Jim Higgins


Art for BR’s sake

(January 1976)

From the Spectator, 24 January 1976, p.17.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The transport campaign is heating up very nicely. Mr Crosland has resurrected the term “codswallop”, Mr Sid Weighell has called Mr Crosland a “bloody liar”, railway workers have converged on the House of Commons protesting against any further cuts and that formidable publicist Mr William Camp is now orchestrating the campaign.

Let me say right away that I am with Mr Camp all the way. Just recently my undying support was confirmed as I left our local station, a grimy pile on the Euston-Watford suburban line, to be handed a leaflet. Having nothing to read I took one. Imagine my horror to discover the startling intelligence that as from January 1976 the trains on our line would run only half as frequently with half the number of carriages. So incensed was I that I almost rushed back into the station to assault the ticket clerk, a morose fellow, whose vocabulary completely omits the words “please” and “thank you”. I have had it in for him for some time. Second and wiser thoughts prevailed; he is squat but muscular and protected by an iron grille. Let us look, I thought, into the matter of alternative transport.

Cars I dismissed immediately. To my mind they are despicable heaps of rust-infected danger, impossible to park in central London and requiring more care than a whole raft of relations. Such transport is vulgar, anti-social and quite beyond my means.

Trains, a great love ever since my infant yearnings for footplate glory, are the most civilised means of transport but they are rapidly pricing themselves out of the market. Currently to travel the seven stops in to Euston I am required to pay 62p, the equivalent of 12s 6d in real money. One of the great certainties of my life is that in short order it will be even more expensive. How long, I wonder, before the British Rail slogan is: “A pound for the round trip”?

Fortunately there is a bus route at the end of our road that runs by a circuitous route to London Bridge, stopping on its way in the Grays Inn Road hard by the Spectator Offices in Doughty Street. With a certain low cunning I ascertained that those travelling between 9.30am and 4pm could go as far as they liked for 16p.

Armed with this information, warmed by thoughts of staggering economies and the chagrin of Richard Marsh when he discovered my ruse, I joined the bus queue a little after 9.30 am. My fellow travellers seemed to be entirely made up of old age pensioners, or senior citizens as the current cloying usage would have them. The day was decidedly brisk and as we waited, watching a steady procession of buses going in the opposite direction, I began to fear for the lives of the more bronchitic oldsters. Half an hour later a bus hove into sight, loaded to the gunwales with senescent passengers; although half a dozen got off nobody was permitted to board. A few minutes later another bus sailed past, en route, no doubt, to the garage, hot tea and bacon butties.

Forty minutes of total waiting time and a bus arrived purporting to be going to London Bridge. The conductor, a jolly fellow, jokingly called out to his prospective passengers: “Cash customers only”. This, I discovered, was a slighting reference to the fact that the senior citizen can obtain a free bus pass. It was an ill-advised sally, giving rise to coarse words and cries of “You’ll be old yourself one day”. Indeed, if age and the numbing cold had not taken their toll, the lad was in danger of being lynched. At the time I would have helped tie the noose.

Having mounted the bus, purchased my 16p ticket and exchanged a little light conversation with the charming old person sharing my seat, I settled down to enjoy the ride. Two stops later the bus crew alighted to be replaced by another who immediately changed the destination to Baker Street. The thought of another long draughty wait at Baker Street was too much to bear. I abused the blameless conductor, alighted and caught the train, 16p worse off and at least ten years older. Another experience like that and I too would qualify for a free bus pass.

There for a time it rested. Within a week my temperature was down to normal and the dog had stopped hiding in the coal bunker. Then I purchased my copy of the Evening Standard and everything was set at odds again. On the front page, under the banner headline: “Big Chance London Should Grab”, was an article by Mr Anthony Sampson on our London underground. Its burden, lengthily and breathlessly extended to page 3, was that London stations are pretty slummy places, ill-kept and with outdated decor. The oil deficit, pollution and the well-being of the populace would all be improved if the stations were brightened up, thus attracting the customers off the roads and into the subway. In Mexico City, we were told, “the platforms are lined with reproductions of Mayan and Aztec sculptures”; various “daring colour schemes” decorate the stations of the Mexican metro. The design of the Fleet and Victoria lines was slightingly compared to the dazzling artistic glories of Paris, Milan and Munich and other daring foreign cities. Well, it is a point of view, but someone might tell the Standard that we catch trains not for cultural sustenance but to get somewhere. No amount of artistic trimming can compensate for high fares, infrequent trains and bone-crushing overcrowding. Fond though I am of the notion of public art for the masses it would please me not at all to know that some latter-day Diego Rivera was painting a tasteful mural at Tottenham Court Road station if I cannot afford to get there.

Indeed, reverting to suburban stations, I can testify to the rugged charms of decaying railway buildings. There was one such station on the North London Line called Kentish Town West. It was quite the grottiest station I ever experienced, Paint peeled from its rotting, Victorian frescoes and woodwork. The platform, made of tar-dressed baulks of timber, was uneven and sadly in need of prompt remedial action. Nevertheless British Rail had given it a second class award for station tidiness and appearance. This may have been an uncharacteristic British Rail policy to encourage the staff. Otherwise I dread to think what a third class station looked like. For all that, trains used to stop there and carried passengers away with reasonable speed from Prince of Wales Road, in itself a public service of no mean value. And then, several years ago, Kentish Town West burned down. Having seen the Sampson piece I now have the sneaking suspicion that some early adherent of the Sampson school, his aesthetic sensibilities offended beyond bearing at its extreme squalor, put it to the torch.

My heart, and puny efforts, are at the service of Messrs Camp, Weighell and Buckton. When the combined brains of British Rail and London Transport cannot turn the trick then art will not suffice. I know that I am angry, frustrated and increasingly game for mayhem with each day that passes. Short of banning all cars (what a splendid thought) and making the trains run twice as often with double the carriages all for nothing, I have no immediate solution. In the meanwhile I have this small, modest economy wheeze. I shall continue to take the train and stop taking the Evening Standard. Laugh that one off, Sir Max.


Last updated on 2.11.2003