Term has started again and I am now snatching a few moments to write my irregular rant about things that have occurred to me.
Fifty years ago, Dr Richard Beeching (a physicist and industrial chemist) presented his minority report to the then Secretary of State for Transport, The Right Honourable Ernest Marples, MP, and owner of the construction company Marples Ridgeway. The report, The Reshaping of British Railways (aka The Beeching Axe) was accepted with enthusiasm. To be fair, it was not all about closing lines, although that is what it is remembered for. There were several innovative ideas including the sending of freight in containers that could be transferred easily from a railway wagon to a lorry to be delivered to the customer. However the idea was pursued half-heartedly, the consequence being that there ended up more lorries on the road than intended.
The main consequences were that many lines were closed, leaving many towns with no railway service. Some were large, for example Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, which had the unenviable reputation as being the largest with no rail service. The railway did continue to serve the coal industry, so when the Robin Hood Line re-opened twenty years ago, its re-instatement was not difficult. For many, the replacement bus service was a mean substitute, and within a few years had been taken off. Therefore there are many towns and villages that have no public transport at all.
The availability of old railway lines led to a number of heritage lines, many of which are now highly successful commercial operations. Some, for example, the Llangollen Railway, and the Swanage Railway started with absolutely nothing, building their lines from scratch. They feed off the very British characteristic of nostalgia, presenting a beautiful picture of glistening steam engines and flower beds, when life was so much simpler and nicer. I once took my late father to the Severn Valley Line; he loved every minute of it and was lost in his childhood. I will now spoil the picture by suggesting that many of the lines in question had to make do with hand-me-down rolling stock and the tiredest of engines. Things don't change that much as you know when I grumble about the Harrogate Line. In Beeching's Report, the Harrogate Line would have gone. Indeed the line from Harrogate to Wetherby was the first to close. For the people of Harrogate to commute to Leeds, the 36 would take about 1 hour on a good day. I once travelled in to Leeds on a rail-replacement bus when they were doing engineering work. It took 45 minutes to get from the outskirts of Leeds to the City Centre. I was late for work.
An interesting article was written on the BBC website that compared the two Yorkshire Towns of Ilkley and Ripon. Ilkley managed to retain its rail service despite all the odds; Ripon did not. Ilkley is now a thriving town at the end of an electric line from Leeds. Its house prices are hideously expensive, on a par with the London commuter belt. Ripon, on the other hand has been left behind. It has a stunningly beautiful cathedral, but its visitor numbers are much lower. There is a train to Harrogate, but then a bus journey along the busy and twisty A 61 road is needed. The bus company make a big effort with the 36, but it is a poor substitute. Unless the group that is pressing for the rebuilding of the Ripon line is successful, the future for Ripon is not that bright, especially in the light of the forthcoming withdrawal of the Army from the local barracks.
Michael Palin accurately wrote that the Beeching Axe put a scar on the National Psyche.
It is with that in mind that I turn to The Right Honourable The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven (1925 - 2013). Firstly I would deplore those who are having parties to celebrate her passing. I am old enough to consider that the passing of anyone is a solemn moment that needs to be marked with dignity and respect. Carole Thatcher remarked that "there would be tearful moments from the daughter of the Iron Lady". Both my parents are dead. Although my father was unwell, I found him having his stroke. It was not pleasant, nor was the week travelling to the hospital with the rest of my family to watch him die. With my mother, she became increasingly frail, and her death was not unexpected. But it was still a massive shock when it happened. The Baroness was, after all, a mother, a sister, and a friend.
This does not make me agree with Operation True Blue. Its name spoke for itself. It was an expensive publicity stunt by David Cameron (he is a very good PR man, especially when no expense need be spared) and his fellow Conservatives. Nor do I particularly like the megabytes of sycophantic copy that have been written and have stuffed the Daily Telegraph to the gunnels, nor the hours devoted to The Baroness on the radio. But I am going to add a few kilobytes of my own.
Firstly I think that a quiet and private funeral service would have been appropriate. It was good enough for Clement Atlee (1883 - 1967), the Prime Minister who introduced many reforms that had such a positive effect on the majority of our society. His service was attended by a congregation of 140 people. The same applied to our other late Prime Ministers. Except for Sir Winston Churchill (1874 -1965), because the latter led the country through its darkest hours in the early 1940s. There was a very real possibility that the Nazis would have invaded and have committed the same unspeakable acts as they carried out in much of Europe. In the earliest part of the Second World War, it was a distinct possibility that the Americans would have sided with Hitler, who was seen as a bulwark against communism. The state funeral was appropriate for the Old Warrior.
Not for the Iron Lady. It was paid for from the public purse, i.e. the tax payer. While in the context of the thousands of millions spent by Government on a daily basis, £10 million is small change. But when we are being told to cut back on everything, it appears to be an expensive extravaganza. While Sir Winston united the country in its darkest hour, the Baroness has divided it. And she continues to divide it. I respect her achievement of becoming Prime Minister against all odds in the antediluvian attitudes towards women of the Conservative Party of the time. I have no sympathy whatever for Thatcherism. However I was pleased that the ceremony was allowed to proceed without disruption.
Thatcherism divided the country North and South. For many it was the green light for a particularly repulsive form of aggressive, competitive, acquisitive and self-centred individualism. Comedians such as Harry Enfield sent it up with their caricatures of Loadsamunny and Buggerallmoney. But the "me first, sod you" attitudes of the early nineteen eighties were very real. I was there as a young man in my early twenties and even then I did not like it.
What I know about economics can be written on less than quarter of a side of A4. But what I do know is that fundamentally you earn money by making things that people want. manufacturing industry is vital. And Britain had a good reputation for manufacturing at its best. And at its worst; British Leyland produced bad expensive cars, especially under the leadership of The Baroness' protégé, Sir Michael Edwards. His aggressive style of management made the situation even worse. Thatcherism destroyed much of skilled manufacturing industry leaving hectares of dereliction in Northern Cities, while the Sloanes and Yuppies of the South East played with other's money, creaming much of it off for themselves, and making housing impossible to afford. I knew at that time that such an economic model was unsustainable. The seeds sown in the Thatcher era have now fruited in the form of the banking crash that has beggared us all.
Thatcherism made public service a dirty word. Hospitals saw the worst aspects. Whereas previously most hospital activities were done in house when they were needed, privatisation ensured that essential services such as cleaning and maintenance were given to private companies. The cleaning of a hospital is a key front-line defence against infection, and it vital that it is done properly. Instead it was done to the lost possible price. While cleaners' wages and the standards fell through the floor, the bosses' income went through the roof. Armies of managers were recruited to shuffle bits of paper and to devise evermore verbose and meaningless management-speak. Meanwhile the hospitals ended up in a state of near collapse.
The same applied to schools. Teachers were vilified, so that and an excuse could be made to pay them less. Schools crumbled, becoming educational slums and individual classrooms became educational hovels. I remember working in a classroom where eight out of eleven light-fittings were non-functional. A hazardous occurrence was when material of more than 50 kg fell from a height of more than 6 metres. 49 kg falling from 5.8 m will still knock your block off. Little men would come from the council in Fiesta vans, with clip-boards, noting the dilapidations, the stinking lavatories, the leaking roofs, and the exposed wires. I remember them all. The independent schools could do nothing wrong. There were 15000 incompetent teachers out there indoctrinating our children with Marxism. (I don't know enough about Marxism to indoctrinate anybody.) Children couldn't read, write, or add up. Funny they have been grumbling about that hundred of years. From this squalid swamp grew the hydra of OFSTED, founded by a protégé of Thatcher who was, by his own admission, not a very good teacher and, as a young teacher, guilty of gross professional misconduct.
Then there was the Falklands Conflict. The irony is that if Galtieri (another bulwark against communism) had bided his time, those wretched little islands would have been handed over to him. While the operation was militarily an amazing success against all the odds, the resultant patriotic tub-thumping was nauseating and led an equally wretched little government to electoral victory against similar odds. The Labour Party turned in on itself and made itself un-electable. What I did hear at the time was that call-up papers were printed, and that men of my age would have been first to go. Thatcher played with fire; if her miserable adventure had failed, and it nearly did, there was a very strong possibility of a wider conflict, leading to the Third World War. I had recurrent nightmares of seeing myself dead on a European battlefield, lying there in the sun, my watch ticking on. There was going to be a VF day, with a tub-thumping service in St Paul's Cathedral. It was all spoiled by turbulent pinko priests insisting on such lily-livered concepts as reconciliation and prayers for the many young Argentinean men (who didn't want to be there, but were told to) who had died in wretched places like Tumbledown Mountain and Goose Green. Dead heroes on both sides are somebody's father, son, brother, or friend.
But I have devoted enough time to The Baroness. It would not take a genius to guess my views on Thatcherism in transport, foreign policy, privatisation of the utilities and other state assets. I will spare you any more emotive adjectives.
To the Baroness, I would say, "This was your day, M' Lady. You organised it. You didn't want a fly-past. Just as well it was cloudy. You weren't worried about controversy. You have generated division and will continue to do so. Beeching made a scar on the National Psyche. You have made a deep infected wound on it which will take decades to heal. You wanted everyone to think how great you were, the woman who saved the Nation. You got your State Funeral in all but name. You wanted it all dressed up in the Shakespearean language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible in the Nation's church.M' Lady, who do you think you are?"
There is one topic that will bring unity across the globe. Eight-year-old Martin Richard has been shown holding his poster saying Peace - no more hurting anyone. That small child was murdered by some misguided young man who placed pressure cookers filled with nails and ball-bearings in Boston, along with a 29 year-old woman and a Chinese graduate student. His sister and mother are fighting for their lives. As well as praying for the Richard family, I can only hope and pray that the person and his accomplices responsible for this heinous crime are caught and will face the full wrath of justice. No punishment is too severe. In the States it will be.
And it brings me to contemplate other little angels in Heaven, just before Christmas. No, they should have been little angels playing around the Christmas Tree in Newtown, except one misguided young misfit thought different. What is the difference between a nutter and a murderer? A gun. A bomb.
Until the next time I saddle up my high horse, enjoy and good luck. And the very best in your exams.