A Sociological Autobiography: 39 – Heavenly Commutes

From cars to trains and the London underground. From the days of my first full-time job in central London – at St Bartholomew’s, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s tube – I have been a commuter. Many people hate commuting: my parents, Ron and Margaret, could not wait to put safe distance between home and employment in or near the centre of London, and this despite their north London origins. Well I was born in north London too and must confess to quite different feelings. I should, however, own up to special circumstances. First, I have never worked ‘9-5’ hours, allowing me on most trips to bypass rush hours. And second, time travelling or trapped on trains unaccountably halted between stations for long periods has never been time wasted. Over the best part of four decades of commuting I have set and marked exams; prepared and written lectures; read, refereed and worked on numerous papers; wrapped up another chapter of whatever book I happened to have underway; and caught up with the day’s news via the Evening Standard, Metro or, latterly, my iPhone. What’s to complain about?

Epsom, my base from 1972 to 2004, was a convenient hub, offering quarter-hourly trips to Waterloo and Victoria, plus, if less frequently, a London Bridge option. Moreover I was never more than a ten-minute walk from the station. My neophyte unpaid or part-time excursions, aside from my brief undergraduate sojourn close to Surrey University’s Battersea campus in 1968/9, took me to Waterloo and thence to Goodge Street and Birkbeck College to acquire philosophical understanding, and to Waterloo and thence to Borough Road and South Bank Polytechnic to teach the philosophy course plus option on the PGCE (in the process releasing Soiuth Bank’s Joe McCarney to pursue his far more interesting Marxist projects). My appointment to St Barts in 1972, however, set the pattern. All subsequent commutes were mere variations: to Victoria and Barons Court tube en route to Charing Cross Hospital Medical School from 1975-78; and to Waterloo and Goodge Street tube to clock in at Middlesex Hospital Medical School (1978-87) and UCL Medical School (1987-2013).

But this was a period of considerable political bloodshed. In a way it passed me by, my head buried in whatever preoccupied me at the time. But in another I was wounded personally as well as a politically. In 1979 the organization of the railways still echoed that of the ‘Big Four’ private railway companies which had merged to create British Railways more than a generation earlier. Thatcher represented division in multiple ways: prise apart and flog off was the Joseph/Thatcher mantra. First the British Transport Hotels were sold off (1982), then Sealink (1984); well, and so on. British buyers sold on to foreign buyers. The 1980s provided the groundwork for the 1990s. John Major’s British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act of 1993 and Railways Act, also in 1993, broke British Rail up into 100 companies and opened its veins … Opinion polls spoke of more than public scepticism and the Labour Party promised re-nationalisation. Privatisation was almost complete by 1997. But it was ‘New’ Labour and Blair who colonised Downing Street. What price past promises? The process of privatisation was quietly completed.

My enragement born in the Thatcher years continued. I had travelled and read my way through the ‘capitalist trick’ of running down nationalised services to generate sufficient public disillusionment to legitimise privatisation. The fact that the public clearly remained unconvinced proved irrelevant. At the kernel of my opposition to privatisation was a commitment to public – not for-profit – infrastructural services. I was a socialist after all! Moreover, as Mr Austin at Worthing High School had insisted long ago, inelastic demand must surely require that public finance underwrite core infrastructural provision, in the process taking the risk out of private investment. The Tories’ ‘friends’, and some of New Labour’s, could not lose.

There is an ongoing debate about services post-privatisation and, predictably, about how to appraise them. Targets are there to be used and abused. My own experience was and is of growing unpredictability and subterfuge: ‘your train happens, exceptionally, to be delayed/cancelled, but this is due to factors beyond our control and we are investing in improvement (and care for and love you all)’. It is impossible not to feel for staff now compelled to rationalise profiteering out of their own pockets.

Note the following: InterCity Cross Country, owned by Deutsche Bahn (DB); Network South East Chiltern, owned by DB; Merseyrail (part of Regional Railways), 50% owned by Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS); Regional Railways (Arriva Trains Wales), DB; Regional Railways (Northern Rail), 50% owned by NS; InterCity East Anglia, NS; Network South East, 50% owned by DB & 50% by MTR Corporation of Hong Kong … I could go on. Forgive the tedium of detail; at least I cut myself short. In fact, of course, more and more of ‘British’ infrastructure and business is owned by overseas-based companies (which is not deny that British companies own more than their share of overseas assets). The message bears shouting out: ‘transnational capital-ownership trumps all else’. Piketty is good on this.

The Northern (or ‘Misery’) Line of the tube has been routinely castigated. I have tended always to have my head in a book, so … But it should be remembered that London’s was the world’s first subterranean rail system, the Metropolitan Railway opening on 10 January 1863. The Northern Line was opened in 1890. A link from Waterloo became available in 1900, and to and from my principal ports of call from 1978-2013, Goodge Street and Warren Street, in 1907. The tube trains may no longer run on steam but they certainly bear the scars of their early industrial origins. Besides which, as must now be clear, I have rarely been bothered or undone by delays, a function largely of my erratic working-day.

Reflecting on 40-odd years of commuting I must confess to a certain rigidity of habit and practice. I have always divided up my reading and to a lesser extent my writing. I read, and to a point write, by place. It is not an addiction: I can resist at will (no, really). I have since my undergraduate days at Surrey University ever had a book about my person, concealed if necessary. I always had a couple of non-fiction studies when I travelled by train or tube, typically sociological/philosophical; and I availed myself of every opportunity to sneak a page or two, including up and down escalators and lifts. It has evidenced, I think, a productive psychopathology, if one with occasionally unsociable consequences.



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