Ticket to pride

It was a magnificent honour for the terminally ill Mike Airey to see his name emblazoned of the vintage Blackpool Standard Tram 147 less than a month before he died on 12th August 2006.  Twelve and a half years later, the tram looks as resplendent as ever. It has recently had a few more buckets of green and cream paint applied, and will once again bear the name of the vehicle body shop manager who travelled three thousand miles to save it from a scrapyard and oversee its restoration it to full running order.

The public might be puzzled by the name, as hardly anyone will know who Mike was, but that fails to catch the full significance of the attribution.  Who Mike was is not as significant as what he represented – the countless craftspeople who toil relentlessly to provide the public service machinery that the rest of us take for granted.

The 147 is not Mike’s monument; his name upon it turns it into something far beyond that – a moving tribute to tens of thousands of labourers like him.  It’s easy to name a vehicle after royalty, or a celebrity, or a designer, but few public artefacts are named after regular members of the public, which is less than thoughtful, as they are the ones that most encounter them.  They are also the ones who manufacture them.

Michael Airey: tram and man on the day the vehicle was named after him: 20 July 2006

I knew Mike.  He was my brother-in-law.  He was an unassuming but vibrant character who never failed to make me laugh, even when he knew his excursion was coming to an end. He took immense pride in his work but without any hint of arrogance.  It wasn’t surprising that he became a supervisor.  He had the skill to instil pride and an appetite for perfection without the need to resort to intimidation or inconsiderate criticism.  He showed that the highest standards are not incompatible with an appreciation of human limitations. He could collaborate very cleverly.

Pride is something that is both praised and despised.  Pride in the sense of smugness or arrogance is an attribute worthy of loathing.  Mike was far from that type of person. He exhibited a secure humility, always tinged with humour and good will.

Pride in one’s work is an entirely different trait. The satisfaction then is in the exertion and application of acquired skills. When the subject of the pride is something to be used or valued by someone else it is a characteristic to be acclaimed.  It is the joy of donation.  That type of joy is not a gaudy trackside billboard of self-aggrandisement, but a cosy destination on the journey of endeavour. A terminus is not only an end point; it is also starting point.  It is a place that can be revisited time and time again if the effort is made to set out and return.  Mike Airey exemplified that sort of journey.

Mike had a love of the outdoors which he combined with his principal hobby of photography.  He specialised in audio-visual presentations which, in pre-personal computer times, involved a double-decker slide projector linked to a cassette tape that not only provided the soundtrack but also triggered the cross-fading of the images. He asked me to write the commentary for two of his projects, one on the village of Giggleswick and the other on Bremetennacum – the Roman Fort at Ribchester on the river Ribble in Lancashire.  Some of the information in this article was extracted from Mike’s presentation about the recovery of the 147 tram compiled long before anyone thought to name the vehicle after him.

The 147 was built by the Hurst, Nelson & Co. Ltd, Motherwell, in 1924 as one of a batch of 42 double deck Standards supplied between 1923 and 1929.  It entered service during the summer of 1924.

147 in 1960s
The 147 in service in the 1960s

The Standard trams dominated the Marton route until the late 1940s when they were replaced by single deck cars, but some survived to provide summer season extras until the final withdrawal of the type in 1966.  The 147 had been one of the last Standards in use and after withdrawal was sold for preservation in 1967 to the Gerald E. Brookins Museum of Electric Railways in Ohio, USA.

147 usa 1
The 147 rusting away in the USA

The 147 was never used in the USA because it was too tall for their overhead power supply system and hence it fell into dilapidation, with the top deck being occupied by nesting birds and the lower deck by raccoons.  Mike along with Chris Pullings and Graham Twidale  made up the delegation dispatched to bring the grand old promenade perambulator home.   Thirty-three years after leaving the UK  it was returned to Blackpool in October 2000 for restoration under Mike’s supervision. Two years later it was back in service – though in order to ensure its longevity this was, and is, generally restricted to special days or specific events.

147 usa 2
In order to safely ship the 147 across the Atlantic it had to be sliced in two.

When Mike was diagnosed with a terminal condition his colleagues took the inspired decision to name a tram in his honour.  Mike had worked on many trams and he was given the choice of which he would like to bear his name. He chose the 147.  It was only the second Blackpool tram to be named after a person – the first being The Princess Alice.

michael-airey-and-olympic-flame..jpgIn the – damp – summer of 2012 the 147 became a link in the relay conveying the Olympic flame on its journey from the site of ancient ignition in Greece to contemporary conflagration at the opening ceremony in London.

More recently the 147 spent a twelve-month loan period at the Beamish Museum in County Durham commencing in March 2016. Following its return to Blackpool, it was decided to undertake a refurbishment to restore the tram to tip-top condition.  Seagull-eyed tram watchers may have spotted it minus Mike’s name as this process neared completion but, in keeping with current practice, it is being reapplied near to the passenger doors, as opposed to the end coachwork where it previously resided.

Take a ride sometime, and should you hear anyone questioning who Mike Airey was, tell them he was a paragon of pride in the pursuit of perfection; a flag-bearer for the fashioners of the extraordinary ordinary; and vehicle of heart-warming good humour.

And if, while waiting for the tram to turn up, the seaside breeze is sandblasting your skin, look out for the Mike Airey and think as I always do when my thoughts turn to him: wish you were here.




Historical sources:

Blackpool Heritage Trust

British Trams online


The 147 makes an appearance in the Eric Morecambe story in Strictly Done Dancing.

Strictly Done Dancing

Strictly Front cover from full sizeEighteen former celebrities step out one more time.

A glittering selection of historical personalities are given another chance to dance.  They have one more opportunity to show the world what their lives meant, but first they must meet their allotted partners and work out their routines.

What will Fred make of Marilyn?

What will Eric’s partner think of it so far?

Will Stephen’s routine be out of this world?

Who will dance with Diana?

Will there be a winner?

Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback

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