Saturday, August 13, 2016

Betjeman the prophet

Highbridge Wharf, your hopes have died:
They flow like driftwood down the tide,
Out, out into the open sea —
O sad forgotten S. & D.

Any readers who feel like a laid-back half-hour might enjoy this film, 'A Branch Line Railway' with John Betjeman, broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1963 and now available indefinitely on the I-Player.  (Since this is the B.B.C.'s website I have a feeling it can be watched only in the U.K.).  It is a journey from Evercreech Junction to Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset, along part of the former Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway.  The 'S. & D.' was a line from the west Somerset coast to Bournemouth, with a long arm from Bath joining at Evercreech.  It was built in anticipation of a surge of goods traffic from South Wales and the Midlands to the English Channel and the Continent.  As Betjeman explains, this traffic never emerged; the line was a backwater all its life.  (The music accompanying the film is Percy Grainger's 'Lincolnshire Posy', arrangements of folk-songs that he had collected in that county in the early 1900s).

Most of the Somerset & Dorset is no more: of course, 1963 was also the year of Dr. Beeching's infamous report on 'The Reshaping of British Railways', in which he recommended the pruning of about a third of this country's route mileage in the name of efficiency (see p. 109 for the renowned list of 'Passenger Stations and Halts to be Closed' and its unexpected pathos).  This was so vehemently the age of the motor-car and the motorway that Betjeman's appeal to save the Doric arch at Euston station in London was a lonely and eventually unsuccessful one, and an era so eager to jettison the past that he, almost alone, deserves the credit for having preserved the splendour of St Pancras station from a modernisation scheme.  Against such a backdrop Betjeman's nostalgic film gains a rather polemic quality.  His journey is an argument as much as a portrait, and every so often (for example at eight minutes in) there are flashes of rhetoric and rawer protests at the spirit of the age:
You know, I'm not just being nostalgic and sentimental and unpractical about railways.  Railways are bound to be used again.  They're not a thing of the past. And it's heart-breaking to see them left to rot and to see the fine men who've served them all their lives made uncertain about their own futures and about their jobs.  What's more, it's wrong in every way when we all of us know that road traffic is becoming increasingly hellish on this overcrowded island. [...] I think it's more than likely that we'll deeply regret the branch lines we've torn up and the lines that we've let to go to rot'.
It is easy to think of Betjeman more or less as a nostalgist par excellence, and it is true that the burden of much of his writing and many of his broadcasts was to cherish, to defend and, indeed, to mourn the past.  He was also a prophet, though, and I think rather a better prophet than his modernist, forward-thinking contemporaries.  He saw through the illusory freedom of the internal-combustion engine and the motorway to their fundamental soullessness, and likewise saw through the rust and soot of the post-war railways to their fundamental usefulness, wholesomeness and even moral superiority (about which I have tried to set down my own thoughts here).  So it is that we are slowly and expensively re-opening some of those lines too hastily closed and sold off by British Rail in the 1960s, and so it is that we struggle now to believe that such an idea as the demolition of George Gilbert Scott's astonishing St. Pancras station, under whose seemingly weightless roof travellers by rail to and from Europe arrive and depart, ever even entered anybody's mind.

The statue of John Betjeman at St. Pancras station, the building he defended against demolition and now a magnificent welcome for passengers from the Continent.

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