Is there an art to giving books their titles? I’m staring at my bookshelf, and I can see titles that are clever, witty or just factual. Dr Beeching’s Remedy would be a far simpler read if the executive’s name was not on the cover. A Century of the Railway’s Ills would be a far more accurate name (even if it raised the question of which century it was referring to). With a better name, David Clough’s book would make a lot more sense.
The book is a compact 160 pages, yet Beeching doesn’t turn up until page 96. The first six chapters set the scene. There is a storming start where Clough points out the unusual economic circumstances of the 1840s that led to railways being an oddly safe investment. By the end of the nineteenth century there was huge but misunderstood cross-subsidisation of rural routes and this became increasingly unsustainable once the railways faced competition from road yet continued to carry obligations from when they had been a monopoly.
Clough is particularly convincing on the early decades of British Railways, a time during which lacklustre governance and a bias towards steam hobbled the railway system. The Modernisation Plan of the late 1950s saw the railways re-equip – but it was not until the early 1960s that a debate even began to be had about what these newly re-equipped railways were for. This is an argument made many times before, but Clough finds papers in the National Archive that shed new light on BR’s lost first decade. I think that this book is a good complement to Last Trains: Dr Beeching and the Death of Rural England by Charles Loft which covers different ground.
Between a quarter and a half of the pages are given over to photographs: all well-taken, one (the double page spread on pages 134-5) incredibly beautiful, some with bafflingly detailed captions, some quirky, such as the weird articulated delivery vehicles known as ‘mechanical horses’. The pics range from the 1940s to the 1990s: all are in black and white which adds to their authority as historical documents. They seem to sit more happily in a book that says it is about a century of railway ills than one that centres on Richard Beeching’s work. There is no picture of the man himself, though I’m not sure there needs to be.
Disappointingly, my (library) copy included some mistakes that had crept in during typesetting: the first column on page 9, you realise, leads on to page 12, after which you return to page 9. A more interventionist editor might also have taken issue with Clough’s sudden rambling about ‘the profitable railway’ and his out-of-nowhere swing at ‘left-wing commentators’. There’s a similar golf club feel to his final sentence in which – having invited the reader to make up their own mind about Beeching – he writes, ‘bear in mind that virtually all his critics have commented from the armchair or the academic chair and probably couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag…’. It’s a horrible ending which does a great disservice to the pages before hand: after all if you have to revert to insult in your final sentence, what does that say about your confidence in the argument you have presented? Yet in the main this is a thoughtful and interesting take on the run-up to Beeching. I’m looking forward to reading Clough’s follow-up book which goes into greater detail on the Modernisation Plan itself. But I will be hoping the editor is paying attention.