‘Things change when people start to talk to each other, positively, to the people around them, about what could happen’. – Colin, Christow.
This is not the first time I’ve woken up on a railway carriage. Usually exhaustion from work or plain drunkenness played a part. They were huge and sophisticated things, with plug sockets, automated announcements, passenger wi-fi and space age toilets. The Toad brake van by contrast is modest in proportion, built for the needs of a Fifties’ rail-guard, but comes with a comfortable bed, sink, cooking area, dining table and bookshelf filled with treasures. There are no automated announcements, only a sense of silent stillness, at times interrupted by the trill of birdsong outside.
No rush today. Sadly, I’m one of the very last guests to stay on this camping van run by the Teign Valley railway. The world’s changing, as Colin described it yesterday, and the effort and motivation to continue running an underused resource has waned. I wander around the goods yard, past an open freight shed, and the tiny Tadpole brake carriage, also converted into a camping van replete with children’s books and a ukulele. There’s a number of old freight stock carriages, and I wonder how the Teign valley railway might have become if Colin had realised his plans to buy up the land on which the line once ran, and reopened it again. It is such a huge undertaking for one lone individual, and Colin has made remarkable progress in the yard so far. With the help of a young environmentally-minded apprentice, perhaps looking for an interesting and rewarding one-year project, the Teign Rail could become far more widely-known, I think. The sheer breadth knowledge and skills that Colin has deserves to be shared and passed on.
At the top of the yard is a temporary booking office, where Colin has curated an exhibition of railway artefacts. There’s a Swiss time clock introduced in 1944, old ticket stubs and a stationmaster’s desk, amongst much else – all stuff he squirrelled under the desk whilst working as a clerk for National Rail, or been given since. Colin had always planned the camping vans as a ‘stopgap’ to raise income and awareness about Teign Rail, but never did make enough money from them, even when the vans were fully-booked up. Being too nice and honest with his guests, price began too low and are now extremely generous. He invites me into his small office, another old railway carriage, this one filled with various metal objects in a state of disrepair and several greased cloths. He is largely self-taught, and his secret, dogged determination. ‘I’ve doing everything a thousand times wrong!’
‘Ask them what they think the future of the railways is’, he states, recovering his zeal. His subject of attack are steam railway preservationists, but the charge applies to government ministers, political parties, Network Rail, and passenger train operating companies, and to whoever else ducking accountability for the country’s railway system. ‘It’s like history became trapped, and couldn’t move’. There’s no use in looking back unless to take stock of the present and improve the future.
He envisions a holistic, non-compartmentalised system. ‘The railways today not only run on a fraction of the lines they used to, they also do a fraction of the same things.’ Post, periodicals, telegrams, all in a manned and continually active station, overseeing passengers and freight. Mail could be delivered easily through a single-owned nationalised system, and rolling stock could be moved around wherever it was need, unlike today. But he’s not entirely nostalgic. ‘Don’t get me started about nationalisation.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It was like a massive care home. You couldn’t get the sack’. Yet privatisation has done far more damage. Despite the arguments for free-trade capitalism, Colin notes, the train operators today are profiting from the existing lines and stock of British Railways, represented in the logo. ‘Parasitic’.
The privatisation of the railways is generally despised, and its failures well-documented, and this anger extends to the privatisation of every other utility or service formerly belonging to the public. The ‘market’ has consistently failed to lower prices, improve infrastructural standards or ‘trickle down’ wealth to the poor, to the surprise of no-one. State spending remains necessary for any major infrastructural programme and even many technological innovations, including the Internet and, most recently, Tor web browser, both produced by the US military. Much of the UK’s energy infrastructure is now owned by the nationalised industries of our European neighbours. Again, this is well known and discussed in the public sphere. Yet privatisation continues, both in spectacular form like the sale of Royal Mail, to the insidious and more gradual privatisation of the NHS, schools and police forces. Nothing stands in its way, as a profound feeling of disempowerment grips the public. I captured this when I wrote Negative Capitalism two years ago, and unfortunately little has progressed since.
Colin envisions a publicly-owned system beyond the megalithic bodies of the mid-20th century, with more accountability and transparency. Profits would be reinvested into maintaining and improving railways and carriages, and prices kept low. But publicly-owned railways are, alone, insufficient: they must take an elevated place in a new public transport programme that actively reduces road and air traffic. Railways would need to be re-established over old track-lines (and cycle paths). The car-centred cities of Abercrombie and planners would be reversed. All Colin has is this vision, and a goods yard in Devon with which to exhibit it. Within our currently disenfranchised, disempowered world, his plans are inconceivable, yet they are cheap and possible to implement. What inspires me about Colin is his commitment and fidelity to this vision. What might be dismissed as idealism is just ‘common sense’, not yet commonly implemented. His vision is a reminder of what is still possible. Such hope comes with a heavy burden. Do things change when people start to talk to each other? The head doubts that proposition, but then, the heart feels it has been irredeemably changed by meeting and talking with Colin, inspired and energised. A kind of change harder to recognise from a distance.
Morning has become early afternoon, and with hours passed in happy conversation, I really need to start making tracks. Before I leave, he points out an oil barrel beside the temporary office. ‘A barrel of ancient sunlight’, he’s had painted over it. ‘The world consumes 90,000,000 of these every day. And demand is rising.’ With no obvious breakthroughs in shale gas or nuclear fusion, and no committed policy to utilising the country’s abundant renewable energy potential, scarcity seems like a probability for the future, otherwise overcome by increasingly expensive energy. As I wheel out the bicycle, Colin insists on not taking any money for my night’s stay. I insist that he does, but there’s no capitulation. He laughs when I tell him how much I’ve written about our conversations. ‘Only a PhD could do that’, he chuckles. I sincerely hope he will reopen Toad in the future. It is the most interesting place I’ve stayed on in my journey. But before I go, he insists on one final thing: weighing the back of the bicycle. The luggage? Five stone, half my body weight. ‘That’s heavy!’ That explains why those bloody hills have been so tiring these last few days…
I ride out of Christow, passing the ruins of an old helicopter and a Christian retreat centre, all in strange proximity to Teign Rail and each other, before riding up towards Exeter. The land is more cultivated here than Cornwall, with thick hedgerows lining the road, and beyond them sweeping cocoa-coloured fields, freshly tilled, or wide expanses of golden corn fields. Clusters of woods peep up here and there as the road rises up towards Exeter then plunges down towards the city, situated in a valley. Its huge cathedral is remarkable from a distance, the bright white of its marble and gothic features dominating everything around it. It must’ve appeared staggeringly otherworldly to the rural Devonshire people as they travelled into the town for market days. The rest of the town is small and underwhelming. I push through Exeter St. Thomas, a tatty but friendly seeming suburb, then over the river Exe and into the centre.
Exeter’s an ancient settlement, and one could write droves about its histories. It was probably settled by the Celts beforehand, but the Romans properly established what is now the modern settlement, building a military base, baths, city walls and a trading centre here. It has been occupied ever since. Notably, the city has been repeatedly besieged by the Cornish. Only months after the defeat of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, Perkin Warbeck landed and amassed thousands of survivors to march again on London, this time under the cause of ‘King Richard IV’ of York. They took Exeter, but the Cornish militia were later abandoned by the panicky ‘Pretender’ and forced to surrender. It was besieged for a month in 1549 by Cornish and Devon rebels, in an uprising that began against the introduction of a Common Prayer Book, but ended up uniting grievances around inflation, taxation and the unfair domination of England over Cornwall. ‘Kill all the gentlemen’, the rebels declared, stirred equally by religious and political motives, but in the end end they were routed by an army made up of European mercenaries.
Exeter wears its age well, clearly exhibits its old walls and pointing out sites of historical interest without making a touristy fuss of them. One can easily forget to look up and miss the crumpled Tudor houses that now house vintage outlets and charity shops, or the narrow backstreets around St. Nicholas Priory. Only a stone’s throw beyond the bland money-spinning malls of Princesshay and the Guildhall is St. Bartholomew’s Cemetery with its eerie catacombs, or the old quayside with good watering holes and benches to sit and watch the world on.
Far too much of the town centre is given over to a needlessly large series of shopping malls, but this is true of every English city, sadly without exception. There’s a number of interesting independent shops on Fore Street, and the cathedral area itself is a great place to stop. It’s a huge public space in the centre, and people of all ages are sat lunching and chatting on the greens, beneath weathered statues of old worthies and buskers desecrating the hymns of a countercultural yesteryear. Just out of the town is the large university, a place I presented research at last year. There’s not much to dislike about Exeter, really. If anything, it’s a little too nice, a little too straight-laced. There’s not much that stands out about it, in a good way I guess, but I need either bitterness or spice to enjoy a place, and that’s lacking. It is too cosily attached to its histories, and seems to be entirely ignorant of the vast ugliness of its bus centre, car parks, or modern malls in more recent times. There are no independent bookshops, and nothing that suggests an active civic identity, or empowered, or diverse, local communities. It is obviously more affluent and genteel than say Plymouth, but I’ve not met anyone over the last few days with any special praise for the city. It’s nice, and that’s it, is the sentiment I hear. Well, nothing wrong with that.
I ride out of the centre, up Magdalen Road, then down through the suburb of Heavitree, charity shops flogging Tom Jones LPs next to roast dinner deal boozers. I stop at Shaul’s bakery, picking up a curry pasty and more information about the place. As with Ivor Dewdney’s, these Devon pasties are a little too flaky. I’m told about a quiet and sleepy town, that the American firm Howmets employs many locals, and that the market too has become a thing of history.
Leaving Exeter to its historical snoozing, I ride out along a busy A-road east towards Sidmouth. The roads are long and dull, and I don’t pass anything that features in my mind, just fields after fields. But the weather’s fine, and the terrain much flatter than north Devon. It’s defined by its rivers that thread in from the Channel, like the Exe and the Sid, the Coly, the Axe and the Otter, each enabling settlements to thrive around them, as well as wildlife and plentiful fish. There’s the Dutch eccentricity of Topsham, and further along the coast, the faded Regency glam of Sidmouth, and Lyme Regis, where I’m heading towards.
I’m riding through Thomas Hardy country, the rural lands that make up his South Wessex. Hardy always changed the names of the real-life towns he set his dark and brooding novels in, but there is still much of Casterbridge in Dorchester or Shaston in Shaftesbury, I’m told. Even in the late 19th century, these stories describe a rural countryside defined by poverty, superstition, sharp gender and class differences in power, arbitrary justice and intensely difficult work. The fields and villages are silent, that way of life largely snuffed out by the mid-20th century, but it’s curious to ride by such places, and imagine even within four generations, how such places can alter. Class divisions still exist, perpetuated by property inheritance, though are more subtle now. But what would Hardy make of the young growing up in Solentsea or Exonbury today, with their zero-hours supermarket jobs, their six-figure university debts, often living with their parents into their twenties, growing up with declining wages and infrastructure, diminishing opportunities, and worsening mental health?
Ach. ‘This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?’ Enough Thomas Hardy!
Most villages along the way are relatively placid, perhaps a little too pacified by their own geographic and cultural indistinctness, like that of Newton Popplefield, where I stop and discover – should I not need the reminder? – that I am a bloody idiot, and have completely cocked up my travel and ferry plans for the next few days. I’m due to meet my sister in Poole, game to join me for a couple of days exploring the Channel Islands. Unfortunately our ferry runs on a different day. For about two hours I’m stood on the side of a busy road climbing out of Newton Popplefield, desperately trying to put together a Plan B that will allow us to visit Jersey, Guernsey and Sark without losing a day. In the end I hatch together something, but it involves changing course. Instead of Poole, we can catch our ferry from Weymouth, a little nearer but still a good few miles off. The time taken plotting has dented into my journey. The sun now sets at around seven thirty. I have little over an hour of light left, though fortunately I’ve nowhere I need to be. Instead of wild camping in whatever forest or field I might find by Bridport, I decide instead to aim for nearby Lyme Regis. It’s still fifteen miles ahead, and there’s some gruelling climbs to make it, but the light of the setting sun behind me is gold and majestic, turning those coffee-dust tilled fields into expanses of almost divine significance. The breeze is gentle and I push on.
With time against me, I ride quickly through Seaton and Axminster, and don’t veer off to explore the coastal villages of Weston, Branscombe or Beer, or the ‘rebellious’ Colyton, so-called for its support of the Monmouth rebellion. But that for tomorrow. Time’s disappearing. It’s getting quite dark by the time I reach the edge of Lyme. There’s nowhere to obvious to wild-camp – no patch of forest or nature reserve on the edge of the small town, so I ride down towards The Cobb, the town’s old 13th century harbour, where I drift past sailboats and hungry visitors seeking fish suppers. There’s a couple of boat clubs here, and a rocky beach where dinosaur fossils and ammonites can be found. I push the bike up to its western edge, peering around the dark wilderness that flanks the coastal path, before finding an overgrown bit of wasteland at the back of a small complex of holiday chalets, most unoccupied. It seems like a safe enough bet, so I mentally note of the location then head back into Lyme.
It’s a nice evening. I get some chips from a stall facing the seafront, and talk to the two enthusiastic young men running the counter. Conversation’s easy and ends up on a debate about the relative virtues of the town’s many pubs. Along the seafront, I cycle past groups of local young adults wandering along or gazing into the sea. Some play volleyball despite the dark. The Volunteers Arms is full and has nowhere to charge a phone, so I pop into the Rock Inn, quiet tonight but with good conversation going at the bar. I sit with Adrian, a retired east Londoner, who enjoys a natter and keeps the drinks flowing. London’s on our minds. He was born in Stoke Newington and lived for most of his life in Limehouse, two areas which have greatly changed in their cultural composition, as he’s not afraid to point out, citing class and race. He worked in the brewing trade, then came here to work for the council. Now he works behind the bar in the local football club, and runs the local mini-golf. Easy and enjoyable work, whilst giving him enough money to take a regular holiday.
‘I rarely go back to London now. I left twelve years ago. I was starting to feel … like a minority’. He says the last part in a hushed tone, worried about being construed as a racist. Friends and family had moved away by then, and he was the last of what he felt was a ‘community’ he recognised in that area. I know the areas he refers to, across north and east London.
It reminds me of the experiences I’ve heard, seen, and thought about, whilst working for different charity services across inner London. There was a distinct set of shared experiences around slums and slum-clearances, small industries, docking, the Blitz, football, street markets, schooling and childhoods out playing in ‘the streets’ that belongs to a culture that never recognised itself as anything more than ‘cockney’. One historian has dared to retrospectively call it what it is, though rarely called itself – ‘white working class’ – drawing on his own experiences growing up in Walworth, south London. Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class is a careful and thoughtful oral history of this culture.
It also tries to explain why many left for either the suburbs of Essex or Kent, a kind of ‘working class diaspora’ in places like Clacton or Hastings, how they began to identify with right-wing Conservative policies, and felt increasingly alienated from ‘multiculturalism’ and the benefits of immigration as it was presented to them. (Diaspora’s a weird term, and reveals the limits of Collins’s argument: can/would ‘they’ return to the inner cities, to non-existent industrial jobs and vanished slum neighbourhoods? Would they even call themselves ‘white’ or ‘working class’?) He also attacks an elitist liberal middle-class in Westminster and the media for removing race (and class) off the agenda, and stifling any discussion about immigration since. Oxfordshire or Surrey never experienced the same social dislocation caused by immigration as say Hackney or Woolwich.
Collins writes supportively for multiracial integration, a daily reality in working-class communities: his gripe is the hypocrisy of an elitist Westminster middle class that praises multiculturalism despite its own cultural homogeneity, whilst silencing any discussion about immigration as merely racist. That this is now no longer the case, when major political parties are openly proposing limits and restrictions on even EU immigrants, indicates the right-wing shift in popular politics in the last five years. But still, whenever immigration has been discussed on my travels – not often, but not rare either, though I expect people talk to me about it less because of the unlikelihood of a well-spoken liberal Londoner sympathising with such views – there has been hushed tones, a sense of conspiracy mixed in with apology, a reserve in talking at all, but a deep-seated frustration all the same.
Predictably enough for its subject matter, the book was trashed in a series of knee-jerk reviews for its racial content by people who hadn’t read the book. As Adrian talks, an alarm warning sounds in both our minds – is what he’s saying racist?
I don’t think so, but we’ve both been led to assume it is. Gordon Brown called one woman a ‘bigot’ for mentioning migration on the 2010 campaign trail; the distinctly white culture of chavs was publicly pilloried only until recently. The issue effects right and left: being a minority of race and class necessarily reveals something uncomfortable about white middle-class values, so often presented as a liberal and universal default. White middle-class liberals might seek to publicly speak up for minorities, but become uncomfortable when their own minority status and privileges are brought to light. It almost raises: why should your family inherit wealth without heavy taxation, and then pay for your expensive education, so that you can go to Oxbridge or LSE, carp on about your own hard work and meritocracy, and condemn us, the undeserving, the feckless, the ignorant, the pikies, the scroungers, the chavs?
But it doesn’t raise that, because there’s another side of the coin. The ‘us’ Collins writes about, the story of Adrian, and others, is one that experienced immense upwards social mobility. Many inner Londoners from low-income backgrounds seized the opportunity during the Eighties and since to move out into large suburban homes and enjoy a relatively ‘middle-class’ existence of home-ownership and regular holidays. The racialised media panics about inner-city street-mugging and drug crime during the Seventies and Eighties further deepened this detachment. Supporting Conservative was a consequence, not a cause, of this drift out. From overcrowded sixties council flats and Victorian terraces to four-bedroom semis and bungalowland of Bexleyheath and Romford, golf club membership without a university degree. On the Left, there’s a disappointed but persistent belief that the working classes were ‘duped’ by Thatcher into support for her policies. It wilfully ignores why many would want the security of home-ownership, and would identify with parties, not only Conservative, that would represent other constituencies than simply the City of London or the City of Westminster.
Talking about class as a general experience on these islands has become so tenuous, so elusive. Grayson Perry captures this wealthy yet not ‘middle’ working class in ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, six tapestries which explore class through the life-events of Tim Rakewell. In one panel, he leaves his working-class suburban origins by way of a Computer Science degree. His girlfriend takes him by the hand into the ‘sunlit uplands of the middle classes’, under the benevolent eyes of Jamie Oliver, the ‘god of social mobility’. Together they enter a world of dinner parties of red wine, salad bowls and intellectual conversation, where TV is not the centre of domestic entertainment and ‘money’ an uncouth subject. Tim has just fallen out with his mother, who is dressed with excessive make-up and jewellery and a leopard-print top, and hoovers the front lawn; his overweight father stands beside her, wearing a lairy pink polo shirt and carries a huge bag of golf clubs. Their clothes stand out against the jazzy colours and de-sexualised modesty of the middle-classes. They may laugh at Tim’s accent, but having conformed to their culture and values, Tim will be allowed in, concludes the panel.
‘I don’t miss London at all’, says Adrian. He’s fed up of being made to feel parochial, and gives the example that what would be allowed (by which he means the viewpoint of what I’d call white liberal middle-class) for one group, say an Orthodox Jewish man living in Shoreditch but choosing to move out to Edgeware or Hendon in order to live among ‘the rest’ of his community, wouldn’t be for him. The conversation gives me much to think on, but for most of it, to be truthful, we talk about football, and what various parts of London have changed. I leave him to it, a friendly and ebullient man, and wander back down along the seafront. I have a final night-cap in the Harbour Inn, a pleasant enough bar now deserted. It is late evening and it’ll soon close. The young man behind the bar tells me about his plans. He’s about to start a final year of a Law degree, and plans to go into Corporate law of some kind, though is unsure. As he describes it, I realise it’s a world I know nothing about, and it intrigues me. ‘It’s about to get dead now’, he tells me, of the town, but the words hover in my mind for longer. I’ve met a wide variety of people over the last few days, and each has in turn challenged the simplified view of the country I used to hold.
I drink up, and take a wander up the high street that dominates the town. It retains much of its early 19th century regency characteristics, and the town is relatively subdued but pleasant. In The Pilot Inn I spy a man who looks so alike John Waters that I nearly fall over, and I look around the small supermarkets at the top of the town’s hill, making small talk with the staff there about the town, before moving on. I sneak back to the chalet complex on the edge of town. It’s dark and secluded, and I put up my tent with ease. In the distance, the waves crash against rocks that have scarcely changed since the era of the dinosaurs. I drink whisky and gaze up at Orion and Betelgeuse, and listen to those waves, and, unlike Adrian, very much miss London, and my home.