Clueless

Quick apology, yesterday’s post went up without being properly proof read.  All cleaned up now.

This post is a slight digression to look at a review of Seasons in the Sun by Gerard DeGroot in The Daily Telegraph.  DeGroot is a published historian, Professor of Modern History at St Andrews University, FRHistS no less, so I should be careful what I say.  I have only read one of his books, The Sixties Unplugged, the unplugged indicating that it has a stream of consciousness and knockabout approach, which he certainly succeeds in doing with his book which is immediate and engaging.

There are serious problems with this review (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/9200952/Seasons-in-the-Sun-by-Dominic-Sandbrook-review.html).  Gerard starts the review likening the Moorgate train crash of 1975 to the premiership of Harold Wilson.  Precisely, the train driver, who died in the crash, is used as a cipher for Harold Wilson, the pair joined by being “clueless”.  Leaving aside the issue of taste of using a crash in which 43 people died as an analogy for the performance of the prime minister, there is a bigger issue here.

I follow EP Thompson in that historians have a responsibility to be faithful to the actions and motives of their subjects.  I would go further, where the historian is giving voice to those who are relatively powerless in society we have to make sure that we do not misrepresent, far less slander, them.  The train driver of the Moorgate train, Leslie Newman, cannot speak for or defend himself when Gerard denounces him as “clueless”.  The inquest and inquiries into the train crash were able to ascertain that it was not caused by mechanical failure and that it does not appear that Newman lost consciousness.  But beyond that, there is no certainty about why he failed to stop the train.  In her book Moorgate (Newton Abbot: Davies and Charles, 1988), Sally Holloway concludes with the words of an “international forensic scientist of considerable repute” that “the cause of the Moorgate disaster will always remain one of the great mysteries of the medical world” (p195)

It is a little misleading to say that it was a Northern Line train.  The Drayton Park to Moorgate line (the Northern City Line) is an odd pit of track, poorly integrated into the rest of the London network.  It has a complicated history, and in 1970 was renamed the Northern Line (Highbury) branch.  It had been operationally part of the Northern Line for a while (in the same way that the Waterloo and City Line is operrationally part fo the Central Line).  Plans to transfer it to British rail were formed in 1970, but this did not happen until after the crash.   It is now run by First Capital Connect.  The train did not crash into a bricked up tunnel, but a five foot thick concrete wall.  Moorgate is, and always had been, the end of this line.

To be fair to Gerard, this factual material, apart from the date, is not his.  He has, not unreasonably in a book review, used information from Dominic’s book (Seasons p78).  (Actually DeGroot is more accurate in that he says 43 people died, Dominic has 43 passengers, it was of course 42 passengers and the driver).  Dominic does not use the analogy with Wilson but instead draws the inference that “Even the Underground, once the capital’s pride and joy had become a symbol of decline…”. (Seasons p78).

Did a train crash show decline?  To be sure, there had been four accidents of a similar nature in the 70s with passenger trains (although at slower speeds, they were misjudgements in braking, not a failure to brake) although only one resulted in 19 minor injuries.  There were a further two accidents with empty trains in which drivers were killed.  (Holloway, Moorgate, p114)  Only after Moorgate was a safety system TETS (train entering terminus station) installed to stop a similar incident happening again.  But before the crash no-one thought that a crash like this of a train in service was possible, and it was believed that the safety mechanisms in place were adequate.  (Holloway, Moorgate, p115)

I will leave you, dear reader, to decide who is “clueless”.

Now, I promised an assessment of whether Harold Wilson was drunk on the job, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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2 Responses to Clueless

  1. cantaffordtodoama says:

    D.Sandbrook is proving to be quite a controversial revisionist historian; perhaps he has cause to ponder Sir Walter Raleigh’s suggestion that: “Who-so-ever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth”.
    Have you watched his BBC2 series about the 70s, and if so what would be your assesment so-far? Also have you read Alwyn W.Turner’s books about the 70s and 80s (and the current e-book about the 90s)? How would you compare and contrast these with the Sanbrook opus(s)? Sorry about the tirade of questions!

  2. To answer the questions.
    1. I have not seen the first two parts of The Seventies. I have a machine that watches the programmes I cannot be bothered to myself, so they will probably sit there for a while before I delete them. I was thinking that I should probably address the next two, which overlap with the period of this book. (Am I right in thinking the first two were 1970-4, and the second two 1974-9?)

    2. As I have commented somewhere else on this blog, I am afraid that Alwyn Turner’s book on the 70s is sitting on my bookshelf unread. My memory from the reviews was that it was a little light-weight and relied too much on a stroll down memory lane via sitcoms and Top of the Pops. It is, perhaps, a move away from serious, thoughtful analysis towards a “cracking good read”. But that is to prejudge a book I have not read.

    I have read Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out (2010) and enjoyed its analysis. It is a decent political history although a towards the popular journalistic end of the spectrum rather than an academic history. (This is not a criticism, just a statement of fact.) His view of the seventies as the real sixties is not just interesting, it is important and insightful.

    The development of the historiography on post-war Britain is notable here. If you look at the single government histories of the period they have really moved on. With the Attlee governments from 1945-51 the histories are largely of the political elite and their actions. Thus Henry Pelling’s The Labour Governments 1945-1951 (1984) and Kenneth Morgan’s Labour in Power 1945-1951 (1985), are both very much based on government papers. Peter Hennessy’s Never Again Britain 1945-1951 (1992) broke new ground. Although Peter’s book was still very much based on government papers, it sought to put this in the context of ordinary people and their experiences. David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-1951 (2008) even more so.

    This trend of digging down into people’s lives has become more common, being a factor in Hennessy’s Having it so Good (2006) and Kynaston’s Family Britain (2010), both focusing on the 1950s. Both draw on primary and contemporaneous sources to build up their more totalising pictures of Britain in the 1950s. Kynaston’s book on 1957-1963, Modernity Britain is due out late next year, and Peter says he is working on his 1960s (although I hear he is writing a novel too, so don’t hold your breath, I think that he might jump and do Thatcher now the archives are opening). I would add that, without being ageist, both Hennessy and Kynaston are “late career” historians (65 and 61 respectively, I think). I don’t want to trumpet the virtues of age, but these broad sweep books are often best executed by historians have been round the block a few times.

    In his defence, I would say that Dominic Sandbrook’s approach is right. He attempts to combine the elite history of the state and its policies with that of social movements, mass culture and everyday life. But this is a huge job and he does it too hurriedly. It becomes derivative of other people’s work, tends to fall into lists and ends up with anecdotes rather than understanding. So rather than challenging the reader it comforts them with the easy (and entirely second hand) nostalgia of The Good Life and Dr. Who. I decided to do this blog after reading Dominic’s book on the Sixties, White Heat. I am a sixties specialist, and have read many of his sources. Not only was I haunted by déjà vu through the book, but I felt that he had simply not got to grips with many of the important issues. My impressionistic feeling about Alwyn Turner is that his books suffer similar flaws, but again I emphasise that this is not based on actually reading his book and will certainly send him a good single malt if I find I have maligned him.

    The problem is Raleigh may no longer be right here. The small number of books on the 1970s may be a result of how they come to be written. Typically a PhD student, or some research programme, will do some research on a recently opened archive, many of which have a thirty year rule (most of all the Public Record Office which holds government papers). On the back of this they will publish a book looking at some aspect of the period, and then they or someone else will be able to generalise this into a general history of the period. So we have the three volume The Labour Governments 1964-1970 by Fielding, Tomlinson and Young from 2003 and Peter Dorey (ed), The Wilson Governments 1964-1970 from 2006. Thus we’d be expecting to see more material on the 1970s in a couple of years time. My worry is that the popular histories that are appearing will squeeze out the market for the academic histories seeking the popular crossover market. So the kicking of teeth might not happen as one might expect.

    One last point. Dominic has presented himself as a “revisionist” but his seventies history – decline and those naughty unions – is very mainstream. The real revisionists on the 70s are those who claim it was good, and those who miss union power. I am in both of these camps.

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