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.