Sunday 12 November 2017

Guest Review: Eleven Minutes Late by Matthew Engel

Britain gave railways to the world, yet its own network is the dearest (definitely) and the worst (probably) in Western Europe. Trains are deeply embedded in the national psyche and folklore - yet it is considered uncool to care about them.
For Matthew Engel the railway system is the ultimate expression of Britishness. It represents all the nation's ingenuity, incompetence, nostalgia, corruption, humour, capacity for suffering and even sexual repression. To uncover its mysteries, Engel has travelled the system from Penzance to Thurso, exploring its history and talking to people from politicians to platform staff.
Along the way Engel ('half-John Betjeman, half-Victor Meldrew') finds the most charmingly bizarre train in Britain, the most beautiful branch line, the rudest railwayman, and - after a quest lasting decades - an Individual Pot of Strawberry Jam. Eleven Minutes Late is both a polemic and a paean, and it is also very funny.

Review: This book, sub-titled "A Train Journey To The Soul Of Britain", is a description of the author's travels throughout the rail network, interwoven with his personal view of the historical development of Britain's railway system. It is clear that Matthew Engel has a deep love of Britain's railways combined with a sense of frustration at the seemingly haphazard manner in which they developed and successive governments' lack of a long term, strategic view of the future role of railways. However, the book is not full of gloom and I found myself laughing out loud on numerous occasions.

In the first strand of the book, a trip from Penzance, the most south westerly point on the rail network, to Thurso, the most northerly point, is described. This is followed by various trips to other places on the network chosen for their location, scenic beauty or just the quirkiness of the place names. Along the way, there are encounters with a number of individuals who give their opinions on the railways.

Although not claiming to be a formal history, the book's second strand gives a reasonably broad overview of the development of the railways, from the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, the burgeoning of numerous railway companies during the subsequent period of railway mania, their nationalisation in 1948, the widespread closures following the publication of the Beeching Report in the 1960s, and their re-privatisation during the 1990s. The various individuals behind some of the notable events, such as George Stephenson, George Hudson (the "Railway King"), Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Richard Beeching and John Major (under whose premiership the railways were privatised in the 1990s) are mentioned.

The book is critical of the long term policies regarding the railways, but perhaps the greatest anger is reserved for the privatisation during the 1990s. As a former civil servant myself whose department underwent a series of changes to government agency and then government owned company before being closed down, there are a number of familiar themes. These were the large sums of money paid to consultants, most of whom had no prior knowledge of the core business, prior to the re-organisation; the belief that pre-existing staff would be unfit to manage the new organisation due to their experience of public sector working; and all driven by what appeared to be political dogma that the private sector was better than the public sector.

Overall, I found the author's descriptions of his journeys charming and, although his personal view of the railways and their development is highly critical, he does provide considerable justification for his complaints.

Click here to order your copy: UK or US


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