Today we are returning from Edinburgh, where we were attending the festival, and seeing our daughter at the Fringe. There is a great atmosphere in the city, walking up the Royal Mile is an entertainment in itself. Last evening my wife and I strolled down through street musicians, magicians, and other assorted performers, we were struck by the high quality of the entertainment and the general geniality of the folk we encountered. The amount of talent that seems to come out of the woodwork in this frantic month of creativity makes me wonder where it all goes for the rest of the year. It is, however, the geniality I want to talk about.
Throughout the week one is approached by genial young people with glossy flyers in their hands selling the various shows and productions and many with much aplomb. The hospitality on display in the venues and open spaces was touching and I know that many of these young people are being paid to serve, flyer, welcome and seat the thousands of punters, but many of them do it with so much more than a grudging sense of duty and some with real élan.
Contrast this with our experience on Edinburgh Waverley station this morning. We thought we would deposit our luggage at the station and then spend the last couple of hours, unencumbered, having a late breakfast with the daughter who has been here all month. We trudged through the first rain we had seen all week, towards the left luggage kiosk. We were unpleasantly surprised by a long serpentine queue which seemed to have its end a long way from the drop off point. We enquired, as you do if you are British, whether this was the right queue, yes it was the person in front sighed. It gradually became clear, as a stressed looking young women from the private company looking after station luggage informed us, that the cost would be £72 for all our bags, that they would have to be scanned and that the whole process would take around an hour from the point we were in the queue.
I wandered disconsolately up to see why the queue was moving so slowly to find that the tiny kiosk had one terminal to book in luggage and one to hand it back; two employees and one to wander up the queue and make clear the waiting time, the charges and the airport security type procedures the whole process would entail. We abandoned the idea and carted our luggage around the streets rather than be caught up in this farcical business.
As I now sit on the train speeding our way back to Sheffield on the slightly cramped and aesthetically unpleasant Cross Country train my mind wanders back to a recent trip to the Keighley and Worth Railway that takes you from Keighley to Haworth and Bronte country. Part of the station and the whole of the line has been restored to the days of British Rail and before when the first private companies ran the railways. These stations have featured in many films from the Railway Children to the recent version of A Testament of Youth. Ticket kiosks, waiting rooms, left luggage halls, tea and sandwich vendors; all spacious, with plenty of staff to welcome you, keep your safe and speed you on your way. Everything from that age was designed to last, to look more than functional, even beautiful in an industrious and pleasing fashion. On the trains there are compartments, buffet cars, the lovely posters from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s advertising destinations like Filey, Scarborough,York and Harrogate. One immediately senses a different mentality and attitude. The post war willingness to live and work together for the common good.
I don’t mean this in a dewey eyed, sentimentally nostalgic, rose-tinted recreation of an unreal past. I remember the 60’s, I listened avidly for years to my Mother, Aunt and Grandma speaking eloquently of the times they lived through and the way people were then. My Grandmother was of farming stock from Norfolk, my Mother came from London and became a Wren and married a Naval man, my Aunt married a Sheffield steelworker and has been in Sheffield much of her adult life. So I am not talking about the view of one class or area of the country. Their testament, these great women from my life, is one of a culture that we took for granted; one of genial, generous and self effacing public service. Not a cringing subservience but a taking of pride in the job and even the uniform it came with.
Of course this was not an age without exploitation, hence the need for the nationalisation of many of those services. I heard, the other day, Herbert Morrison addressing the Durham Miner’s Gala on the cusp of the Nationalisation of the Coal Industry saying something like ‘the whole nation is looking to you men to see how this great experiment of socialism will work out’. We were of course in the age of the Beveridge Report, invoking a national crusade against the five giant evils of want, idleness, ignorance, squalor and disease. Corporate ills demanded corporate solutions. I have heard all the Chicago School, neo-liberal arguments that the market is the only answer but seriously; profit is not helping especially when it rests almost solely in the pockets of a small oligarchy with little hope of much of it ending up in the common purse.
In this age we don’t have a commodious left luggage hall staffed by, okay slightly officious, but ultimately kindly folk who have worked there for years. No we have a tiny privately owned kiosk appearing to make its profits by employing too few staff and fleecing a captive market where the workers and the public both lose out. The Company that owns the Edinburgh Kiosk owns many other such facilities in stations and airports across the country. According to Companies House it is owned by two people and they appear to be doing well in what are described as difficult trading conditions. Given the demand and the obvious profitability of such an enterprise why can’t it be run for the benefit of the workers and the public with the the surplus profits going towards healthy pension schemes (always the first casualty of any market downturn).
That bygone age my Mother and Grandmother were a part of did not fall out of the sky, it was the product of common endeavour and a collective desire to build a better world that would be worthy of the sacrifice of so many who did not live to benefit from it. My Mother, for most of her adult life voted Tory but still held to the belief that post war Britain got a lot of things right. Her parents were socialists, I still have my Grandfather’s copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In chapter 15 Owen the hero of the story explains to his fellow decorators, during their lunch break, what he calls The Great Money Trick. He eloquently demonstrates the way money stays in the hands of the few and the way that those with barely enough resources stay welded to the system. No wonder my Grandfather loved it, the book is very readable yet a salutary piece of political satire.
I do wonder why, in this country, just because one experiment in a more socialist economy did not entirley succeed we ran straight back into the arms of Mrs Thatcher and allowed her to sell the family silver, leading to the kind of greed that caused the crash of 2008. Our better instincts are our geniality and generosity, our pride in the service we offer, our willingness to work hard for a kinder, safer world. These instincts are not being well served at the moment, our leaders seem to demonstrate more interest in their manoeuvrings and posturing than the needs of the many. We seem to be a divided nation at the moment down all sorts of fault-lines. Common causes are what unite, as Beveridge understood. We are still mainly united by our love of and desire for a continuing National Health Service. This jewel in our crown came from the age I have been eulogising, and the age we now live in is in danger of dismantling it. I hope we as a nation can give rise to people that can lead us away from this corrosive mentality and into a more generous and genial era.