Archive for May, 2013

Cynicism Rules


What happened last week in Woolwich was a brutal and revolting act. However, I’m disgusted by the breathtaking cynicism of the government in using this as an excuse to force through the communication bill (aka the snooper’s charter). It’s vital for national security and for our protection, they say. Yes, in just the same way that I.D. cards were: they have them in Spain and it didn’t prevent the Madrid bombings.

I find this cynicism utterly repellent, and I think it also dishonours the memory of Lee Rigby. Each time a terrorist outrage happens, the government take advantage of public disgust to introduce even more anti-democratic and intrusive measures. I have said it before and will repeat it here: our freedoms are being steadily eroded in the name of security. These freedoms have been hard won over centuries, and are too important to be casually cast aside. They are what set us apart from the terrorists. We should be clinging more tightly to our values not throwing them away. That is doing the terrorists’ work for them.

This can be demonstrated by the Abu Qatada case. A vile preacher of hate who should have been deported long ago. However, the fact that this has been taken through the courts shows that our way is superior: we have given him due process of law. This is only right. It shows we are better than the terrorists. We should remember this as we let the government cynically abandon our freedoms. Yes, we are letting it happen. Wake up Britain, and complain. While you still can.


Stoke Benefits, the Saga Continues


I hear that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is recruiting fifteen benefit assessors. This comes only four months after they allowed around ten assessors to take voluntary redundancy. This is yet another demonstration of the incompetence for what passes for management at the Council these days. While I worked there, staff had been saying for two years that there were insufficient assessors to provide the service (see my earlier posts, especially How Consultants Ruined a Good Benefits Service in January 2013). So they make ten redundant, only to have to recruit again a few weeks later. You really couldn’t make it up.

If I was feeling charitable, I could say that they have at least seen their mistake and are trying to put it right. Better late than never, I suppose. However, this is not a job you can pick up in a couple of weeks: when Stoke bothered to provide proper training, it took a minimum of six months to train an assessor, and that was just for the basics.

Any charitable feelings I felt for the Council evaporated a long time ago. What this demonstrates is that the ruination of a good service that started over two years ago under one set of incompetent managers is continuing under another. It’s not just incompetence, it’s a significant corporate failure. Benefits provides a vital service, especially in such times as these, and the council have failed. They have failed their hard-working and under-paid staff, and they have failed the people of Stoke-on-Trent. Both deserve better.

The Horses, Edwin Muir


While having a clear out recently, I came across a file of writing that had survived from my university days. I wrote this piece towards the end of my time there, having come across the poem by chance. I recall being very affected by its post-apocalyptic vision, which as the Cold War apparently wound down, seemed even more resonant. It continues to do so now, with the news full of the belligerent noises being made by North Korea and Iran. A good time to revisit then.

In his preface to the 1965 edition of the Selected Poems, T.S. Eliot describes this poem as “that great…terrifying poem of the ‘atomic age.'” The poet foresees the possibility of a catastrophic war, presumably nuclear, that will overthrow and destroy the existing “order”. He looks at the present, clearly finds it wanting, and as a result, harks back to a simpler time. This is a common desire for those uncomfortable and dissatisfied with things happening in their own time: they look back to the “good old days” when everything was apparently good and wholesome. You only have to look at certain politicians who speak with apparent reverence for “Victorian Values” and harbour desires to “get back to basics”, whatever that means.

It can be argued that such backward-looking in the face of contemporary problems is an escapist evasion, or to use a more down to earth phrase, a cop-out. Confronted with events you neither like nor think you can do anything about, you merely ignore them and look back to a time when they weren’t there. However, each age has problems of its own, many unique to that time. Eyes become blinded to this fact by the current evil, which is seen as worse than anything that ever preceded it, and all the negative aspects of the past era being eulogised are conveniently forgotten. So, is Muir doing the same in his poem?

He describes some future time when the feared apocalypse has happened: “the seven days war that put the world to sleep,” and its survivors are having to adjust to their new existence; they have “made their covenant with silence.” Evidence of the horror of what has happened comes later, when a warship passes with corpses piled on its decks, and a plane crashes into the sea. It is a world of silence and fear. The old established order has been abruptly and swiftly destroyed in the cataclysm, all technological advance suddenly halted and then reversed. This a clear demonstration of the fragility of “progress”, it has let everyone down. For all the scientific and cultural sophistication it brought, it was unable to prevent the war, and hence its own destruction.

The “strange horses” that appear so mysteriously one evening about a year after the war has ended represent that past that the poet looks to. The modern age has broken down, symbolised by the failure of the radios to work any more, and the subsequent abandonment of the tractor to rust and decay: “They’ll moulder away and be like other loam.” The radio, and anything else connected with that time, would not be admitted to the post-war world, even if they were to miraculously start working again:

If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That bad old world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp.

With the repudiation of modern machinery, the acquaintance with the past, with the old ways, is renewed. The survivors have to adjust to those ways, the ways of their forbears, in order to survive. The arrival of the horses seals this relationship. They are a catalyst in the search for “That long-lost archaic companionship.” The colts that came with them are to be the new beasts of burden, they represent hope, the possibility of a new life amid the destruction, “their coming, our beginning.”

So is Muir being merely nostalgic? What is his view of the “atomic age”? He foresees the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, the ultimate fulfilment of man’s destructive nature. Yet, in Muir’s apocalypse, through their rediscovery of their past, humans survive. This takes the poem beyond mere nostalgia, and presents what is ultimately an optimistic view of humanity. Yes, we can destroy, but we can also adapt and survive. The poem is not simply a wish to uninvent the Bomb or return to the “good old days”. It is far more sophisticated than that. After its bleak descriptions of the aftermath of war, it ends on a profoundly hopeful note. It is, nevertheless, a stark warning. In a time when more and more countries are acquiring nuclear weapons, its dystopic vision is as relevant now as when it was written.


The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

Edwin Muir

Fifty Years of Beeching


This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of British Railways. There can’t be many government reports whose author’s name is so widely known. Even those with little or no interest in railways will have heard of Beeching and his axe. Even after fifty years, the report remains controversial.

Before applying any hindsight, let’s put the report into context. By the early 1960s, Britain’s railways were incurring ever mounting losses. An ill-conceived modernisation plan hatched in the 1950s had been botched. Rising car ownership, changing holiday patterns, growing road haulage and the building of motorways, all these caused traffic to haemorrhage from the railways. They came to be regarded as old-fashioned and inefficient. With a sense that “something must be done”, the government appointed Beeching to turn the railway finances around. To be fair to him, he was given a narrow remit, and he stuck to it: railways were a business not a service, so services, lines or stations that lost money would be closed. Social utility was not considered.

The report was dominated by its proposal to close over 5000 miles of railway and over 2500 stations. Before looking at this is in more detail, it must be admitted that the report did have some positives. It recommended that rail freight should adopt containerisation, should confine itself to bulk loads known as block trains, as this is where railways will always be more efficient than roads. He also introduced the concept of the merry-go-round train for moving coal between colliery and power station: bulk trains are loaded and unloaded on the move using specially designed wagons and without the need for large marshalling yards. All three of these practices have survived and are flourishing. He also brought improvements in management practice and financial control.

No one could reasonably argue against such improvements: the railways needed to modernise in order to survive. The same cannot be said for the closure programme. Its contention was that the network had to shrink in order to return to profitability. The effectiveness, or otherwise, of this, has been much debated since. In fact, mass closures were not new: during the 1950s, around 3000 miles of line were closed, and Beeching continued with this policy. A major criticism of the closures is that little or no attempts were made to make them run more cheaply. Such measures as using diesel multiple units, unstaffing stations, automation of signalling and level crossings and so on. Yes, this would have required investment, but if it had been coupled with better marketing, cheap fare deals and trains run at convenient times, things could have been different. In most cases, lines were closed unmodernised, retaining steam operation and the full paraphernalia of a Victorian railway to the end.

As I’ve stated, Beeching did not consider the social utility of any service, nor of the hardship that would be caused by its closure. (This was only allowed for much later, after the 1968 Transport Act, which saw such useful but loss-making services receive subsidies. While welcome, it came too late for many lines). The report promised that trains would be replaced with buses, what has come to be known as bustitution. Most of these replacements stopped within two years because of low usage. In an environment where people were already disposed to use their cars, they were highly unlikely to use a bus that was slower and more inconvenient that the train it had replaced. Beeching also dismissed the idea that a branch line provided feeder traffic for a main line: he believed that people would drive to their nearest railhead. This also turned out to be a nonsense, as if you were already using the car, why not drive the whole way?

Included in the closure programme was the idea of the elimination of duplicate routes. Perhaps there was some sense to this. For example, several of the South Wales valleys had two or more lines running into them, built by separate companies competing for the same traffic. However, there is a bigger picture, arguably missed or ignored by Beeching. If a line is temporarily closed for any reason – repair work, flooding etc – trains can be diverted along a duplicate line. Even in normal running, the second line may serve different towns and can act as a relief to the other line. The famous Settle and Carlisle line and the “Joint” line between Peterborough and Doncaster are good examples of this.

However, is Beeching the true villain here? Yes, he compiled the report, as he had been instructed to do. He proposed, but it was the politicians who implemented. Though commissioned by a Tory government, the bulk of the closures were carried out by Labour, including many that weren’t in the report (e.g. Oxford to Cambridge). This was despite a pledge to halt the programme made when they were in opposition. Political considerations ruled the day: the Central Wales line survived because it ran through several marginal constituencies, while large towns like Mansfield lost their rail service.

I suppose it’s too easy to fall prey to nostalgia and hindsight. The enthusiast in me mourns the loss of so many lines, but it also mourns train types I liked. That goes with the interest, but I can put it aside. I don’t believe it is entirely hindsight to be critical of the report. London suffered from traffic jams even then, yet no one foresaw that the growth in car ownership would cause this problem to spread to other towns and cities. Towns and cities that lost local stations and suburban lines under Beeching. It isn’t just nostalgia either. The railways are today carrying record numbers of passengers, (despite eye-wateringly high fares). How many more could there have been if some of the lines shut by Beeching had survived? That is something we can speculate on until the bovines return to their dwellings. It’s significant, however, that some lines have indeed reopened, and very successfully: Mansfield, Alloa, Bathgate, Ebbw Vale, Aberdare and Larkhall to name a few.

While commendable, these remain exceptions, not the rule. Many lines that could be useful stand little chance of reopening thanks to the failure to protect their alignments. So many have been ploughed up, built on, swallowed by roads etc. Take the Penrith to Keswick line: how useful would that be now?

While some closures were possibly inevitable, I believe the report went too far. It was a short-sighted, short-term solution that lacked true vision and wrongly saw no future for a lot of the network. Its failure to allow for social utility was a grave error, the consequences of which we are still living with.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

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