Fitting tribute to colourful king of steam
Fears that memories of Michael Oliver would fade following his death in 2009 are clearly unfounded, writes Dee Adcock.
Brian Moore's book is more than an affectionate biography of the founder of the Great Dorset Steam Fair. It brings a great character to life, to the joy of those who knew him, and it introduces Michael Oliver MBE, King of Steam, to countless new friends too. It begins with the arrival of baby Michael in January 1934 in Child Okeford, accompanied by the sound of a train – hauled by steam, of course – as it headed for Shillingstone station.
Steam was to figure prominently in young Mike's life from playing around with it in the garden to making a tin lid fly off to travelling by train to Blandford Grammar School.
When Beeching's axe fell on much of the rail network in 1966 Mike vowed he was determined to keep the memory of steam power alive and the following year he and friends John Cluett and Rod Scovell put on a show of film and stills at the Royal Oak in Okeford Fitzpaine.
The place was packed and, led by Ted Hine of Shaftesbury, a steam enthusiasts' club – the Dorset Steam and Historical Vehicle Club – was formed. Mike was appointed vice-chairman. It was the acorn that grew into the mighty Great Dorset Steam Fair. The first one, a small affair with its 2,000 visitors compared with what now attracts 200,000 visitors to a 600-acre showground at Tarrant Hinton, was held in Shaftesbury in 1968. By the following year it had become the Great Working drawing around 15,000 people or, as Mike insisted because it was a nice round figure that sounded better for future business, 30,000.
And it was in 1969 that Brian Moore first met Michael Oliver, moved to the village with Mike's encouragement and embarked on a friendship enriched by Mike's gift for almost magical storytelling and tall tales.
Mike died a few weeks after telling the author at the 2009 Great Dorset Steam Fair that there was no better place to be but that he did not feel on top of the world and would give the following day a miss.
Nobody can ever replace Michael Oliver, King of Steam, though the steam fair continues safe in the hands of his son, Martin. But this beautifully written little book allows Mike's voice to ring on down the years to come, captured in conversations between good friends and drawing on anecdotes involving so many of their fellow steam enthusiasts.
Mike knew the good old days were hard ones too. His steam fair brings back the best of them for a while every year and is his lasting memorial. If Mike was a born storyteller, so too is Brian Moore. This heartwarming account crowns the King of Steam as nothing less than a legend to those who knew him and to those who wonder at a life packed with so much living.