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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain