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Signal Failure reveals what it's like to walk the path of HS2

Author Tom Jeffreys trekked from London to Birmingham, and found no easy answers.

Railways, like Romans, prefer to take the direct route. Tom Jeffreys, trekking on foot from London to Birmingham along the putative course of the HS2 high-speed line, is more of a rambler. Of course, his direction always tends north-north-west, but Signal Failure is a book about the verge and the siding, the hinterland, the brownfield, the landscape that makes way, and the noise that crowds the signal.

The HS2 project is scheduled to break ground in earnest in 2018, although “ground clearance” will be underway much sooner. Armed with Compulsory Purchase Orders and a compensation budget of at least £10bn, it will go pretty much where it wants. “A long section of this country is set to be altered irrevocably by HS2,” Jeffreys writes. “This walk and this book are my attempts to get to know it while I still can.”

The idea is to compile a state-of-the-nation snapshot from conversations about the new line, with landowners, farmers, protestors, planners – those whose life or livelihood falls within the HS2 pale. It’s a brave mission statement from a man who is “not a natural conversation-starter” (one of a few points in the book where you have to ask – why in hell are you doing this?), but Jeffreys makes an affable interviewer. Do we learn a great deal about the state of the nation from whether or not Roger and Jenny want a railway embankment running through their village? That’s harder to say.

We’re told that “across the UK, people are tired of being forgotten, of being left off the maps produced in London to be perused in London for decisions made in London”. Well, that’s transport infrastructure for you – it often seems to pit the Little People against the Machine. Frank Norris used a railroad to embody what he called “the octopus” in his 1901 novel of that name; the agriculturist William Cobbett called it “the Thing” – the unstoppable mill of capitalism.

This is a book in the see-it-for-myself tradition: Jeffreys declares that “direct experience is the best teacher”. There’s a good deal of agonising over what other traditions the text might fall into – travel? nature? landscape? sociology? – and this is a richly read book, so I was surprised to find no mention of Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1822-26), another fact-finding ramble across the southern and midland English counties.

Jeffreys shares Cobbett’s galvanising curiosity and irresistible urge to digress, and the two are also alike in fallibility: Jeffreys’s occasional gaucheness, oddly enough, is the making of this book. There’s nothing in Signal Failure as funny as Cobbett’s tragicomic inability to avoid crossing the Hindhead in Hampshire (it’s the way he tells it), but Jeffreys’s attempt at wild camping in the Ealing suburb of Perivale comes close – it’s not so much the slapstick of the wonky tent that gets you as the mounting panic of the would-be wanderer watching his comfort zone disappear over the horizon.

Like many other young men who write about landscape and nature, Jeffreys is often terribly earnest, but he is also honest. He addresses his own shortcomings more or less cheerfully, which presents a refreshing contrast to the offhand omniscience of the textbook lone enraptured male (even if, at times, naivety shades into sloppy fact-checking: Gilbert White, who died in 1793, is described as a “nineteenth-century naturalist” and associated with “lush prose”).

Jeffreys doesn’t hesitate to tackle the wider socio-economic themes that he considers central to the HS2 project. He is passionate and well-informed about urban development and gentrification (though his aesthetic – scruffy good, clean bad; molehills good, lawns bad – sometimes feels a bit shop-bought). When he plunges off the path, the results can be mixed (we learn a lot more about the development of Amersham than might be thought necessary), but he is often winningly self-aware: there’s a wonderful passage about the nature writers who move to London and end up “reading fox-tracks and graffiti tags and calling it psychogeography”.

Will Signal Failure change anyone’s mind on HS2? The drift here is generally anti – the rail line framed as a corporatist adventure – but this isn’t a book that gives us easy answers. What it gives us instead is context and texture; human lives, human communities, living landscapes, on-going social histories. Through it all, Jeffreys’s writing is intelligent, engaging and engaged, and deeply and disarmingly human. 

“A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing” by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott & Thompson

Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot
Tom Jeffreys
Influx Press, 416pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue