby seals were a big cause back then, and well into the nineties. As a teenager, a t-shirt proclaiming ‘Wear the Shirt, Not the Skin‘ was in regular in rotation with my Nirvana smiley. It’s possible, in the pre-Youtube days, that this video was distributed like some kind of underground activist-meme, maybe in other schools. Again, if anyone has any idea what we watched, or suffered through the same thing, drop a comment.

I don’t remember any adverse reactions to the video, just the “urgh!” noises of kids too young to comprehend watching cows getting bolted through the head, and there were certainly no parents marching en-mass to burn down the school. When it was over, we all went back to class, full of chatter about the evil seal-killers, and spent the lesson drawing baby seals violently clubbing the men instead. I’d say it didn’t do us any harm, but here I am writing about creepy old shit again, and about to link you to the novel I just published about the Manson Family. Still, at least I never did play on the train tracks.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book containing similarly-hauntology themed pieces, including a chapter about Ghostwatch, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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~ by Stuart on November 12, 2017.

2 Responses to “The Train Man, the Owl Man, and Others”

  1. I’ll pretend you asked for random assembly memories:

    1) Velcro trainers and watches that reflect sunlight.

    2) The deputy head at secondary trying to be cool and modern. He played Simply Red’s ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’ and then explained how Jesus was a bit skint sometimes.

    3) Junior school headmaster starting off by saying his daughter said there were a million birds in the garden. He then, in full, calculated the average volume of a bird and of the assembly hall and then how many birds could be crammed in to it. The total was less than a million and the lesson was not to exaggerate.

    Also, my mum was a teacher at another school and thus had access to teaching materials. I hired out the accompanying book of The Boy From Space to spoiler-hungry classmates.

    • This is all gold. Though with the seal clubbery, I assumed I’d be unbeatable in the bleakness stakes, but then you swan in here with a deputy head who literally compared Christ to Mick Hucknall ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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