“Dr Beeching’s public relations campaign… presented the cuts as a harmless exercise in pruning underused railway lines,” writes Patrick Maguire (Observations, 7 February). “Pop culture offered an unwitting echo: Flanders and Swann’s 1963 song ‘Slow Train’ spoke of ponderous pointless journeys through bucolic settings.”
This is a bizarre misreading. “Slow Train” is unmistakably a lament, a poignant farewell to lines, places and stations lost forever: “No one departs, no one arrives/From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives/They’ve all gone out of our lives/On the slow train.” Ponderous? pointless? Listen again, Patrick!
Train of thought
Patrick Maguire’s piece on the railways unfortunately lacks perspective. Everybody knows the name Richard Beeching, but nobody remembers the man who preceded him and took British Rail (then the British Transport Commission) from a modest operating profit in 1953 to economic meltdown. This was Major General Sir Brian Robertson.
The 1950s were a lost opportunity for the railways to modernise. Robertson was constrained by the Tory government elected in 1951, which decentralised the railways and enabled entrenched regional interests to dominate. He closed stretches of railway that had never made up their building costs.
In the debate about Beeching there is also a lack of comparison with other countries. The Netherlands had been closing lightly used branch lines since the 1930s. France has been undergoing a much slower “Beeching” process, with many secondary lines mothballed and branches closed. In the US, passenger railways have effectively collapsed, with only profitable freight routes surviving.
Resurrecting the 1950s will not solve the problems of the railways or left-behind towns, and examining the railways in isolation will lead only to good money being thrown after bad.
Dr Jeff Porter
Hornchurch, Greater London
I am a regular user of a restored railway link between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff. Our line was scrapped in 1962 when pits were closing and the steelworks was in imminent danger, but reopened in 2008 with an efficient service that serves the local valley community well.
We must recognise Richard Beeching’s errors when planning for the future. First, his report underestimated future demand for railway services and overestimated the running costs: our Ebbw line manages with unmanned stations. Our fares policy means ordinary people can use the services regularly; Beeching’s cost-benefit analysis was cursory. And his report also underestimated the environmental effects of the increase in cars on the roads.
Before investing more in HS2, we should ask two questions. Who ultimately benefits: business, the community, or both? And what is more beneficial to the environment?
Reading the article on Richard Beeching reminded me of when it was possible for a Londoner to ascend Snowdon in a day. You would take the early-morning Holyhead-Dublin Packet, alighting at Bangor for the Pwllheli branch, changing at Caernarfon to join the Llanberis shuttle and charabanc for 300 yards to the mountain railway. This was followed by a 50-foot stroll to the summit. The reverse would have the adventurer back home and in bed by midnight.
Vernon Bogdanor is right to criticise Labour for anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn for meeting with Holocaust deniers and the IRA (Another Voice, 7 February), but there is another side to this narrative.
Bogdanor cites a survey from the Jewish Chronicle about British Jews who were considering leaving the country if Corbyn was elected. But he does not mention Windrush and that some people in this country have no choice over their leaving.
Vernon Bogdanor asserts that “Corbynism had nothing in common with traditional British socialism”, but Jeremy Corbyn’s advocacy of nationalisation of public utilities surely has something in common with Sidney Webb’s input into the Labour constitution of 1918. Bogdanor also advocates for “an agonising reappraisal such as was offered by the party’s leader Hugh Gaitskell”. But Gaitskell’s attempts to drop nationalisation had to wait for Tony Blair to become prime minister four decades later.
Mary Harrington’s column (Another Voice, 31 January) identifies a little-explored aspect of the erosion of working-class solidarity. Yet her observations are undermined by a reactionary critique of what she calls “middle-class liberalism” and its supposed connection to the growing fragility of marriage and loss of family units in working-class communities.
Marriage is hardly a haven for many women and children – particularly, perhaps, for working-class women who do not have the means to leave abusive relationships. Her implicit devaluing of one-parent families sideswipes the destigmatisation of non-traditional family life. Vague generalisations feel like a cover for resurrecting the deified patriarchal family that is underwritten by Church and state.
Readers keen to follow up Ian Thomson’s tour d’horizon of Alexander Baron’s rich body of fiction ( The Critics, 7 February) may want to seek out So We Live: The Novels of Alexander Baron, a collection of critical essays edited by Susie Thomas, Andrew Whitehead and myself. Recently published by Five Leaves, it examines Baron’s work from a variety of political, religious and cultural perspectives.
A problem shared
Ray Monk and Ruth Buckley-Salmon’s article (“How to get to net zero”, 7 February) missed an important point. In calculating British carbon emissions it ignored those produced by importing goods. Failing to account for these greatly reduces our carbon guilt. Arguably, greater moral responsibility lies with those who purchase goods than those who make them; the blame should at the very least be shared.
Alex Niven makes good points in his piece about patriotism on the left (Observations, 7 February). The tendency for some on the left to run with notions of patriotism is potentially dangerous. An “English parliament” within a federal UK would continue to dominate Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and leave the north of England marginalised.
Let’s hope that the left can develop some more imaginative strategies that go beyond knee-jerk appeals to “patriotism” and consider how a progressive civic regionalism could help the Labour Party to re-establish itself.
Professor Paul Salveson
The wonderful sight of Lake Ohrid illustrating Matthew Janney’s review of To the Lake (The Critics, 7 February) brought back memories of a 1979 trip to what is now North Macedonia. We wandered through cobbled streets in the sunshine and marvelled at jewellery made from fish scales. But perhaps what I found most astonishing was a print of Thomas Lawrence’s 1826 painting Miss Murray in a shop window. Since the country was not then a tourist destination for Brits I wondered how on Earth either of us had got there.
The EU’s future
Charles Grant’s essay (“How the EU can survive Brexit”, 7 February) was revealing about the Franco-German relationship. The UK has been lost in the Brexit maze for so long that many are only just realising the seismic changes created within the EU by our departure. One wonders where the other member states fit in, and how Britain outside the EU will approach the relationship between Paris and Berlin.
A question of time
Is being British retrospective? Ronald MacLean (Correspondence, 7 February) states that the alliance between Scotland and France of 1295 was Britain’s oldest. But Britain did not exist until the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland.
Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire
Style vs substance
Tracey Thorn is worth a million of Madonna (The Critics, 7 February). It is depressing that Madonna’s style – one designed to appeal to men – became “the template for female pop stars”. Also, she did not let her children watch TV, branding it trash, yet it is the medium through which she became famous. Madonna can subject other people’s children to quasi-pornographic imagery, but not her own. I’ll take indie puritanism any day, Tracey.
The big questions
Nicholas Lezard (Down and Out, 7 February) should see our village pub quiz in action. At the last one somebody was struck down by food poisoning. Undeterred, his team laid him out on the floor. He sweated and vomited into a bucket and was tended to only when his specialist subject came up. Such commitment paid off and they walked away with the prize – a giant tube of Smarties.
Thanks for Richard Tagart’s letter of the week (7 February). It brought back fond memories of my father declaiming the same lines as he woke his family of four small girls. He, too, had a pocket-sized copy of the Rubaiyat that he would read to me. I am unsure if my son will have the same fond memories of being woken with a Shakespearean “out, damned spot”, although it was effective.
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This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose