The tragic roundabout

I sometimes wonder whether public transport in this country is secretly run by the Lord's Day Observance Society. Or perhaps that weird Catholic sect, the one Ruth Kelly belongs or belonged to - you know, the one whose members wear a ring with spikes facing inward on their thighs
so that they can mortify their flesh just by sitting down. Creeps. All of them.

Try travelling from central London to Cambridge on a Sunday some time. No Tubes to King's Cross from Baker Street. No direct trains from King's Cross. You can get them, I am told, from Tottenham Hale, but Tottenham Hale is a frightening shithole even in high summer, let alone on a wet February evening. And one suspects the platform amenities would be less than satisfactory.

So first you get a train to Stevenage. Just say the word. Stevenage. You wouldn't be mistaking it for Casablanca, would you? You get on a coach parked in the leisure-centre car park. A leisure centre in Stevenage. As Beckett once said about something else, not even Goya dreamed up such horrors. The coach is stuffy and overheated, and the driver has thoughtfully decided to make the journey even more interesting by playing some local commercial station on the PA where the adverts encourage us to buy double glazing and the DJ plays songs from the "irritating rubbish" section of the music library. The scenery outside, when you can see it, is ring roads, roundabouts, underpasses, pubs that may once have been nice but are no longer, and vast, empty roadside pubs that were horrible from the start.

There is a high point at Letchworth, though, when we go round the first roundabout ever constructed in the country. No - in the world. I had been gazing at Letchworth, wondering if there was a more undistinguished town in Britain, apart from Stevenage, and how long it would be before
I killed myself if I lived there, when we approached the roundabout.

Not very big - about 20 feet in diameter, at a guess - but, with signs advertising its historical significance at its noon and six o'clock poles, how large it looms in the psychogeography of the nation!

Truly, this is the omphalos, the still turning point of the 20th century, which, I now know, began in 1909, when this marvel was created.
I once was sent on a bike ride from Los Angeles to Mexicali and back by the Evening Standard, in a group of 30 bikers riding enormous Harley-Davidsons. Even though I picked up the nickname "Crash" on the first day by coming off the bike on the freeway outside Chula Vista, which meant that no one wanted to ride immediately behind me ever again, I was accosted by a delegation of huge hairy bikers as we sat in a diner near the Mexican border. They were looking nervous. It turned out they had heard, or seen on the map, that there were roundabouts in Mexico, and they had never used one before. How, they asked me, were they to negotiate them? Just do what I do, I said.

I gather that roundabouts are becoming more common in the US, but if you should ever want to terrify and disorient an American, just give him your car keys and point him in the direction of one.

Feeling ropey

Anyway, you then get on a train at Letchworth - we're still trying to get to Cambridge on a Sunday, remember? - and sit for ten minutes with your bladder bursting on a train waiting for all the other lost souls trying to make this ill-advised journey. The Woman I Love - whose presence, I must say, has made the experience much more pleasant than it would otherwise have been - points out a sign which, if we interpret its simple graphics correctly, tells us that a saw, a crowbar and a coil of rope are stored in a compartment next to the toilet.

Under what circumstances, we muse, would you need a saw on a train? In case you felt like doing a spot of light carpentry?

The crowbar's easy - that's for seizing and running amok up and down the carriage with, smashing windows, passengers' heads, you don't care any more, you're so angry. And the rope - that's easy, too. That's for hanging yourself after having spent three hours on a journey that normally takes not much more than one. Or if you live in Letchworth.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.