There is a certain nostalgia that we have for the early days of the pandemic. For a few months, so many of us had, besides dread, nothing to do. Apart from the poorly appreciated “essential workers,” mostly everyone spent April and May of 2020 sitting around, making extravagant breakfasts, wandering the streets of their neighbourhood, and learning to bake sourdough. Now that we’re in the cruel world of 2022, where more people than ever are dying of COVID-19 and we are all crushed to death under too much work and expensive living, it’s easy to look back warmly on a time when just visiting the grocery store was monumental and exciting.
In that time when there was nothing to do, rose two parallel celebrity phenomena: first the lockdown darlings, like actor Leslie Jordan – who died tragically this week – a petite senior queen in whose irreverent and delightful videos many people found solace. Jordan, who like all of us was watching his sanity edge away from him, became everyone’s favourite Instagram follow with his stories and terrible dancing.
But the more lasting celebrity trend of the lockdown is people who used their pandemic-driven free-time to take up (or take seriously) some hobby they’d overlooked. Musicians and artists sprouted up from lonely apartments while scores of young people sought to cash in on an increased social media presence.
Which brings me to Francis Bourgeois, a charmingly awkward young British man, and his dear, dear obsession with Trains. In the same way the lockdown spurred many of us to pursue different life goals, Francis resigned from his job and began pursuing trainspotting – the act of chasing, studying, and looking for trains – as a full-time gig. The lockdowns seemed to have given Francis the free time to fully explore his deepest desire: watching trains go by in the English countryside.
Bourgeois – not his real name – became a quick and worthwhile meme in late 2020 when one of his videos went viral. And it’s important to consider the popularity of that first video when looking at the things that have come to pass since. Two things in it struck a chord with viewers: the ridiculous and hilarious angle of Francis’s face filmed by his go pro, mounted, it seems, much too close to his face, and that Francis was breathlessly running around a train station in the middle of the night in an effort to catch a glimpse and a photo of a train that was officially named “Dick Mabbutt” (and aptly stated by Francis “what a beautiful locomotive she is”). The fish-eyed angle of Francis’s eager face chasing the train was quickly photoshopped onto the cover of Time, with many social media users crowning him a people’ choice for 2020 Person of the Year.
What’s interesting about that video all this time later is its similarities and differences to all the videos Francis has posted since. There have been no more crudely named trains seemingly destined to garner social media clout. In fact, there has been almost no calculated social media savvy from Francis: no nihilistic meta-humour or black comedy anti-jokes that are so popular among the meme pages of the internet. Francis does not make sardonic jokes about depression or anxiety, he doesn’t muse on the impending capitalist fueled destruction of the world, and he doesn’t repeat the cynical canned joke-phrases of his generation. The only ironically cool virality of his brief “influencer” (I use that word very reluctantly) career has been his over-the-top and forcefully fashionable outfits.
But his videos have continued to be charged in the same energy that the first one was so obviously full of. They have remained popular because they are funny and watchable. And they are funny and watchable because they are so happy. Which is obvious given how happy Francis is in them.
Because to watch almost any Francis Bourgeois video is to watch an increasingly rare sight: to watch a happy young person unironically and purely enjoying life.
The fact that we watch him chase trains is mostly a moot point. He could be chasing birds, or rare plants, or filming other forms of public transportation. As long as he has the energy he so obviously has, it would be worth watching. What is important about the trains, or with any of the alternatives I’ve listed, is that so many of us, most of his viewers, don’t really care about trains, or at least didn’t really care about them when we started watching. The unpopular and mildly esoteric nature of trains serves as a blank canvas on which we can watch Francis paint pure joy.
This isn’t to say that all his videos are the same. There are the emotional odes to his friends new and old, fellow trainspotters, model train enthusiasts, or railway employees who extend unplanned invitations for Francis to board and inspect a train. There are the odd, stilted, sponsored posts where Gucci (yes that Gucci), Formula 1 racing, or local transit authorites, pay Francis to film himself enjoying fashion shows, cars, or certain trains (as you’d expect he enjoys the latter the most).
And importantly, there is one video where Francis confronts “the haters” and debunks rumours of his own personal history. In this, he reveals that there was once a time, pre-pandemic, when Francis longed to be “cool,” when he worked out and dressed differently in order to impress people. History, and Francis’s unbridled excitement for life (and trains), indicates how that turned out (he currently has a memoir, The Trainspotter’s Notebook, due out soon, and television series currently airing on Channel 4 in the U.K.).
But the most invigorating of his videos tend to feature a reality check in the form of someone else who doesn’t enjoy trains quite as much as him. Take for instance a series of videos featuring Francis and, of all people, Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, who like an audience member inserted into the video stands by happily and contentedly, never getting nearly as excited about the trains as Francis. Jonas, and us, are more there to bask in Francis’s joy than to enjoy the trains.
What is most consistent in Francis’s content is an unremitting desire to just enjoy trains. It is not uncommon for comments on his posts to lament his apolitical nature. One commenter noted recently “silence on the rail strikes is deafening,” alluding to the potential of widespread strikes by railway workers in the US. This isn’t to say that solidarity is unimportant, that supporting workers and standing up to oppression should be on the back burner. But not every person in the world is an activist. Some things in life, and some people, serve foremost to spread joy. Take for instance the writing of someone like George Orwell, or poet Hanif Abdurraqib, who advocate for the appreciation and promotion of beauty, of flowers, alongside social justice solidarity.
What Francis Bourgeois offers the world is not criticism but encouragement. He offers an example of what life could be like if things were better. What it can be like when we appreciate what we have. Take the time, no matter your mood, to find three recent videos of Francis chasing a train across a scenic bridge from England into Wales. Surprises, of the train having two engines of it stopping on the bridge, of its engine roaring to life, of several train conductors leaning out the window to wave, overwhelm Francis and he sprints headlong across borders to follow it for just a minute longer. “Life. Is. Amazing.” he announces convincingly.
On running out of breath, Francis encounters a resigned man sitting on a bench next to his bike, which Francis begs to let him borrow. In the man Francis has found the tired indifference of the world and he is forced to offer his house keys in collateral for the bike. You can feel the man wondering, why on earth would anyone be so worked up over a train? But that is of course not the reasonable question to be asked. Instead, What is the point of joy? What inspires hope? Where should we look when we are sad? Watch Francis chase trains and you may find out.