Ian Jack: The last of England

Last weekend, Ian Jack boarded a train from London to Scotland, and found a country in chaos. How, he wonders, did Britain come off the rails?
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The Independent Online

Somewhere in that mainly flat stretch of country between Doncaster and Grantham the train stopped again - unwontedly, as the Georgian poem has it. Through the carriage window, I could see fields of water and, on a higher stretch of green pasture that had become an island, a couple of cows bending into the grass and chewing blankly. The cows were pretty, black and brown and white, and there was a touch of blue in the sky; the water in the fields shone. No human beings and no houses could be seen. The train's engine idled. As the poem also has it, no one left and no one came.

Somewhere in that mainly flat stretch of country between Doncaster and Grantham the train stopped again - unwontedly, as the Georgian poem has it. Through the carriage window, I could see fields of water and, on a higher stretch of green pasture that had become an island, a couple of cows bending into the grass and chewing blankly. The cows were pretty, black and brown and white, and there was a touch of blue in the sky; the water in the fields shone. No human beings and no houses could be seen. The train's engine idled. As the poem also has it, no one left and no one came.

I imagined this scene as one of those mysterious Victorian story-paintings - The Scapegoat, or a new version of The Last of England - in which every superficially attractive feature suggests something ominous. Stopped train, flooded fields, a couple of marooned survivors from the recent bovine holocaust. I have travelled this way on the east coast main line many times - by my calculation (there being not much else to do at this point) hundreds of times - and this bit of England has always seemed unknowable to me. One part looks much like the next. I continue to confuse Retford and Newark and not be quite certain that the large river, brimming and rippling when we passed it a few minutes back, is the Trent. To the east lies Lincolnshire (Skegness, Cleethorpes), where I have never been; to the west, Nottingham, where I have almost never been. Perhaps this is the real Middle England. Never before had it seemed so fragile and undependable, or so threatened by the biblical punishments of plague and flood.

Eventually, the train moved on. We passed a few broken trees, straddled across the opposite line. There were workers in bright orange coats. One of them was furling a yellow flag: proceed with caution. This was a pioneer train - as far as I could tell, the first sent south from Doncaster on that day, Monday, 30 October, although the time was after two in the afternoon.

At Newark, the last stop, passengers for Grantham had been told to get off and on to a special bus. But then, strangely, the train pulled into Grantham and stopped. I remembered a remark of an older colleague on a newspaper 15 or 20 years ago. Didn't I think that the people of Britain were becoming "thick"? He had noticed that they bumped into each other more, stupidly, like Dodgem cars. This seemed an odd and even offensive remark at the time, but in Grantham, I wondered if he hadn't caught some Naipaulian splinter of the truth. I turned the page of my newspaper and read that the railways are so short of skill that a contracting firm in Scotland is recruiting 14 engineers from Romania.

A red signal light shone brightly at the platform's end. When it turned green, we moved down the plain towards the capital. We would get through.

Last weekend I spent, in all, 14 hours on trains. I do not want to describe this as "a nightmare"; that word, along with "cattle trucks", properly belongs with troop trains and transports bound for destinations in central Europe 60 years ago. I travelled from London to Fife via Edinburgh late on Friday, and back again early on Monday. Perhaps I was lucky, but the journey didn't even reach the standards of a bad dream. I had no urgent business. I saw my mother. All that happened along the way was that I was stuck on trains or stood waiting for them far longer than I should have been.

So what did I feel? I suppose a kind of irritable melancholy. I am interested in railways. It is a sad thing these days to be interested in railways. By this, I don't mean that an interest in railways indicates a sad personality, repression, infantilism and so on (though it may do), rather that to be interested in railways, to believe in them as an effective, reliable and environmentally necessary mode of transport, is to be made sad by the lethal muddle they have become. I used to be angry. How could politicians (Tory) have got away with such a crazy privatisation, such a careless and perverse scheme? How could politicians (Labour, and contrary to their pledges) have persevered, keeping the scheme intact?

But as I made my way to King's Cross in London, I hoped I would be shielded by the iron of fatalism - adjustment to new conditions. There may be a train, or there may not. If not, then I would try to behave with the dignity of a poor man on a platform in, say, Bihar. I would walk away with my bundle and try again another day.

I had booked a seat on the four o'clock to Edinburgh. I collected my standard saver return (£77) at the ticket office and then went to consult the departures board. The four o'clock was listed with a revised arrival time in Edinburgh of 21.19 rather than 20.20, the extra time to allow for a detour to avoid the Hatfield crash site and the consequent speed restrictions further up the line. There were queues in the concourse, marked with small signs at their head: queues D and C and E for Newcastle, Edinburgh and Leeds. The 3.30 to Newcastle had been cancelled. Queue D joined queue C. No platform had been announced. At four o'clock, the train to take us out still hadn't come in.

The people queueing behaved admirably but also, in a survival-of-the fittest sense, foolishly. Less obedient people hang around the entrance to the likeliest platform and become the front of the queue, if they've guessed rightly. By the time platform number three was announced, the crowd around its end was so big that passengers leaving the train were blocked by those trying to get on.

Porters, if they are still called porters, came and cleared a way. Then we began to run down the platform. A voice over the Tannoy said we were not to run - it was dangerous, there would be room on other trains - but still we ran. Thick, as my old colleague might have said; after all, most of us had booked seats. Or perhaps not so thick, given the capricious booking arrangements. I had seat 38 in coach B, but the seats in coach B were ticketed for coach A. And, a thrilling double layer of confusion, the seat numbers on the tickets did not correspond to the numbers on the seats to which they were attached. Seat B40 had a ticket for A38, going only as far as York.

Somehow, we made do without too many arguments, remarking to each other as passengers do in a country such as India that no public system can be relied on, nothing bloody works. The train left late and got later, three hours later than its original time, two later than its revised time. There were many apologies - this country has become brilliant at apologising. I was at my mother's home by midnight. She is 93. "I wonder," she said, "why trains have to travel so fast. A hundred miles an hour! That's surely dangerous."

On my way back, I thought about her question. The little train from Fife was late and crowded, standing room only. On board the nine o'clock to London at Edinburgh, we were advised to get off unless our journey was "really necessary" - shades of 1940 - because the train might get no further than Doncaster. At Newcastle, we were told it would advance no further than York. "Deteriorating", or sometimes just "adverse", weather conditions had cut off southern England from the north.

At York, we got off, only to be told that the train would in fact go to London. Back on, we were told it would go only to Doncaster. At Doncaster, we waited on a windy platform where pleasant officials of the Great North Eastern Railway company (the best of the new railway operators, in my experience, although perhaps I've been seduced by the old-worlde hokum of the name) told us that they were as much in the dark as we were, but with any luck we could expect a train from Leeds. After an hour, one came along, nearly empty.

We reached London at half past five, a journey of eight and a half hours from Edinburgh rather than the advertised four. My mother would have approved, and the truth is I didn't mind too much.

A warm and empty carriage, work to do, some compensatory free coffee, and time enough to look at the cows. In 1910 - according to the Bradshaw of that year - the journey time would have been thought satisfactory. Even in the 1960s, the fastest trains took six hours and there were far fewer of them: five a day, slow or fast, from Edinburgh to London, whereas now there are more than twenty. Or would be, were it not for broken rails.

But pace my mother's question, we think we live in a modern European country. We expect trains to travel fast, motorways to be clear, schools to educate, hospitals to care and cure, food to be safe. This is not so much rising as risen expectations. It may be no more than a brief illusion: this country is brilliant at illusions - new uniforms for the Underground, escalators that crack, stations that close. All of us, even the thickest, now know that the underfunded ice we skate on is very, very thin.

This article appears in the current issue of the 'New Statesman'

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