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You’re never too young to have an opinion

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As you might have heard, Margaret Thatcher died today. Social media has gone a little bit mad as usual when something big happens. Mrs T is, for obvious reasons, one of the most divisive figures in political history and I don’t want to particularly get into the nitty-gritty detail – I’ve got to save that for the 20,000 words I have to write this summer for my dissertation. But sitting on the far left as I do, it’s fair to say that I’m not particularly sorry she has left us.

Naturally I take a keen interest in what the other side is saying, though, and it concerns me, because it seems very few people are actually openly defending her ideology, despite the fact that it was enough for the British people to vote her party under her leadership into power 3 times. Instead I’ve noticed a lot of people choosing to defend her by more covert means:

– “you can’t speak ill of the dead” – which of course was never the case when all the public figures the Right hates died, from Bin Laden to Chavez via Hobsbawm

– “she was just an old lady” – because we all automatically become nice when we hit 80

– “she just had different opinions to you” – ignoring the fact that, unlike me, she was in charge of running the country for 11 years and made numerous decisions millions of people here objected to

– “she was a strong personality” – so was *insert well-known controversial historical political figure here*

No one is brave enough to stand up and say she was right to privatise various industries or smash the trade unions or stick by an economic policy that sent hundreds of thousands into unemployment and caused enormous societal discord. Here begins the airbrushing out of all the bad things she actually did in favour of some kind of vague personality-based mythology that portrays her as a million and one things that she wasn’t

But the most worrying one was “people under the age of 30 have no right to comment”, which is a totally absurd statement to make. Not only is this massively hypocritical (because I’m certain those same people have opinions4u on anyone that did bad things before they were born), but essentially that reduces history to “this is something that happened” – Michael Gove’s wet dream, basically. We can’t not have opinions on the past. The whole point of history is analysing what happened and why – you can’t do that if you’re not allowed to have an opinion on something from the past. But perhaps that’s the whole point of Michael Gove’s conception of history – he doesn’t want us to judge people in history in case we judged them in the “wrong” way, so best let the state decide who’s good and who’s bad.

As well as that, it’s totally wrong because we are all still affected by Thatcher’s legacy. I might only be only 22, born a few months after her resignation, but I live in an area pretty much destroyed by the Thatcher government. I don’t want to have to totally unpick the miners’ strike because it’s been done to death by people who know a lot more about it, but the widespread closure of mines in South Wales, along with other the deindustrialisation of other heavy industries in the region, has led to mass unemployment and considerable deprivation in South Wales. The various South Wales areas have the highest rates of anti-depressant use in the whole of England and Wales. This is unquestionably the result of Thatcherite policy. That’s why all those arguing “well it’s not like she killed people like Hitler or Bin Laden” are wrong – she didn’t bomb South Wales but she has ruined the lives of thousands of people, and didn’t really give much of a shit about it in the process.

I still have to live with this. I have no choice but to leave my home area to find work. My friends are all struggling to find meaningful jobs. Crime and substance abuse (from a young age) are serious issues. The community is fragmenting. A generation of children is growing up totally disillusioned, low on confidence, self-esteem, hope and ambition. But to Thatcher, the people of South Wales were just numbers contributing to further numbers, a long way away from anywhere she ever needed to go. Wales was a write-off as far as she was concerned – the Valleys were never going to vote Tory so she didn’t care. The result is the breakdown of society that she was allegedly trying to prevent. It’s got nothing to do with divorces or the decline of religion or any of those excuses. It’s because the working class were considered expendable, rather than as real actual human beings, and have now been left with nothing to live for, as London and the South East get yet ever wealthier and have yet more benefits.

This is why I’m pleased she’s gone. And if anyone has a problem with that, feel free to come here and see what 20 years of post-industrial decline has done to the Valleys. And Glasgow. And Greater Manchester. And Newcastle. And Nottinghamshire. And so on. Because I’m sure you think that Thatcher was a positive force, a “patriot”, a “strong personality who got things done” or “an old woman”, or if you think that I’m too young to comment on what she did, you obviously haven’t been here to see the legacy she has left on these places. Because if you had, you would understand.

The media can only airbrush out so much. They might forget us but we will not forget her, and what she did. We just need to make sure that her other legacy, currently sat in Downing Street and on the government benches in the House of Commons, doesn’t cause similar misery over the next decade.

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Written by James Bennett

April 8, 2013 at 16:14

Posted in Politics

Doctor Beeching and his associates

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If you’re only interested in football or F1 or something, it would probably best for you to look away now, as this one is on trains…

———

Pride of place in my collection of books goes to two enormous green atlases by the name of The Railways of Great Britain: A Historical Atlas (Second Edition) by Colonel Michael H Cobb. I’ve loved trains since I was a toddler, although it’s a bit more closeted these days (let’s face it – it’s not cool), and I’ve had an interest in maps for a while as well, so this makes total sense. It all sounds incredibly nerdy but behind it there lies a story that sums up the development and decline of Britain’s railway network, with significant wider implications today.

As far as I know, this is the only large scale atlas documenting virtually every railway line ever built on this group of islands, detailing when they were opened and closed and the companies that operated them, up until the privatisation of British Railways in 1994. What it depicts is the enormous frenzy of the construction of railways in the 19th century, dubbed ‘Railway Mania’, before the gradual scaling back of the network from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the eventual mass culling of a third of the remaining lines in the 1960s and early 1970s overseen by the notorious railway butcher Dr Richard Beeching.

Beeching in particular is despised nationwide, although it is fair to say that many of the closures of the 1960s were earmarked before his appointment to the British Railways Board in 1961 or were almost certainly inevitable. It would be wrong to pin the blame solely on him, as there is little doubt that if he hadn’t taken his place on the board, whoever would have would probably have done the same or worse – Tory Transport Minister Ernest Marples escaped the blame despite being just as culpable and having a stake in a road haulage business, and his successor Barbara Castle only reprieved a handful of lines after Labour swept to power in 1964 pledging to halt the cuts. Beeching also made a number of other good decisions while in the position, such as the development of the Freightliner service and the merry-go-round coal hoppers, and he also oversaw the transition from steam power to diesel and electric, which although handled badly was the right decision. However, that is not to say BR’s closure plans weren’t flawed and executed badly.

The state of British Railways after World War II was not particularly healthy. The nationalised network was making big losses, in part a legacy of the war but also of the development of the system itself. There were hundreds of loss-making lines, many of which were duplicates of successful lines. An example of this can be seen in my native South Wales, where numerous small companies had sprung up in the 19th century to build lines from collieries across the valleys to the docks in Cardiff, Barry, Newport and Swansea, and all were competing with rivals. This often led to two lines for every valley, despite each valley being barely able to sustain the one line. Indeed, a number of valleys in South Wales lost both in the 1960s.

Closures here had begun as early as 1930, although it would be during the ‘Beeching period’ that the majority of cuts would happen, decimating an extraordinarily complex network of lines. This would be an experienced shared across the country, from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. It was as if Beeching and his associates had looked at a map, started cutting genuine duplicate lines and got carried away in the process.

The upshot was the loss of railway links for hundreds of isolated rural communities, often the only reliable transport links they had – a promise to replace the railways with bus transport or improved roads for many of these either proved unsuccessful or never materialised at all. Thousands of jobs were lost, with even the lines and stations that remained open being scaled down.

There were even some former trunk routes closed, with three classic case studies. The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway which linked Bath with Bournemouth was a controversial closure. The Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle via Galashiels and Hawick was said to be a large loss-maker at the time but is about to be partially reversed in the 21st century.

But arguably the most controversial, and in my opinion the biggest mistake, was the closure of the Great Central Railway from London Marylebone to Nottingham and Sheffield and the adjoining trans-Pennine route to Manchester. The GCR was a modern route, having largely been built in the last decade of the 19th century with minimal curves to a continental loading gauge in preparation for any future cross-Channel links – in this way, it was well ahead of its time. It served a number of large towns on the route, including Aylesbury, Rugby and Loughborough.

However, it was decided that the line was to close on account that it was a duplicate of the numerous other lines in the locality, even though it was generally a profitable route and despite its potential for the future. Likewise, the trans-Pennine route to Manchester via Woodhead Tunnel was not saved despite heavy investment, including early electrification and a new tunnel bore in the 1950s. Today, parts of the GCR remain, either as part of the national network such as the route out of Marylebone to Aylesbury, or preserved as part of the revived GCR which runs two sections around Loughborough. But in a time where the government is now proposed a costly, controversial high speed link from London to the north, and trans-Pennine capacity remains stretched, the closure of the GCR network now seems incredibly foolish.

The lack of foresight in the closures is their most significant flaw. Beeching and co did not account for future developments such as the growth of towns, urban road congestion and environmental problems. While rail freight was dying on its arse due to the deregulation of road haulage and would never recover despite Beeching’s innovations, passenger numbers have recovered somewhat, and have continually grown in recent years. Beeching reversals such as the reopening of the lines to Ebbw Vale, Alloa and Mansfield have exceeded expectations.

While many of the lines that were shut were unprofitable, it is not a surprise that they were considering the number of people they were employing for services that few were using – with the decline of goods and freight by rail, staffing every station with a number of employees had become a historical anachronism. Compare that to today’s railway system, which is stripped down to the bare minimum, arguably having gone too far the other way in some instances, but perhaps providing a model for how many of the now-closed lines could have been run effectively had they stayed open. As well as this, the Parry People Mover and innovations in signalling are examples of technological developments that would have helped smaller lines.

Tourist potential was never taken into account. A number of lines used heavily in the summer by holiday-makers were shut, particularly in Devon and Cornwall which lost most of their rural lines such as those to Ilfracombe, Bude and Padstow. It seemed that no one took into account that traffic varied so much from season to season, or if they did, they didn’t think through the consequences. Many of these resorts have suffered considerably since – though it was anticipated that people would switch to travelling there by car instead, this never happened. Further to this, many scenic lines were shut despite their obvious tourist potential. Beeching and co assumed that the car would come to rule all as it did/does in the USA and thus made no effort to make concessions for any future shifts, but it never developed the way they expected.

But the biggest mistakes were made after closure. Within weeks of closing lines and stations, all of the infrastructure bar station buildings and large bridges were removed. Hundreds of former lines, stations and yards were then sold off and developed, often as housing, industrial parks or relief roads, preventing any possibility of reopening them. Thus, many towns which would now benefit from a rail link will probably never get one. The short-sightedness is staggering – while the US and France have also seen cuts as big or even bigger than seen here, they preserved former trackbeds in case of further developments. In Britain, this has only happened in one or two instances, and even then what has been left is very restricted. The only lines reopened in recent years, and the only ones likely to reopen in the future, are lines kept for freight. The room for further development of rail infrastructure is now mostly gone, save for demolishing houses, tearing up roads or ignoring NIMBYs.

It is easy to get nostalgic for the vast old railway network we used to have in Britain, especially if you never lived at that time, with no prospect of ever experiencing it, save for some brave bright spark designing a large virtual recreation of it (hey, I can dream – and if there are any games developers reading this…). Railways are in some ways a historical anachronism, and there are people out there who think Beeching didn’t go far enough, not least Beeching himself and his would-be successor in the 1980s, Sir David Serpell, who both proposed concentrating on only a handful of key routes.

But I believe that in these times of continuing urban development, and climate change and the end of fossil fuels on the horizon, mass transport is a crucial part of our present and future, and saving virtually the entirety of Britain’s rail network could have worked and, in my opinion, should have happened. Obviously there were some lines and stations that were shut correctly as they served little purpose, but from the 1950s onwards, the cuts became increasingly rash, driven by a desire to turn around BR’s losses there and then rather than thinking towards the future. Added to that, the reduction of infrastructure on other routes caused them to become loss-makers (intentionally?), forcing unnecessary closure, before tearing it all up to prevent anyone reversing the process.

At some point, there was a shift in approach, and it was the wrong one – they began to look at a railway or station asking why it should stay open, rather than looking at it and asking why it should be closed. A more lenient, considered approach could have saved an awful lot of trouble in the future and helped move BR back into the black quicker – it is clear that there were lines closed during this period that never should have been and would now been an important part of the network.

It is easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but the fact that BR’s profits did not recover with the mass closure of lines as they expected demonstrates that they got it wrong, and now we are all suffering because of it. Beeching was a man of his time, and it was a very different time, but clearly he did not realise this himself – or, to put it another way, he was unwilling to consider the potential for change, and ignorance is no excuse.

Now all we can do is look at lines on a map, or read books with pictures comparing a thriving railway in the 1950s to an overgrown wood or housing development today, contemplating what might have been, as traffic gets heavier and our skies are filled with ever more greenhouse gases. And yet we also look at the current government proposing a grand scheme at vast expense to suit a small percentage of the population of the country, and using it to try and show that they care about rail travel, while continuing to build new roads and proposing a new super-airport for the South East!

Surely 2 and 2 is making 5 here – if they had any sense, they would spend that money on undoing some the damage done in the 1950s and 1960s. Times change, but idiocy at the top does not.

Written by James Bennett

April 15, 2012 at 21:31

Posted in History, Other, Politics, Rail

British European Airways Flight 609

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I haven’t written much here lately because I haven’t had the time or will to do anything, and there’s no point half-arsing something for the sake of it. However, I’ve got a couple of weeks free before my next essays are due in so I may do something. However, I have done an article for We Are Going Up on a certain team’s excellent recent form (currently the main headline story on the site too – woo).

I intend on making this blog a bit less football-centric and have a bit of everything, apart from F1 stuff (if I ever bother again) which goes on Welsh Grand Prix. On that theme, here’s a new episode of Mayday/Air Crash Investigation (shown on National Geographic here) that may interest you. ACI is one of my favourite TV programmes at the moment, being simultaneously awful and brilliant at the same time, trivialising death with CGI graphics and emotional blackmail but actually being quite interesting from a historical point of view.

This one, from the most recent series currently airing in Canada, is on British European Airways Flight 609, i.e. the Munich Air Disaster of 6th February 1958. Obviously it is interesting from a football perspective (and Busby Babes ‘keeper Harry Gregg is a talking head), but that is largely a sub-plot here, so don’t expect too much on how good the side was. It mainly focuses on the pilot, Captain James Thain, and his battle to clear his name after being wrongly accused of causing the crash in the initial report. If you like it, check out some of the other episodes, although this is the only sports-related disaster they’ve covered so far, and the likes of Superga and the Zambia disaster are unlikely to feature. Enjoy.

Written by James Bennett

January 23, 2012 at 23:52

Poppies…

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Well this is a farce in a bucket, isn’t? A well-meaning but ignorant complaint leads to protests and what was an exciting international friendly (if an international friendly can be exciting) is now overshadowed by politics.

What will now no doubt become known as “Poppygate” has quickly spiralled out of control, but you can’t say FIFA didn’t warn them. They have a ban against political symbols these days, to prevent throwbacks to the days of teams doing Nazi salutes and the like, and like it or not, the poppy is a political symbol – it is a symbol of remembrance for British and Commonwealth war dead, i.e. on one side of the two world wars and all wars since, and primarily soldiers, i.e. those people that kill other people at the behest of politicians. OK, so those pushing for the Home Nations’ national sides to wear them this weekend meant well, but they don’t seem to understand this simple fact, or that if FIFA were to make an exception, they would then face pressure from various other nations who would push for their national sides to wear more contentious symbols on their kits, and god knows where that would lead to…

Today, it’s all gone up a gear. FIFA have blocked the FA’s protests and now to totally prove that it’s definitely not a political issue, noted politician David Cameron has said he will write a very angry letter to FIFA complaining angrily that this makes him angry (no doubt signed “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”), noted politician Ed Miliband has also spoken out against the decision, and the not-at-all-political-or-racist political group the English Defence League are staging a not-at-all-political protest against the decision on the roof of FIFA HQ in Zurich. And of course all the complaints in the tabloid media aren’t at all coming from papers who hate FIFA because they didn’t give us the 2018 World Cup. Not at all.

What I can’t understand is why a black armband and a minute’s silence before the game is suddenly not enough. This for me says two things: firstly, the changing attitudes towards the poppy in Britain today, where it is being seen as increasingly compulsory to wear one in the increasingly long run-up to Remembrance Day, which isn’t at all sinister at all; and secondly, that the black armband is now so ridiculously overused that it has lost its meaning and thus is deemed not enough to suffice.

The problem is, if it continues to become increasingly necessary to wear one in public life, surely the time will come where the poppy itself will lose its meaning. In fact, I think it has already. The heart of the issue – that it’s a symbol of remembrance – seems to have been lost in all the political point-scoring from the major parties, and the adoption of it as a symbol of nationalism by a racist, xenophobic far right protest organisation seemingly blissfully ignorant of the fact that those that the poppy is supposed to remember fought against a nation run by a political party with political views ideologically similar to theirs. Not that many of them know what “ideologically” means, anyway…

It’s also why I don’t wear one. After all, it doesn’t make you any less of a person not to wear one, and nor does it mean you have any less respect for those that gave their lives for us. Ultimately, it’s just a flower. In fact, it’s not even that – it’s just the likeness of a flower. The problem is, despite what they may tell you, it has been hijacked by politics, along with the Union Jack, the St George’s Cross, and the football match this Saturday. Shame, I was looking forward to it too.

Written by James Bennett

November 9, 2011 at 17:04

An important report, an important issue

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Forgive me for the non-sporting post, but I feel the need to tread into politics for a change…

Not so long ago the UK was put at the bottom of a table of developed nations for child happiness and well-being in a major Unicef study. They’ve since done an additional report on why this is the case, which was released today. This BBC article summarises it, and contains a link to the full report. It’s quite an interesting read and one I can relate to and agree with having grown up in a poor area, as I’ve seen many of the features the report describes.

I have often found a great paradox in South Wales – people here are genuinely poor, and yet when I’m out and about, what always catches my eye is the number of brightly coloured expensive branded trainers children and young teenagers are wearing, and the expensive mobile phones they are inevitably texting on. And yet for the area, my family is quite well-off, but I’ve never had brightly coloured expensive branded trainers or an expensive mobile phone. Equally, I’ve always been the last to get the latest games, toys and gadgets – in fact, there are a number of things I’ve never had, including an XBOX, a PS3 or even raw pocket money (as I had magazines instead). Indeed, for that ultimate in consumerism, Christmas, I most likely had the least amount spent on me in the class.

There is a clear correlation between approximate wealth and what families have spent on trainers, clothes, phones, consoles and various other materialist items – aside from the poorest of all, as wealth increases, spend on materialist goods decreases. So it leaves you wondering how the less well-off can afford it, let alone why they bother. The large emphasis on materialism above all else, as the report shows, doesn’t really make anyone happy, including the kids, who ultimately would much rather spend quality time with their family than have Nike trainers or iPhones.

I don’t necessarily blame parents as such, as even though it is bad decision-making, I believe that it’s society as a whole that leads people down that path of “money = spending money = status = happiness”, something I see as the result of Thatcherism – a needless cultural shift of focus away from the family and towards money (hence why my only criticism of this BBC article is the fact that it quotes Cameron at the bottom – very short-sighted). The Conservatives may have promoted “traditional family values” for a long time, but this is aimed at the middle classes rather than the less well-off families that the report suggests are suffering the most, or if it is aimed at the working class, it is aimed at social mobility – and status is quite an important factor when looking at the reasons why parents feel pressured into buying expensive consumer goods, something the report also infers.

Corporations and their advertisers also have to take a portion of the blame, even if it is the lax rules put in place by the likes of (but not only) the 1979-97 Tory governments that allow them to do this. In the recent past, when everyone was Jamie Oliver’s best mate, there were vicious attacks on fast food chains for their advertising aimed at children. But at that same time, not a word was said by the bandwagon jumpers about the advertising of the corporations behind these materialist goods, who arguably cause more harm to society as a whole than a few dodgy burgers.

The irony is that while Nike and Adidas, as sports goods manufacturers, at least “encourage” people to be more active and thus healthier, when it comes to children they are just as shallow as McDonald’s salads. Sticking with the most visible example, those purple Nike trainers you see kids wearing (which, I remind you, cost £50+ a pair) probably spend more time not being taken around football fields, doing what they were supposed to do – help kids kick footballs more accurately – but sad and empty, gathering dust under the bed, as their owner watches TV or plays a virtual football on a consoles or computer.

I have even seen kids head to their local field in football trainers, and then take them off and switch to football boots to play. Not only is that leaving expensive trainers around for anyone to walk along and pinch (which, in poor areas, isn’t exactly far-fetched, is it?), thus necessitating even more spending on a similarly-expensive pair to replace them, but it shows the self-defeating extra expense, as those football boots would inevitably be even more expensive than the trainers and also worn a lot less, and of course it means the trainers aren’t being used to do what they’re designed to do – kick footballs.

Whether it’s because the kids are afraid of damaging them because they’re so expensive, their local park/football pitch has been sold off and built over for housing, or because console football is more fun and less hassle, the purple trainers under the bed prove a wider point. As the likes of Nike would say in defence, these football boots were made for playing football, but as I’m sure they are aware, that isn’t the case in the real world. Ultimately they are a fashion statement and status symbol, rather than a tool for sport – they are bought not to kick a ball, but to simply pound the pavements, showing them off to friends and the rest of the world. As the extreme colours of the popular Nike Mercurial Vapor and Adidas F50 ranges show, they are primarily designed to be noticed.

The media also seem to have a role in reinforcing this by creating a public perception that all children want is this fashionable stuff – you can see this in a range of things from Daily Mail “reports” to TV characters like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager. Public perception of kids has been consistently negative for a long time, certainly during my teenage years, so negative stereotyping in the media is inevitable. The problem is this quickly adds to the expectation that to be a good parent, you must try and spend as much money on your children as you can to make them happy, which of course is a complete fallacy.

It seems to be a vicious circle – everyone knows they’re doing it wrong but are afraid to go against the grain for fear of standing out. This is something I sympathise with because my parents did go against the grain and I suffered from it with bullying for the best part of a decade. For years people (I say people, I mean Mail readers) have blamed divorce rates and the breakdown of the traditional family unit for society’s ills. You could argue that this report supports the former because with only one parent, it becomes more difficult to spend time with your children, but equally I think that misses the point to a certain extent, because I’m sure divorce rates are similarly high in most of the countries on that list when compared to the mythical “land of lost content” people hark back to (currently the 1950s – as I said, mythical). Equally nowhere does it say that the often-cited lack of male role models is a problem, nor does it blame gays, Muslims, immigration, house prices or any of the other typical Mail or Express reader excuses

The problem is material goods are seen by many corners of society as “what kids need to fit in”, particularly by the kids and the parents, but the parents 1) don’t spend enough time with their kids to start with and thus don’t know them or know what they really want, 2) don’t set the correct boundaries and spoil the kids by buying them everything they ask for, regardless of whether they need it or will appreciate it, because they’re too scared of their kids getting bullied if they don’t get the fashionable toys/gadgets/clothes/trainers/games, and 3) they then have to work for even longer and even harder to be able to get somewhere near affording them, meaning they spend less time with their kids and thus continue to be unintentionally ignorant of what they really want.

There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what parenting actually is, a natural assumption by parents that all the kids want is fashionable clothes/toys/games etc, and a widespread lack of bravery to say the word “no” to a child from a very young age. Again, I don’t criticise them for that on an individual level, because that is what society now expects – to effectively abandon your children, other than buying them expensive stuff to keep them happy.

The USA didn’t come out of this particularly gloriously either, by the way – only 1 place above the UK. The Dutch were top of the list, followed by the Swedes, Danes, Finns and Spanish – not any less materialistic, as the report points out, but set up more around providing time for families to spend time together, and thus less of a need for parents to try and “buy happiness”. There is no doubt that the standard of living of some of the countries towards the top is better (in a more evenly-spread way) than in the UK, but we are still talking about a nation which, contrary to popular belief, is still one of the richest in the world, just proving how vast the inequality remains here on this small group of islands.

Finally, I find it interesting (in a positive way) that the report suggests Britain introduces a living wage – when the Greens suggested exactly the same thing last year for the election, this was seen as rather radical – I know I did, prior to my political shift to the left which led me to consider the Greens far more seriously. It is perhaps ironic, then, that this report has been released on the day that the Boundary Commission has suggested that the only constituency the Greens currently hold is to be abolished. “Happy” days…

Written by James Bennett

September 14, 2011 at 02:04

Posted in Other, Politics