Thursday, 15 August 2013

Brave new world for tiny plastic people

Filed under 'so niche as to be practically invisible', the publication of the infamous Beeching Report inspired this piece of miniature futurology from the May 1963 edition of Railway Modeller magazine:
Instead of an antiquated, rusty, worn-out, run-down museum piece we are to have an exciting, modern, viable, if smaller, railway system which once again should be the finest in the world. We shall have faster, more comfortable, long-distance trains between the main centres and new-style goods trains which, with their provision for colourful privately owned containers, will bring a welcome note of variety to the scene. The new bulk handling plants not only make sound commercial sense, they will also make good models. We shall, of course, lose the romantic, happy-go-lucky branch lines, but these, and many other historical aspects of our railways, we can enjoy in model form. From the modeller's point of view the future holds much excitement in store...

...We have an entirely new railway system to serve as a prototype, in addition to the now historical steam-worked lines. Those who look forward to the new concepts must realize that buses and lorries will play an important part in the miniature transport picture. Many indeed have already begun to incorporate working roadways into their layouts, and while we know of some we should like to hear from all readers who are experimenting on these lines - if lines be the right term!
From the archives of the University of York's Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History (there's quite a lot of contemporary reaction to Beeching on the page - you'll have to scroll down a bit to get to the Railway Modeller piece).

I'm no expert on model railway layouts, but I can't see much evidence to support Railway Modeller's prediction that the model railway community's ambit would expand to include the exciting new world of 'bulk handling plants.' Fifty years after Beeching, your typical British model railway still has more in common with some sleepy, pre-Beeching, happy-go-lucky branch line than it does with a modern road-rail intermodal freight handling facility. For example, most exhibits at this randomly-picked model railway exhibition look more like a scene from The Titfield Thunderbolt than a day in the life of Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, as somebody once said. Logistics and relative complexity obviously played a role in small-scale bulk handling plants failing to become a thing, but there's probably a big element of nostalgia at play here, too, of people taking refuge from the modern in a safe, cosy, familiar, manageable past.

Maybe it's just the same reactionary aesthetic that attracts some people to the Daily Mail's fictionalised ideal of an early-to-mid-20th Century Britain before immigrants, single mums, gays, health and safety, political correctness gone mad, or the liberal Grinch who stole Christmas, where all social problems could be cleared up with a clip round the ear from your friendly bobby on the beat, or, in more serious cases, by hanging. The recreation of a tiny self-contained little Britain, slightly removed from current reality, understood as a displacement activity to keep the scary modern world at bay.*

It's tempting to just point, laugh and move on, but the thing about displacement activity is that the unpleasant stimulus is real, even if the reaction to it looks inappropriate, misdirected, or even barking mad, from the outside (think of an OCD sufferer retreating from some intractable and emotionally painful situation into a ritualised little world of repetitive hand-washing, or arranging small household objects in a particular order).

In 1963, Railway Modeller thought that 'the future holds much excitement in store.' In 1993, somebody noticed that the future had duly arrived, but it just wasn't very evenly distributed. Ten years later, there's still plenty of unevenness around and , as far as I can see, it's the unevenness that causes the fear and insecurity and makes a flight back to some airbrushed 1950s Eden of child-like innocence seem like an attractive option. The technology that was going to make everything more 'exciting, modern' and 'viable' has also helped to bring us from a society with a labour shortage to one where workplace efficiencies have translated, not into a world of shared leisure and prosperity, but into one of systemic job insecurity, depressed earnings, unemployment, or underemployment for the many and a greater concentration of wealth and control for a powerful few.

We've seen social mobility seizing up and going into reverse. We've had our share of a global economic crisis, orchestrated by an out-of-control, IT-enabled finance sector, a crisis that's been suspiciously congruent with a massive, well-organised, global transfer of wealth to already rich and powerful people (of the biological and corporate varieties) from almost everybody else. We've got Taylorised meatbots, living one efficiency-driven reorganisation away from unemployment, drudging away in automated workplace panopticons where the technology that promised to set them free monitors every second of every unproductive toilet break, telling themselves that they're lucky to have a job, so they can afford the latest shiny thing that make it all better, as produced by even more powerless disposable humandroids toiling in unspeakable conditions on the other side of the world.

No wonder some people think modern life is rubbish. In fact, the technology itself is astounding and potentially liberating. It's the uneven distribution, the inequalities of power, the corrosive lie that There Is No Alternative that sucks. You can't un-invent technology, but you can make political choices about sharing out the gain and pain that comes from change. But you can't even start to think about rational political choices when you're stuck in an endless OCD loop of futile displacement activities, like scapegoating the powerless for the misdeeds of the powerful, or moralising about imagined individual moral failings, instead of addressing actual, systemic, institutional malfunctions.

*The aesthetic of escaping from the big, bad world into a smaller, friendlier childhood idyll, possibly including trains, isn't necessarily reactionary, so long as it doesn't come with a massive side-order of prejudice and hatred. After all, the nation's favourite cuddly left-wing uncle, Oliver Postgate, creator of the cooperative, egalitarian Clangers, was also responsible for the tiny train-centric world of Ivor the Engine.