Elvis is Dead

This place remained as its world changed, defiant against the strength of each decade’s wind.

Its terraced neighbours were torn down before they could collapse of their own accord: factories across the road lost their wives, their children, had their bricks covered in fake cladding and were rebranded with abstract nouns robbed of their initial capital letters. People moved in with pastel shade curtains and hung out their washing from where industry had clattered its noise and produced its smoke.

Street names changed, wiped from maps and memory, grid layout streets abandoned for warehouses and car-parks, in turn replaced themselves. Advertisements turned too, once housewives, then families, now animated toys mouthing website addresses through knitted teeth.

And it remains, The Sacred Oak, with its growing collection of monochrome prints and real ale pumps. Regulars replaced cloth caps and blazers with jumpers, then open shirts: women chose pints over halves, and friends over husbands. The Sacred Oak lost its tobacco smell for sweat and for aftershave and occasional wafts of cannabis on Friday nights. Horse racing lost out to pop videos, and then to the dull reflection of itself, its blank screen staring at the regulars whose place along the bar needed only a ‘Reserved’ sign. Bar snacks moved in, then moved away from arm’s reach to behind the bar. Peanuts lost out to crisps, to sticks of processed meats and see-through packets of Bombay Mix, to a coffee machine parked away from any available plug socket.

Elvis and his railwaymen would pack out the bar with their wages in envelopes, long away into the night with songs and serenades, their faces etched with a youth which would be changed by time and temperament.  Elvis lost his colleagues to romances, to new lives in Australia and South Africa, and to the ugly blossoming of cancer robbing an unwritten history from within. He would move away for employment and caravan holidays, stolen from handshakes and toasts as each new landlord passed as new faces for old hands. Here is the place which withheld the forces of fashion and economics, withheld by each new name across the door: Carole Granger, Yvette Broughton, Terence Wetherington, Michelle Hale.

Elvis died in what once had been the snug. His head rested on the redundant buzzer above the red leather seats. His hands lay across his lap, content and comfortable in passing. The regulars raised their glasses, cheered his name until the ambulance arrived, when all noise surrendered itself to the harsh beauty of mourning.

Each of those regulars threw in a pound to place bets on every horse he’d circled in red pen. 

all change with Tories and trains

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys camping under starlight whilst eating potatoes cooked in lager cans (or for that matter, actual proper food served in a castle with actual proper beds), there’s a great option for you in the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, a ferry ride away from Mallaig. The most highly recommended way to travel here is via the West Highland line, regarded as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the United Kingdom, with a line which twists and turns around, and occasionally through, the mountains of northern Scotland, involving negotiating Ranoch Moor and Corrour, the highest and most remote railway station in the country.

It’s not headline news to learn that this line is incredibly popular with tourists travelling from Glasgow through Fort William to either Oban or Mallaig, whilst the intermediate stations enjoy sporadic visitor numbers. If Tim Leunig, chief economist at CentreForum (no, me neither) had his way, lines such as West Highland and stations such as Spean Bridge, Bridge of Orchy and Upper Tyndrum would be shut down for purely economic purposes. Leunig, you see, wants the Government to close down 30% of Britain’s railway stations.

His reasoning is pure Beeching, and purely cold economics in the grand tradition of conservatives for whom monetary concern trumps everything else. In the context of serious concern about the cost of the railways in this country, it’s no surprise to see both political wings unleash their most extreme responses – nationalisation from the left, harsh economic penalties from the right. As usual, it’s hopeless finding answers from either extreme, for the answers lie somewhere in the middle. Leunig, and many who support him, has drawn the wrong conclusions from his available evidence through what seems to be an ignorance about the realities of rail travel in the UK. This might come as little surprise too – anyone who deals with numbers over experience can’t be entirely trusted to understand the consequence of their mathematics.

 Let’s deal with the West Highland Line. If these proposals were ever to be introduced, the line would barely survive, with it’s 20-odd station stops between Glasgow Queen Street and Mallaig reduced to just three stations; Dumbarton, Fort William and Mallaig itself. Any budding tourist trap, from cafes to walking pursuit organisations, would shut down overnight. Whatever pressure is already forced onto authorities to supply bus or coach links to Scotland’s most remote villages would be increased to such perverse levels that the character in 50 Shades of Grey would feel a bit uneasy. From being one of the UK’s best loved rail routes, the WHL would be reduced to a high-speed tourist trap, hurtling local people and holiday-makers alike through the Highlands in a fast-forward version of a promotional video.

Taken as a whole, the proposal would rob communities of their links to bigger cities, from which follows employment and leisure opportunities. “Let the buses take the strain” made some form of twisted sense in the days of Beeching, who viewed the railways as hopelessly out-dated and out-moded. Had Beeching and his successors been allowed to continue, the UK would be unlike any other country in the developed world, lacking railways out to the suburbs, tourist towns and local communities, employing instead two unconnected super-highway rail lines connecting no more than five major cities together. It’d be impossible to even cross Birmingham, with no link between one side and the other. If you didn’t have a car, or maybe a helicopter, the railways would be inaccessible to you, forever.  Londoners could not visit friends or family in any of the Home Counties immediately surrounding their city, whilst enjoying a rapid high speed ride to Leeds, the first and only English station stop between them and Edinburgh.

Leunig calls leaving stations open as “a preposterous waste of money”. He doesn’t offer much in the way of figures for this, though this might be because there’s little evidence to suggest closing a station is no more affordable than allowing passengers to board a train which might only make one visit every hour. There are bus services to parts of Preston, where I live, less frequent than train services to Lostock Hall, with both realities no more able to ‘disprove’ the worth of the other than any comparison which might be made between the footfall enjoyed by McDonalds and the independent cafe three streets away. In any case, keeping a station open is actually less difficult and cheaper than closing one down, as the legal process of closing down railway stations is so complicated that they’re invariably kept open. “Parliamentary trains”, so called because of the need to clumsily circumnavigate various Railway Acts, are maintained by TOCs to provide a rudimentary service in place of spending the money to remove all trains completely. The 30% plan would, therefore, cost  more money than Leunig realises. To slash so many stations from the network would require TOCs to run hundreds of make-believe trains around the country, often unadvertised deliberately, as part of a ludicrous game of ‘efficiency savings top trumps’.

Beeching transformed our rail network, and did so in all the worst possible ways you could imagine. It’s beyond bizarre that anyone could consider it appropriate to use Beeching as a blueprint for further reforms, a kind of abusive partner-meets-Stockholm syndrome set-up, drawn from years of feeling turned on whenever anybody mentions “Thatcher”, “tell Sid” or “it’s a replacement bus service leaving from the station forecourt”.  What we should be doing – well, what Conservatives should be doing at the very least – is encouraging building MORE stations in MORE locations, adding increased numbers of blobs on rail-maps to allow people greater access to the existing network. George Osborne’s infrastructure plan allowed for the construction of just two new stations across the whole of England – Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge in Yorkshire. He should have allowed the construction of dozens, and then hundreds, and then yet more, bringing people who live in the outcrops and environs the opportunity to access the national network. More construction jobs, more income generated in parts of our cities and major towns which often feel ‘isolated’ from big bang projects, more opportunities for businesses to recruit from a wider net.

In case you thought that your eyes deceived you, Leunig also recommends the introduction of a ‘standing class’ London train, in which people would pay a £1 fare for the right to have no seats at all, as standard. This policy is all manner of bonkers, for reasons of health and safety as well as common human decency, though it’s also worth noting that the Railway Regulation Act 1844 ensured that passengers could no longer be subjected to such inhumane treatment by rail companies.

What riles me more than anything related to the railway issue is just how repetitive these arguments have become. Whilst the country umms and aahs about building a single new station, or electrifying one length of track, Spain continues to  build the longest metro line in Europe, and renowned rail networks in Germany and Italy continue to expand for much less money than it could ever be done here. We’re a backward, slow, ponderous country whose attitude to infrastructure projects is stuck in the steam age. Anybody who considers it correct that we should assist our railway service by slashing it to pieces deserves locking in a waiting room over night without even a Select vending machine for company.

Good PR

Constitutional reform is the train spotting of politics, soliciting a response from anyone buttressed by enthusiasts against a wall at a party somewhere between pity and panic. It was said that Tony Blair, once part way through House of Lords reform in the early 2000s, suddenly acquired the look of a first date forced to sit through a three-hour subtitled German film on hairdressing, eyes like marbles and thumbs rolling over each other in tedium.

Most ordinary folk agree that tinkering with the constitutional machinery is a bit of an obsessive’s game, often undertaken by civil servants bored with their lot and in need of a map to scribble over. Local government in the UK is proof of this, entire counties destroyed and resurrected at the swipe of a sharp HB. Anything more significant – such as House of Lords reform, say – tends to become bogged down with more politics than, for example, carving up counties into manageable chunks, a consequence of Westminster being considered very, very important and provincial towns being regarded as very, very not. It’s little wonder that divvying up England into regional chunks or constantly jiggling about with the councils of Wales or Scotland tends to go along on cycles compared with dealing properly with a national democratic deficit, because the former is seen as necessary maintenance and the latter brain transplant territory.

As you may have noticed, it’s the realm of Westminster and its village which is occupying the time of the Coalition and its occasional bursts into behaviour more suited to a well-heeled couple going through a messy divorce. Not that I’m subscribing to the opinion that the Coalition has as much chance of getting to Christmas as a plump turkey. The issue comes down to what exactly was understood by both Cameron and Clegg as being agreed upon in those long ago hazy days of the post-election glow when the new world of Coalition government looked to the weary nation as so much unparalleled brilliance. When those feelings faded (about a week later?) constitutional reform was refreshingly high on the list of priorities, as though the LibDem influence on Cameron was a revelation on par with that experienced by a bored housewife at an Alpha course.

Sadly like the Alpha course, what burst out in bright lights and speaking in tongues (characterised by crowds of Liberal Democrat activists attempting to explain AV to bemused shoppers in town centres) fizzled out to drab coffee mornings. Whilst Fixed Term Parliaments passed without too much bother, everything else was fought over within an inch of its life – boundary changes and Lords Reform amongst them. The Coalition fought within its each other on the basis that the AV referendum and reducing the size of the Commons were the ends of the same see-saw, whilst Lords Reform was the hastily constructed barbecue at the back of the garden overseen by a slightly drunk father with lighter fluid and an indifference to food hygiene. Whilst Clegg was able to say “We took the voting referendum to the people, and the people didn’t like it”, Cameron could assure his backbenchers that a smaller House of Commons with equal size constituencies would be of benefit to them and the country as a whole. Fewer MPs, less cost, for the spin on one side, safer Tory seats and less in-built Labour bias amongst the urban cities, for the spin on the other. Nothing could be easier to get through.

And yet here we are, with House of Lords reform dead again, Clegg determined to paint his defeat as a matter of Conservative dinosaurs having a whinge about the possible end of the guaranteed retirement home. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has started to look like a man approaching the Tony Blair stage in is attitude towards reform – the glare in the eyes, the deep sighs, the doodling hangmen on the back of his hand with a pairing knife, that sort of thing. For boundary changes/Commons reduction to go through – and it really should – he needs to force the hand of a Coalition partner fuming and an Opposition party gleaming. Of course Labour were never going to agree that equal sized constituencies are a good thing, shrieking “gerrymandering” all over the place as though they knew what it meant, but the messy way that the Coalition has got here has made Cameron’s work immeasurably harder.

There is a way out of all this, I think, though it means having to say goodbye to both Lords reform and equal sized constituencies. It’s one of those trainspotter obsession things, though, so people of a nervous disposition might want to make themselves a brew.

As we’ve seen in Scotland, local government elected under a system of proportional representation has made little though significant improvements to the democratic deficit there. Now into their third cycle of PR elections, Scotland’s local councils have seen former Labour citadels turned into coalition-led rainbow Town Halls, or at least in the case of Glasgow allowed local newspapers to save on red ink when reporting election results, blobs of Tory blue and and SNP yellow appearing in sporadic splotches. Perhaps more importantly, PR in Scotland gives people far more power at the ballot box – no longer forced to make a compromise themselves, people can vote how they really feel, spreading their vote amongst a number of candidates whilst remaining loyal to their favoured party.

English councils could go the same way if the Clegg and Cameron compromise position is to ditch the two contentious issues for something positioned in the middle. LibDems get PR on a significant level, Conservatives are given a chance for representation in northern cities (and, of course, Labour can make more of a headway into bits of the south which turned away from them post-Blair).

But it’s not just party political reasons for local council PR. As most fule kno, local government is dying on its proverbial, Town Halls robbed of investment over a number of decades, turnout in elections dragging along the bottom of the teen-percentages, drab debates wrung out over a number of successive days in newspaper letter columns. Despite the best efforts of various Commissions, local government is hardly representative of the people its purported to represent, with the scandal of uncontested wards in hundreds of elections every year only making matters worse.

By allowing voters the right to break out of First Past the Post and its horrific damage to democracy, there’s chance for a last minute CPR job to local councils. It’s more than party political concerns about Knowsley or Manchester being “one party states”, council areas in which only one party returns councillors, as Barking and Dagenham did having slain the BNP. The current position means complacency and arrogance sets in amongst councillors who don’t feel the breath of contest on their necks at election time, whose debates only fall amongst themselves. The less chance of an election, or at least an interesting one, the higher chance of discord or apathy. Local government is more than just ballot boxes, of course, but if that element isn’t fixed everything else falls apart.

Lords Reform can wait another few years, having been on the boil for so long anyway. Reducing the size of the Commons is much more important, and should happen if at all possible, though clearly it’s going to be a tight fight between the Whips and their charges.

Compromise then is reform where it’s noticeable – on the streets, at the Town Halls, in cities robbed of vibrant and relevant democratic debate. Allow people to have a real say in who represents them, as Scottish voters currently do, and allow Town Halls to become more reflective of the voters outside. It’s not right that some of our largest towns and cities are effective “one party states”, that some council wards have not seen a contested election in years, or that turnout in FPTP elections can be lower than 15%. A form of PR at council level will help push greater and wider reform. Any other position might make a lot of things much worse, at national level as much as local, and neither Coalition partner wants that. It might mean an early general election, for one thing….

very angry internet

“The Internet does not create social outcasts,” started the line I first heard in the mid-1990s. “It collects  them.”

It’s been quite a week for reeling out the wise old sayings and maxims, from “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to “Never trust a moose to buy a round of drinks”. Or something. To dust off another tired old phrase – “he’s the kind of person who could have an argument in an empty room” – and there’s no more larger collection of empty rooms that the internet outside abandoned building projects in the greater Dublin area. As long as there’s been message-boards and chatrooms there’s been Internet users ready and willing to flame a debate in a flurry of pedantry, insults, defamation and ‘your mom’ jibes. You’re not likely to be more than three clicks of a mouse away from a choice Anglo-Saxon swear word or twelve, be it within the swamps of YouTube comment sections, newspaper story reaction threads or  Twitter.

It’s the microblogging tweeters which have attracted the most attention from the mainstream media this year, to the extent that it appears the BBC and Daily Mail consider themselves to have coined the word “troll”. With trolling becoming the issue of the day for the guardians of good taste and decency, misunderstanding of the realities of everyday Internet use will doubtlessly grow, and from there comes bad law and reactionary mistakes.

With millions of people reacting in real time to every event happening around the world, be it waiting at a bus stop or watching the men’s 100m final (spoiler alert, Americans, Usain Bolt wins), Twitter never stops displaying the thoughts of everyone and anyone within easy reach of a keyboard. It should be obvious to anyone that little corners of Twitter will therefore get testy and tetchy, especially when dealing with those parts of the real world which seems so far away and distant – namely politics and celebrity. People always feel a buzz of starlight and success in the presence of celebrity or power, which is why so many Twitter users rush to get a reply, re-tweet or just a mere mention from someone whose face appears in the newspapers every so often. The Press can examine this as much as they exploit – themselves trolling the search function for enough insults and criticisms to fill a page of orchestrated outrage.

As anyone who’s ever worked in an office will tell you, email and the Internet are considered “great levellers”, enabling people with a slight grievance to email the head of department or supervisors in real time about (and I’m using real examples from my own office life here), the choice of music on a CD player brought in for the Christmas period, the eating of paté at lunch, and requests to take time off for “boyfriend problems”. The consequence of this can be a lack of common sense to the point of sheer lunacy, seen sporadically in message-board rants, seen almost by the minute in foul mouthed, racist or generally violent tweets to celebrities, television presenters or the like. I can see both sides – if a celebrity joins Twitter they should expect both fans and foes, but how does the ‘leveller’ of the Internet justify specifically targeting a presenter for being, say, fat, or boring, or ugly, or too Asian, and how many idiots do we allow to act this way before acting ourselves?

Britain already has laws against malicious behaviour on-line, some of it going back decades to an age when the Internet was talked about without the definite article and nobody had ever considered it likely that the computer in the corner of the room would be used at 2am for watching repeats of QI on YouTube. There’s no real need for additional laws against trolling to be drafted, though it’s tempting to risk it just to see how legalese translates ‘trolling’ into parliamentary language. “Trolls” can encompass all manner of on-line behaviour, not just wishing Tom Daley would be drowned or calling a British Muslim television presenter pub-chant insults. I’m sure some people will gladly call those users who type “FIRST!” underneath newspaper articles “trolls” just to see them woken up at 5am by the finest members of Inspector Knacker’s Computer Corps. Additionally, it could be worth a quick call to the Malicious Computer Behaviour Advisory Group (see, I’m already guessing how parliament might have to transliterate these sorts of things) every time an American calls a Briton “douchebag” in the YouTube comments sections underneath sporting highlight clips.

The fact is – we don’t need additional laws curbing Internet use, Twitter behaviour or blog opinions. By focussing on Twitter, the media are in danger of allowing the rest of the Internet to fester all the more than it already is, and that’s the very definition of the law of unintended consequences. Stretch the net further and you’ll find 4chan (and we all know about that, don’t we), the Daily Mail (ditto, for the same reasons by and large) and Facebook’s campaigning groups division, for which there’s no moral outrage too trivial that can’t be turned into a mawkish flag of life changing importance. There’s no feasible way, short of closing the Internet completely, for every page and every comment to be policed, not least because so little can be easily captured or searched, and as I said before, the ‘great leveller’ of the Internet provokes the most enthused argumenter to waft around “freedom of speech” justification at every turn. Arresting a student for insulting an Olympic diver whilst approximately a hypergazillion people wish death by cancer on approximately an additional hypergazillion in YouTube comments sections seems a little like trophy hunting to me.

I’m not being fatalistic; the Internet can be polices, and despite being a fence-sitting free-speech loving treehugger I accept that some frameworks must be erected to catch the worst forms of insulting or violent behaviour. But from this must come reason and restraint – is it ‘malicious’ that some sites host videos of alleged shooting massacres in Iraq or Syria, shared by some people who campaign for justice in the Middle East and shared by others who just like watching gore and extreme violence? How much legalese do we want to slalom around the distinction between “genuine” and “fake” reasons for sharing around violent videos of this kind? If we learned anything from the ‘Twitter joke trail’, the written word can be redefined howsoever an unintended audience member wishes. Will there be a legal definition drafted for sarcasm, irony, insult? What becomes of a joke when a barrister-turned-MP decides to analyse the definition for the purposes of statute law? If you watch a video in which a Libyan market trader is shot in the neck, do you watch it for pleasure, curiosity or research? What about porn?

The Internet can be a very angry place. You’re never too far away from people ‘swearing down’ that another person, or an institution, or an entire country, is going to feel his/her/their wrath. If we allow the current breed of Twitter trolls to lead the redefinition of on-line behaviour, we could end up with restrictions far beyond any feared by SOPA campaigners. I’m more angered that my mobile phone provider demands I ‘opt in’ to material it considers to be adult, and that this appears to have been largely accepted, than I am bothered by knowing that a celebrity television presenter is being called an ugly slut on Twitter. He/she/they can probably deal with that in their own way, or just stop using Twitter. There’s little chance of fighting back against censorship or state control if there’s restricted access to the very tools to carry out the job. Let’s treat all trolls as we would most permanently angry. I’d rather have an Internet with a few old man’s pubs occupied by barflies and world weary know-it-alls than one with minimal furnished see-and-be-seen bars where you walk around with fixed smiles and bitten tongues.