Louie was referring to the Steam Punks he’d led into Manchester city centre for a tour. Steam Punks are people who dress in Victorian and Edwardian costume and sport gadgets that one described as ‘retro-futuristic’ – in other words tools and weapons writers in the steam age may have imagined we might have had in 2013.
Think HG Wells meets Sherlock Holmes chats to Ray Bradbury and settles down for a chinwag with Ridley Scott.
The Steam Punks carry their hobby and passion off with gentle manners, smiles, kindness and a magnified sense of eccentricity.
I particularly admired one little group.
This was formed by a superbly attired pair of a lady and her cross-dressing fella, and the sweet mother of the former who had come along for the ride, but wasn’t a Steam Punk. The mother looked like she was dressed for a walk round a stately home with a nice cuppa after and maybe a cheeky piece of cake. She didn’t bat an eyelid at all the unconventionality in full flower about her. Fabulous.
Away from collecting pith helmets and bustles the individual members of 'Cottonopolis' seem to have standard day jobs, one civil engineering lady was very knowledgeable and provided some good insights when we arrived at the tour’s destination.
The Steam Punks had split into two groups, made up collectively of around fifty people. The first group was called Muff and the second, Zeppelin.
“I feel Dr Freud would have fun with those names,” I said to one of the organisers, Kirsty.
“I had to choose muff,” she laughed. “I just love muffs.” To prove this she showed me hers. It was a very handsome muff.
Her hands were sure to keep warm.
I never got to the bottom of the reason for the name Zeppelin. I quite like that, it somehow preserves the mystery.
This was the timetable as written by Kirsty:
12.00 - start to congregate at Manchester Town Hall Sculpture Hall cafe
12.45 - Meet Tunnel-Master Jonathan Schofield at Town Hall
13.00 - Group Muff descends into the stygian depths armed with sturdy shoes and torches.
14.45 - Group Zeppelin assembles at the embarkation point
15.00 - Group Zeppelin descends to pursue the angry Shoggoths and to rescue Group Muff's fallen comrades
Our destination was the Great Northern Tunnel.
The Steam Punks and the tunnel were made for each other.
The tunnel was built in Victoria’s reign as a canal and then abandoned, until given a brief life once more as bomb shelters in WWII. It provided a perfect backdrop to brocaded dresses, bodices, leather straps, breeches and top hats.
The layer of mud before Slippery Stairs in The Rubble Passage on the way to The Great Chamber proved a challenge for some of the ladies with longer dresses but everyone managed.
During the ‘weird-thing-we-do-down-there’ activity the groups were massively exuberant. No holding back with Steam Punks.
"I'm making an infra-red night vision set of goggles with torches attached on each side," said one woman casually, as though mentioning she had to pick up a pint of milk on the way home.
Of course on our promenade through town to the tunnel entrance we’d attracted lots of stares. Indeed we became a photo opp, a walking tourist attraction: the Irish parades round town on this St Patrick’s Day weekend didn’t have a chance.
“When we meet for the annual conference in Lincoln with two thousand or more of us in attendance, police compliment us,” said Louie. “They like us even though we may be carrying replica, antique weapons. The police have said that the crime rate goes down in Lincoln when we’re around.”
That’s probably because everyone stares at them.
The Steam Punks, using their offbeat fashion, strike a blow for individuality - and though they may make the some of us wonder whether we should be doing something similarly outré to prove we are here on this planet – no-one can help but like them.
“Where did you get your topi from?” I asked Louie, sometime during the tour.
“My pith helmet?” he said. “Here in the Northern Quarter in Manchester, but you can easily pick them up on the internet.”
We walked on a few steps.
“They still manufacture them in Vietnam, you know?” he added.
I nodded, determined to find some excuse in the forthcoming weeks to inform someone that pith helmets are still manufactured in Vietnam.
(The latter reminds me of the strange tour I did a few years ago with a man who claimed to be a Vietnamese government minister. He had several attendants and minders with him and was travelling around in a minibus. The doubt over his status rose from the fact he was staying in a backpackers hostel. The fact he wanted to know where he could find a prostitute didn’t confirm or negate his alleged government role either way. But anyway that’s another story...)