Saturday, 31 March 2012

Petrol panic

I wrote this for yesterday's Guardian:

Driving down a main road in Liverpool on Tuesday evening, I encountered a long queue of drivers in the left hand lane, all waiting to use the petrol pumps. The tanker drivers’ strike has not yet been called, and we will be given seven days’ notice even if it is, but the panic buying had begun - although “panic buying” is really a misnomer, for the motorists I saw just looked stoical and glum.

I managed to resist the temptation to join the left hand lane, but I could see why people did. A long queue is such a visible sign that something is amiss, it encourages the herd instinct. Even the most bloody-minded people wonder if the queuers are right and they are wrong. A queue, like anxiety, feeds on itself. In the Second World War, when queuing was a daily irritation and necessity, people would join a queue without knowing what was at the end of it, in the expectation that it must be for something worthwhile.

At the heart of this week’s anxiety is the vivid memory of the fuel blockade by hauliers, farmers and motorists in September 2000, when the picketing of refineries threatened to bring the country to a standstill. It was a scary confirmation that the just-in-time routines of mobile, consumer capitalism render it, as Andrew Rawnsley said at the time, “a fuel tank away from anarchy”. Striking workers are often told that they are holding the country to ransom, but these days stopping the petrol pumps is a more effective political tool than withdrawing labour. Pictures of queuing motorists have more visual impact on the news than, say, images of quiet roads during public sector strikes.

But petrol shortages have also had a wider national symbolism ever since the war, when rationing effectively banned private motoring. The ending of petrol rationing on 26 May 1950 was an emblematic moment in the long deferred end of austerity. An event that happily (or, as it turned out, unhappily) coincided with the Whitsun weekend, it created Britain’s first really epic traffic jams. Motorists symbolically tore up their fuel coupons in cathartic rituals held at petrol pumps, and ancient cars undriven since the 1930s were taken out for a spin. There were colossal queues on main roads out of London, and a jam that stretched all the way from Weston-super-Mare to Bristol.

Since that liberating moment, fuel shortages have evoked a return to the privations of the 1940s. Even that word, jerrycan, which helped to generate the queues on Tuesday, has wartime connotations. The first serious postwar queues at the pumps occurred during the Suez crisis of 1956, when even just a 10% cut in supplies meant many garages had to ration petrol and shut at weekends. During the OPEC oil crisis of late 1973, people queued outside post offices to receive petrol ration books, an uncomfortable reminder of wartime for the middle-aged and older. Many petrol stations only opened for two hours a day, and police had to control traffic jams outside them.

The 1973 oil crisis also had a longer term, subtler effect. Petrol used to be dispensed by smartly uniformed station attendants, who would not only fill your tank but also check your oil and give you directions. Today’s self-service petrol stations were a cost-saving device rolled out after the oil crisis, made possible by the new latched nozzle pump with automated cut-off. Now we live latched-nozzle lives, exchanging barely a word with the cashier behind the glass as we pay for petrol with our pin numbers. Buying fuel is an impersonal, dull routine – and like most dull routines, it is something we expect to be able to carry on doing. When the routine breaks down, anxiety and panic ensue.

Groupthink is a curious phenomenon that forms by some invisible, anonymous process and can then disappear like smoke. On Wednesday morning, the queue for the petrol station down my road had vanished by dint of the same obscure, wordless, collective decision making that caused it to appear in the first place. I wonder if it will return.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The white immensities

One hundred years ago today, a dying Robert Falcon Scott wrote his last letter to his wife from the South Pole. Scott also wrote to his close friend, J.M. Barrie, ‘as a dying man’, asking him to look after his wife and son (who grew up to be the naturalist Peter Scott).

Barrie later saw parallels between Scott and his own figure of the immortal boy, Peter Pan. ‘When I think of Scott,’ he told an audience, ‘I remember the strange Alpine story of the youth who fell down a glacier and was lost, and of how a scientific companion, one of several who accompanied him, all young, computed that the body would again appear at a certain date and place many years afterwards. When that time came round one of the survivors returned to the glacier to see if the prediction would be fulfilled; all old men now; and the body reappeared as young as on the day he left them. So Scott and his comrades emerge out of the white immensities, always young.’

(Source: Andrew Birkin, J.M. Barrie and The Lost Boys (London, Futura, 1980), p 211)

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The residue of Rebeccaism

I did this piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free site last week.

David Cameron’s speech to the Institution of Civil Engineers, in which he proposed contracting out the maintenance and running of trunk roads to private companies, contained two themes which recur often in the political history of British roads. The first was the contentious issue of road pricing and the attempt by politicians to skirt round it. Charging for the use of a road has long antecedents in this country – notably the turnpike trusts, which in their final days were loathed for levying extortionate tolls and which led to the Rebecca riots in south Wales in the late 1830s and early 1840s. In the 1960s, when economists revived the idea of road pricing as a way of alleviating congestion, they found that Rebeccaism had left a residue of resentment against it.

Road pricing is a classically free market principle - you pay for what you use - but it was first mooted by a Labour transport minister, Barbara Castle, in the late 1960s, and rejected twenty years later by Margaret Thatcher, who feared it would prove as unpopular as the poll tax. Governments instead have followed the American example of allowing private companies to build and operate toll roads, where drivers prepared to pay a surcharge can escape the congestion on public roads. The M6 toll road was promoted on illuminated advertising panels at service stations with a picture of two indigestion pills and a tumbler of water above the words: “Eases congestion: fast, effective relief from the M6.”

It is one thing to invite motorists to relieve the dyspepsia of commuting by escaping into the private sphere; it is quite another to expect them to pay for using roads as a matter of course. Once they have coughed up for their tax disc and their fuel duty, many motorists feel they have already rendered unto Caesar. A petition on Downing Street’s e-petitions site inviting people to agree that road pricing was an “unfair tax” attracted 1.7 million signatories, and Tony Blair sent a conciliatory email to them all, reassuring them that no decision had yet been made. Road pricing, which is probably inevitable, thus tends to proceed by stealth. Downing Street insisted yesterday that its privatisation plans were not about road pricing, although the private companies will be allowed to charge tolls on any new roads they build.

The second, recurring idea in Cameron’s speech is that private investment is necessary because “we are falling behind … our competitors”. Since at least the 1950s, the idea of Britain’s traffic jams as uniquely insufferable has been a potent political metaphor, and the relative speed and modernity of European roads has been a source of national mortification. “How far are we, in this motor packed island, from the style and planning that put Sweden 26 years ahead with Stockholm’s Slussem cloverleaf or its Tegelbacken intersection?” asked The Times in 1961. It looked longingly towards Düsseldorf, the “paradise of the elevated road”.

International comparisons, though, are problematic. Congestion is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. What tips a traffic jam over from being merely tedious to intolerable, and then into, as Cameron put it, “gridlock”? Being stuck in traffic is frustratingly real; but it is also a state of mind that can alter according to your expectations about how quickly you should be going. Given the fact that Britain is a relatively small, congested island, there is at least an argument that its traffic flows reasonably well much of the time. But as in other areas of national life, the unexamined idea that we are “falling behind” other countries is being used to promote change of a specific kind: privatisation.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

All at sea

I've been enjoying the BBC4 series, All at Sea, in which Timothy Spall and his wife Shane travel round the coast of Britain in a barge at a leisurely pace (it took them six years). It reminded me of a line from Jonathan Raban's book Coasting that ‘even the most household corridor of sea is a very wild place indeed’. Raban did a similar circumnavigation of the island in the early 1980s and wrote this book about it. Here is another quote from it that I just dug out:

‘People on the land think of the sea as a void, an emptiness, haunted by mythological hazards. The sea marks the end of things. It is where life stops and the unknown begins. It is a necessary, comforting fiction to conceive of the sea as the residence of gods and monsters – Aeolus, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, the Goodwins, the Bermuda Triangle. In fact the sea is just an alternative known world. Its topography is as intricate as that of the land, its place names as particular and evocative, tis maps and signposts rather more reliable.’

Saturday, 10 March 2012

In Basildon

Is David Eldridge's new play, In Basildon (at the Royal Court), the only play that celebrates a new town in its title? I don't know, but certainly the new town has often been caricatured as a place without history, meaning or soul, unfit for any kind of literary evocation. This is not only a British prejudice. The French theorist Henri Lefebvre's writings on the new town were provoked by his dismay at the development in the late 1950s of a new town, Mourenx, near his birthplace in the Haut Pyrénées. Lefebvre argues that the new town is a hyper-controlled place which brings together the worst aspects of technocratic urban planning. The gridplan layout of streets, the standardised street furniture and the sameness of the houses all suggest that life here is 'organized, neatly subdivided and programmed to fit a controlled, exact time-table'. The overriding aim in Mourenx seems to be the smooth circulation of people and vehicles: although there are not yet many traffic lights in the town, the place is in fact 'nothing but traffic lights: do this, don't do that'.

In his essay, 'Notes on the new town' (1960), Lefebvre contrasts Mourenx with his birthplace, the nearby town of Navarrenx, which is like a seashell in the sense that 'a living creature has slowly secreted a structure', a delicate casing which has an organic relationship with its 'soft, slimy and shapeless' interior. By contrast, all the elements of the good life are there in Mourenx, but they remain unassimilated ingredients rather than an integrated, evolving whole:

'Boredom is pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealized possibilities. A magnificent life is waiting just around the corner, and far, far away. It is waiting like the cake is waiting when there's butter, milk, flour and sugar. … Here man's magnificent power over nature has left him alone with himself, powerless. It is the boredom of youth without a future.'

Even if it were true then, this idea of the new town as a non-place in which history has come to a standstill no longer applies, because the new town is no longer new. British new towns were inaugurated during a very particular historical moment, when postwar governments made a concerted effort to provide well-planned, collective solutions to issues such as housing, transport and employment. Over the last few decades, the British new towns have often been lodestones for political and cultural change.

The most famous example of the new town as political barometer is Basildon, which in the 1980s became indelibly associated with the affluent working-class Conservative voter ('Basildon Man'). This reputation was fully consolidated when Basildon reported its seat earlier than any other marginal on the night of the 1992 general election, making it hugely symbolic in John Major's surprise victory. One of the iconic images of that night was the sitting Conservative MP, David Amess, grinning manically as he was unexpectedly re-elected. On the BBC election night broadcast, the Labour spokesman, Frank Dobson, tried to put a brave face on it by uttering the famous words: 'I don't think even in Basildon they think the world is built on Basildon'. New Labour politicians soon made up for this slight by making Basildon, and other southeast marginals, a key element in their election strategy.

In fact, Basildon's reputation was as much to do with popular mythology as electoral science. With its high proportion of manual workers, it is not very representative of new towns in the southeast. Basildonians did not, as the myth goes, convert wholesale to Conservatism in the Thatcher-Major years; they continued to return a Labour council. But Basildon did follow the trend of other southeast new towns in switching to the Conservatives in 1979 and then reverting to Labour in 1997. The same pattern is evident in Milton Keynes, Labour winning both of its marginal seats from the Conservatives in 1997. The social mix of the new towns, and the tendency of newcomers not to identify themselves as strongly with tribal loyalties, has always made them politically volatile seats. New town voters tend to be more pragmatic than others, making their electoral choices according to their own short-term interests rather than traditional regional patterns or inherited allegiances.