Turning the green one white

The railway between Wimbledon and Sutton in south London was built cheaply by the Southern Railway in 1929-30 after a long dispute with the Underground about the possibility of building the line jointly. All the stations were built to the same simple design, consisting of a single island platform with the way to and from the street at one end, where there was also a tiny booking office of the type known as a passimeter, which doubled as a ticket barrier. Arriving at one of these stations, South Merton, in the early 1980s, I saw an angry screed pencilled on one of the panels of the passimeter.

“Queens Road Battersea and Brentford Central have fallen”, it began, “Which will be the next to fall? North Sheen? Norbiton? SOUTH MERTON?” The writer claimed to represent the Society for the Preservation of Green Signs, and by “fallen” meant that the stations named had had their green enamelled Southern Railway “target” or British Railways Southern Region “totem” signs replaced by the black-on-white Gill sans ones then used throughout British Rail, which had no distinguishing regional colours.*  “Keep ’em green”, the writer urged, “Down with stultifying utilitarianism.”

When I first knew the Wimbledon and Sutton it had an intense “Southern” feel to it, and undoubtedly the totems, which I think then still survived at every station, added to the effect. The survival of totems in odd patches was pleasing, as any relic of past times is. The pace of change in a townscape surely should be slow, so that at any time the scene straddles several ages and is something like a natural growth. British Rail arguably should have let totems decline gracefully rather than made a concerted effort to replace them, as they seemed to be doing then. Even before I read this graffito South Merton had “fallen”.

But even if change had been slower, the old scene could not have lasted for ever. Our anonymous writer was, however, an implacable diehard. Below the broadside on green signs was the afterthought: “Also, no 508s – keep 4-SUBs running”. This was a reference to the sliding-door electric trains then starting to appear on the Southern region to replace the old slam-door ones of the 1940s and early 1950s. You could not have done that: mechanical parts and interior fittings wear out, standards of comfort increase. (It was the 4-SUBs which gave rise to the stale jokes about cattle trucks.) That writer’s howl has faded away to silence. Today the passimeter itself has long since been pulled down, and old totems fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

*Apart from Southern green these were Western brown, London Midland maroon, Eastern dark blue, North Eastern orange and Scottish light blue.

Bends in time’s river.

In 1974, when I was in my last year at primary school, our class went on a week’s visit to the Isle of Wight. Among the places we visited were the amusement park at Blackgang Chine and the parish church at Godshill. “Blackgang Chine is a money-making place”, our teacher warned us, implying that she supposed we would enjoy it and that it had been included in our itinerary for that reason, but that it was a mere interlude which would play no part in the real purpose of our young lives, of improving our minds. Godshill church, on the other hand, is a fine, largely fourteenth century building with a wall painting of Christ crucified, not on a cross but on what the then incumbent of the church, Rev. Peter Hewitt, in a guide book I bought and still have, describes as “a triple-branched flowering lily, the Lily Cross, symbolic of his purity and sinlessness”. This painting is unique: there may have been other Lily Crosses elsewhere but as Peter Hewitt says, “Mediaeval wall-paintings have perished in their hundreds”. This one too was painted over, and only rediscovered in the middle of the nineteenth century. Ours was an Anglican school: we were encouraged to reverence as well as to historical curiosity.

Not long ago I picked up a copy of the Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and found its judgements on these places to be the reverse of those implied to us then. Blackgang Chine they call “a delightfully old-fashioned theme park” which consists of “a series of fairly low-key attractions on themes such as the Wild West, dinosaurs, nursery rhymes and goblins, along with a series of museum rooms tracing the history of local crafts.” I suppose, four decades on, that what then seemed mildly tawdry does now seem old-fashioned – who knows, perhaps even delightfully so – when today’s theme parks are aimed at those who like their thrills unconstrained. As for Godshill it

bills itself as the prettiest village on the Isle of Wight. With its medley of thatched cottages, gardens and medieval church [they do not mention the Lily Cross] it is undeniably lovely, but sadly it is now all but swamped by teahouses and souvenir stalls – indeed its historic Old Smithy is little more than a row of tacky shops set in historic buildings.

A theme park for connoisseurs of a gentler age and a beautiful village tarted up for mass consumption? Time does indeed take startling turns.

Another example of this phenomenon is the use of the word “desultory”. Nowadays when we call something desultory we usually mean that its doing is not only fitful but half-hearted, and that consequently little has been achieved by it. But I came across a book on English teaching published ninety-odd years ago which said that some of children’s most valuable literary experiences would come from their “desultory” reading. By this the author meant no more than their spare time reading: unsystematic, not part of a syllabus, but enthusiastic and delighted, and making a deeper impression for that, both artistically and morally. This argument still needs making today, but we could not now expect to impress anybody with it if we called such reading desultory.

To rally unacknowledged legislators.

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true…

But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as a temporary dress in which his creations must be arrayed, and which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty… The beauty of the internal nature cannot be so far concealed by its accidental vesture, but that the spirit of its form shall communicate itself to the very disguise, and indicate the shape it hides from the manner in which it is worn…

For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure… At the approach of such a period, poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed… it is ever still the light of life; the source of whatever of beautiful or generous or true can have place in an evil time… But corruption must utterly have destroyed the fabric of human society before poetry can ever cease… It is the faculty which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation.

Shelley: A Defence of Poetry.

As we prepare to elect a new legislature I want to reflect on a matter which has not been an election issue and perhaps scarcely could be, but which is implicitly a political matter, and indicates a battle that we must continue to fight long after the polls are closed.

Those of us who have consuming interests – any interests, though I speak especially to those of us with scholarly interests such as history and archives – are very much concerned with fine detail, and in recording the truth as we see it and as near as we can discover it. Now, an interest in detail qualifies any ideology, dissolves its hard boundaries and permits a relaxed wandering beyond those bounds. When we are engaged in our activities we thus create a tacit climate of opinion which is in its essence socially liberal, open and tolerant; but it also, in its concern for detail, promotes the eccentricity and individual character on which the mental health of a society depends. This attitude of mind is created by example rather than by argument.

There is the potential for this social liberalism in everyone. I once, while travelling, read a provincial evening paper whose letters page was full of the ugly prejudices so often to be found. But the paper had a local history supplement with a separate letters page devoted to that subject. These letters were quite different: easy-going, neighbourly and with a deep sense that our place in a community over time matters intensely to everyone. Were these two sets of letter writers drawn, in the statistical sense, from the same population? It seems reasonable to suppose that they were, and if so it follows that our more generous and tolerant instincts can be drawn out by the right stimulus, such as a consuming enthusiasm.

There is an essay by GK Chesterton called A Glimpse of My Country in which he argues that “England is not such a fool as it looks. The types of England, the externals of England, always misrepresent the country. England… prefers that its oligarchy should be inferior to itself.” Even then, over a hundred years ago, Chesterton believed that the standard of parliamentary speaking had deteriorated, and was also worse than much contemporaneous speaking by less exalted people. But the position was odder than that:

For the English political aristocrats not only speak worse than many other people; they speak worse than themselves. The ignorance of statesmen is like the ignorance of judges, an artificial and affected thing. If you have the good fortune really to talk with a statesman, you will be constantly startled with his saying quite intelligent things. It makes one nervous at first. And I have never been sufficiently intimate with such a man to ask him why it was a rule of his life in Parliament to appear sillier than he was.

This to me is hopeful. If politicians in private can discuss ideas intelligently then it follows that if discourse among the wider public is thoughtful, subtle, well-informed and quirky, politicians can in the end be obliged to follow this lead. The pursuit of passionate interests among that wider public is one of the things which best stimulates those qualities: its practice should be encouraged to spread. Chesterton concludes:

I suddenly saw, as in one obvious picture, that the modern world is an immense and tumultuous ocean, full of monstrous and living things. And I saw that across the top of it is spread a thin, a very thin, sheet of ice, of wicked wealth and of lying journalism.

And as I stood there in the darkness I could almost fancy that I heard it crack.

Be in no doubt that our interests in life – and not least our scholarly interests – are among those “monstrous and living things”.