Trains and classes

During the Second World War, the novelist J B Priestley was seen as the national voice of common sen

The New Statesman

25 July 1942

During the last two years I have made an enormous number of train journeys all over the country. Except on short journeys, I usually travel first-class, not because I think of myself as belonging to a section of society that needs special carriages, but for the following reasons. I am a fairly bulky man and find the space allotted to me in a third-class carriage painfully inadequate after the first hour or two; I have as a rule some tiring job to do immediately I arrive at my destination; and I am pressed for time, and wish if possible to spend some of my hours in the train doing some necessary reading, making notes, preparing a speech or a broadcast. There may be an element of self-indulgence in all this, but on the whole I think my choice can be defended on functional grounds.

All this travelling has made me into an authority on the present wild muddle about first- and third-class compartments. I have seen the first-class carriages on empty trains successfully invaded by unchallenged holders of third-class tickets. I have seen people who had- no white tickets kept out of half-empty firsts when the rest of the train was packed. I have stood for hours in the corridor, holding a first-class ticket, when the firsts were obviously filled with green-ticket holders. I have seen, in one compartment on a single journey, one person compelled to pay the extra fare, and another person left in peace without any such demand. I have seen people put into firsts and other people turned out of them. I have overheard hundreds of people telling each other that now in wartime there is no difference between firsts and thirds. I have also heard much argument, a great deal of bewildered or bitter comment, and mutterings that suggested that the class war was in sight.

Notice that this does not happen elsewhere. The half-crown seats at the cinema are not suddenly invaded by people who have bought shilling seats. There are no bitter arguments at the entrance to the grandstands of football grounds. Grocers do not find themselves handing over three-shilling tins of salmon to customers who have paid for one-and-sixpenny tins. The haberdasher who sells two different qualities of shirts, collars and socks is not made to feel that he is exacerbating the class struggle. It is only in trains that there is this trouble. And it is only since the war began that the railway companies have had to face it.

What is the reason? First, of course, that there is a genuine muddle, due to the working of an uneasy compromise, no definite line having been drawn between first- and third-class travel. But this does not explain the bitterness. We must find another reason for this resentment, and after much observation and some thought I feel that I have discovered it. And it seems to me to have some importance because it shows what is happening in the public mind.

Briefly, then, I believe that the trouble is caused by the particular terms that are used. If the railway companies sold Big Seats and Little Seats (which is what the difference really amounts to), I do not think there would be any of this resentment, just as there is no resentment at the differently priced and situated seats in the cinema. What does the mischief is simply the use of the term Class in this connection. It suggests that first—class carriages are reserved for a different kind of people, just as in our army we still suggest that officers are a different kind of men from those in the ranks. It is this—and not the fact that some persons are ready to pay more for bigger seats—that so many of our people resent. They do not say so, of course, and probably do not know exactly what it is that is arousing their resentment, but after overhearing hundreds of mumblings and mutterings, I am convinced that this is the reason. There is, for example, a certain sort of large, loud- voiced, well-to-do woman who arrives majestically, almost bellowing that she is First-Class, who instantly becomes the target of their criticism. They feel instinctively that she considers herself to belong to another and higher order of humanity, and that the railway company is encouraging her in that belief.

It is worth noticing here that concerns that cater most successfully for the people are careful to avoid any suggestion of this class difference. Thus in all but the very newest theatres there are carpeted stairs for the stalls and dress circle, and horrible stone steps and grimy walls up to thç gallery, plainly suggesting two different kinds of patrons. But in the large cinemas, run by men who understand the contemporary public, thi suggestion is carefully avoided. Seats are sold at different prices, to suit individual tastes and pockets, but the arrangements are such as to suggest that all the patrons are roughly the same kind of people. It is the same with the popular catering establishments, big stores, and so on. They already have the air of existing in a classless sdciety, socially if not economically.

This railway affair is comparatively unimportant, except perhaps to ticket inspectors, who always look worried. But it shows how the wind is blowing. This growing resentment of Class by the men in the Forces and the industrial workers is a fact. It remains a fact whether you approve or disapprove of it. You cannot argue it away, any more than you can argue Rommel out of the Libyan Desert. And there is an obvious danger in pretending it is not there.

The people who more and more resent this idea of Class have no particular passion for equality. They are not on the look-out for other people’s privileges. Most of them are born hero-worshippers. Mr. Churchill can have a couple of special trains, for all they care. But they seem to me to have suddenly decided—and, I fancy, once and for all—that they are heartily sick of class divisions that have no relation to personal merit or public responsibility. The old evidence for inequality and privilege is not good enough. The assumption that it is makes them angry or derisive. Neither of these moods is good for the war effort, nor for that national unity we hear so much about from the Tory back benches.

Meanwhile, what about Big Seats and Little Seats, Wide and Narrow, Hard and Soft, anything but First-Class and Third-Class?

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire