“This looks like déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra famously observed.
The railway building boom of the mid-19th century was not without its opponents, chief amongst whom were the landowners and landed gentry. They claimed that the creation of new lines would result in the destruction of their estates and the loss of livestock, by which they usually meant foxes.
So it was no real surprise to read the comments of Cameron’s father-in-law, the fourth Viscount Astor, that HS2, the proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham,is supported primarily by “northern labour MPs who relish the thought of the beauty of the Chilterns being destroyed”.
Even by the standards of fourth viscounts who admit to having “ridden over the Chilterns all my life”, this is spectacularly crass and disingenuous. In the 1830s and 40s, neither estates nor livestock were destroyed - but the protesters did manage to extract huge amounts in compensation from the railway companies, which was the real purpose of the exercise. This time round, plus, c’est la meme chose: one can scratch a Buckinghamshire Tory and find that the argument is less about the beauty of the landscape and rather more about property prices.
It’s always about money.
HS2 is all about money, on both sides of the argument. A couple of years back, I did some work with the DfT on the public consultation process for HS2 and in setting out the implications for each community along the route, I came to understand the business case for the project and also the concerns of the many whose lives and properties will be profoundly affected.
Some will receive “generous” compensation. Worse off will be those just outside the compulsory purchase area. These people have my sympathy, especially when they are honest about their motivations.
In the same way as Auden, Spender and MacNeice found pylons beautiful in the 1930s, I find the high speed train beautiful. (Wind farms, too, as it happens.) Watching the TGV race through the French countryside is an awesome, uplifting experience. I find it far more aesthetically pleasing and exhilarating than watching the unspeakable in full pursuit of the inedible, and certainly more pleasant than the rash of “Say No to HS2” signs which has appeared in the hedgerows in our part of Warwickshire.
As Aristotle pointed out, technology imitates nature. It complements and supplements the natural world. Technology completes what nature leaves imperfect, from our point of view. There is nothing natural about a house, for example, even such a house as one suspects is the home of Viscount Astor: a house is made exclusively by humanity for humanity. The “beauty of the Chilterns” which Astor believes will be destroyed is the beauty of the Chilterns after many other beautiful manifestations have been destroyed.
The eye of this beholder finds the current Chilterns beautiful, even with its railway lines, its M40 corridor, its vast expanses of Barratt homes and its Tesco superstores.
And the eye of this beholder will find the Chilterns also beautiful in 20 years or so when, and if, HS2 is completed.
I should live so long.
Today’s listening: Dylan in Zurich in 1991, with the 4th Never Ending Tour band, featuring Johnny Jackson on guitar. James’s first show.