One for the rails: Christmas in a train buffet car, 1934. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Kirsty Wark: in praise of the London to Glasgow sleeper train

The Newsnight presenter hotfoots it to Euston from the BBC and unwinds with a glass of Scotch and some political gossip.

Almost at the beginning of the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern there is a room with canvases painted during the years when he was commuting by train between London and Newcastle to lecture at the School of Art at Newcastle University.

They are a series of fleeting, blurred pictures, infused with a dreamy atmosphere, that draw you in deeply. They are the artist’s thoughts from the carriage window. They strike a chord, those seconds and minutes and hours when you look into the middle distance and lose yourself in a journey. It could be from south to north, flatland to the mountains, through forests to the city. I have always loved travelling by train, the departures and arrivals in great handsome cathedrals: Central station in Glasgow, Grand Central in New York, the Gare du Nord  in Paris, or, most of all, well-maintained Victorian stops such as Aviemore and Ilkley. They are a direct connection with our industrial heritage but the routes and the rails still carry thousands upon thousands of us each day.

One of my earliest memories as a child was of the furore around the Beeching cuts, when rail gave way – temporarily, as it turned out – to road. In those days it was an adventure to travel by train from the relative country atmosphere of Kilmarnock to the noisy, sooty city of Glasgow, a journey my father made to work for more than 35 years. He was often impatient with the lateness and the lack of comfort of that 30-odd-minute train ride, but it was by far the best way to travel – a chance to read on the way to work and to decompress on the way back. 

So, now I travel between London and Glasgow by train most weeks. Sometimes, like Richard Hamilton, I stare out at the hilly, heathery landscape between Locker­bie south to Preston, hoping to see birds of prey and the odd deer high up on the fells, but most times I’m travelling north in the darkness. For 20 years now I have followed the routine of the night sleeper train from Euston. I bolt from the Newsnight studio as soon as the lights go down, swapping high heels for something more suitable for running, just in case Dave Murden, our Newsnight driver, encounters traffic, even in the short distance from Portland Place to Euston. Even when he does, though, he always finds a way to get me there. I have missed it only once.

The train has a social life all of its own, but one that’s a lot less colourful than in years past. When there were division bells at Westminster on a Thursday night, an army of MPs would descend on the train, seeking out cross-party tables or their own kind. There was a tacit agreement that what was spoken about on the train stayed on the train, aided by the discreet train staff, who have been known to help the odd passenger to bed in the early hours, only because a driver might be a little cavalier with a sweeping bend on the line, of course.

I can remember when the late Donald Dewar would dodge some of his own back bench, and front bench, for that matter. Particularly paining for him was one winter night when they were all cooped up together for 22 hours in bad weather. The Polar Express it was not. I remember one night of particularly good banter between a Conservative peer and a left-wing Labour MP campaigning for land reform. I miss all that craic, even though it sometimes meant retiring to my cabin at two in the morning.

Now my ritual usually consists of a quick catch-up with the staff in the lounge car as they put ice in my glass and I choose my malt of the night. I used to be loyal to Bruichladdich but for some reason the Islay distillery no longer supplies miniatures. Now, I might choose Highland Park, my late father’s favourite, or a Glenfiddich. On the nights when I fail to eat take-out at my desk at Newsnight (in the office, not on air) I will sit and have – believe me – delicious Macsween’s haggis and a glass of red wine.

There is a trick to a good night’s sleep, apart from whisky, and it’s choosing the right cabin. Anything between number nine and 15 will do, as those compartments are not over the wheels. Don’t all rush now! The berths are hardly the luxury of the Orient Express (at least, I imagine) and it is pretty gross to have carpets up the walls, but the duvets are comfortable. The washbags are unimaginative but recently there are beautiful purple and red travelling blankets at the foot of the bed . . . so beautiful, in fact, that passengers have stolen so many that Lochcarron mill apparently has had another big order; every cloud has a tartan lining. Most of all, the sleeper staff are unfailingly helpful and good-humoured, role models for others on the railways. But just one plea to whoever wins the new Caledonian Sleeper contract this summer: is too much to ask for en suite in the 21st century?

The railway, sometimes called the permanent way, is a strong, powerful steel thread connecting Scotland and England, carrying climbers, musicians, business people, politicians, holidaymakers and students, back and forth between the two countries, north to south and south to north, and no matter the outcome of September’s referendum vote, the trains will steam on regardless. 

Kirsty Wark’s novel, “The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle”, will be published on 13 March

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times