SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS (Scott is up for an award – vote for him here)
SIGNAL FAILURE (INFLUX PRESS) BY TOM JEFFREYS
Tom Jeffreys is a journalist/writer/curator with a strong interest in the contemporary Arts scene. Signal Failure (Influx Press, April 2017) is his first book, and as explained by its subtitle: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, it is a full-length piece of psychogeography about a walk from Euston Station in London up to Curzon Street in Birmingham, the proposed site of the as-yet-unbuilt terminus of a truly exciting national infrastructure project.
The book is great and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Signal Failure is well written and researched, it is informed and informative, and showcases a real and deeply intellectual interest in the many subjects it covers. This is a book about writing, about nature, about history and about regional identity. Jeffreys walks and talks and sleeps and reads, and Signal Failure is evidence of a great amount of effort and thought and it is thus a commendable and timely piece. To reiterate: I enjoyed reading it, and it’s important I make this clear, because the more I write about Signal Failure the harder I’m finding it to ignore the very angry way its politics made me feel over and over and over again.
I’m going to give a little sidenote on my personal opinions, and then come back to politics later, because if I don’t make a concerted effort to separate discussion of the book’s ideas from my discussion of the book as a book, ideology is going to get in the way. And Signal Failure is an impressive read and I don’t want to put anyone off it. I just happen to disagree fundamentally with what it’s saying, regardless of how much I like the way it says it.
Here we go:
I am 100% pro-HS2 and – I’m sorry Mr Jeffreys – Signal Failure did nothing to change my mind. I grew up in the West Midlands and have lived for most of a decade in navel-gazing London (with a spell in South Wales inbetween) and there is nothing that repulses me more here in real-life Kings’ Landing than the capital’s broad, constant, sneering belief that the rest of the UK doesn’t matter. The rest of the country does matter (unless London stops letting them vote), and what the Midlands and the North desperately need is the kind of infrastructure investment that London receives with regularity. HS1, Crossrail, Thameslink, Heathrow expansion, the extension of the Bakerloo Line, Crossrail 2 etc… HS2 would give Birmingham (and then Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow) massive piles of cash, huge amounts of jobs and enviable long term international connectivity. It is quicker to travel by train from central London to central Amsterdam (crossing THREE international borders, one of which is a SEA) than central Edinburgh: this could – and should – be fixed, especially if the UK doesn’t want itself to fracture along brexit-voting lines.
Right, while I can still stop myself from getting excited, let’s talk about Signal Failure in two separate and distinct phases.
SIGNAL FAILURE AS A BOOK, I.E. HOW IT SAYS WHAT IT SAYS BUT IGNORING WHAT IT ACTUALLY SAYS BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE WHAT IT SAYS AND I DO LIKE THE BOOK
Jeffreys sets off from the Euston Road on a crisp (love that adjective) November morning, and walks, close by the West Coast Main Line, out to the ‘burbs. He passes many different types of architecture and is direct witness to London’s long-standing historicity. Jeffreys strolls by churches and housing estates, old stations and new, and reflects on the city’s changing landscape and the way a very specific type of change occurs in parts of cities close to travel hubs. Combining impressive knowledge of both architectural and social history, Jeffreys talks us through the areas of London that will be demolished to make way for the HS2 tracks, setting the didactic, disapproving, tone.
The reader learns about the construction of the large, prefabricated housing estate that sits between the train tracks north of Euston and Regents’ Park, and the way it has changed over time. As well as detail of design, construction and demographic make up, Jeffreys offers poignant and personalised anecdotes about individual residents. He strolls on, and describes the change in architecture and personal interaction that happens as he gets towards greener spaces – people are unconfrontational by the time he reaches the suburbs, and people are even friendly, accommodating and interested in him once he’s out of Greater London. He follows the course of the Metropolitan Line and gives a lot of detail about the societal changes wrought by this metropolitan incursion into the Buckinghamshire countryside, repeatedly discussing John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary, Metro-Land.
The whole of Signal Failure is like this, really, looking at (often obscure) films and books and essays and artworks that tie themselves to the locations Jeffreys is beside and the ideas he is considering. These textual touchstones vary from the most famous works by household names (in a certain type of household) to limited edition poetry pamphlets published by independent presses. There is no smugness to Jeffreys’ discussion of niche texts, in fact he is quite egalitarian, imbuing no more significance to the work of John Betjeman than the work of, for example, Alan Corkish. Thanks to Jeffreys’ wide reading, he is able to write on a variety of topics with an impressive tone of authority, which is backed up by quotation and bibliographic referencing.
A recurring topic is an exploratory discussion of nature writing and its history, particularly that of its recent rebirth. By considering texts written by its foremost exponents as well as criticics, Jeffreys offers an investigation into the societal need for this kind of writing. He also discusses why it is so frequently a lone man, alone but not lonely, who voices these pieces. Other significant themes in Signal Failure include the creation of the motorway network, the redevelopment of Birmingham following the Blitz (with many references to the excellent Midland by Honor Gavin), the Beeching Report (anyone else remember this?), as well as poetry and prose inspired by travel and transport (not just nature).
Jeffreys tries wild sleeping, but is spooked by a horse on the first night (his intense fear of horses is a frequent source of comedy) and then tries to avoid the wilderness as much as possible. He sleeps the second night at his parents’ house in Amersham (his father a vociferous campaigner against HS2, even going so far as to regularly wear a sweatshirt bearing the slogan “STOP HS2”, which I kept imagining in the same style as “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX”, as they’re both phrases encouraging denial of something that other people would really, really, get to enjoy), and walks on. His musings – which are articulate and investigative – are enjoyable, and as a result of his textual analyses I ordered several of the niche publications mentioned. Jeffreys quotes from poetry and essay, from scientific studies and from fiction. He is a well read and intelligent individual, and his insights into the development of suburbia, the changing demographics and industries of the country as a whole and the contemporary art scene are all well-formed. I enjoyed travelling across the countryside with this witty and thoughtful man, his conversation a mixture of fact and opinion, journalistic knowledge gained from both personal interaction with strangers as well as desk-based research.
He describes landscapes and buildings well, and despite regularly chastising himself for his ignorance of the flora and fauna of the British countryside, seems to know a lot about the birds and mammals of his part of the world. This lack of confidence in his knowledge – as well an eight-month pause in the middle of the walk – successfully humanise Jeffreys, and characterise him as a fallible and engaging narrator. It is only when his thoughts and his writings veer too close to the unignorable pole of firm political opinion that he starts to lose me. Because all of the people who are anti-HS2 are – excuse my language – exactly the kind of privileged white southern dickheads you’d fucking expect, all of them about as interested in the long term good of the nation as Donald Trump is interested in the long term good of his.
AND HERE WE GO:
SIGNAL FAILURE AS BULLSHIT SOUTHERNCENTRIC PROPAGANDA, OR: THE POLITICS BIT
What makes a text didactic beyond forgiveness? What is it within a film or a speech or a book – one that is conspicuously trying to persuade an audience towards a specific opinion – that makes it dismissable as a cultural product? Or is there not one? Is it possible to praise the graphic design of wartime propaganda despite underlying nationalist (and often racist) rhetoric? Can one attend Futurist exhibitions without compromising membership of a left wing political party? Can a hateful poem be beautiful? Is it possible to enjoy Neapolitan pizza – a respected and praised national symbol of Italy – and be a UKIP-supporter? Can anyone who believes in representative democracy and the smoothness of capitalism comfortably sit in a room with the globalised face of Che Guevara pouting off a coffee mug? Can we watch Casablanca despite not believing in the holy purity of war? Can we be interested in accurate reproductions of the past and still enjoy Inglorious Basterds? Is it possible to believe that World War One was necessary and still like the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Can songs of religious devotion be moving to non-believers?
The answer to all of these questions is YES.
Everything and everyone has an agenda – to deny this is naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Every book you read, every film you watch, every breath you take: all are products of someone’s mind and thus someone’s ideology (especially ‘Every Breath You Take’). Most works of art are imbued with an ideology that most of its audience would describe as apolitical, but that’s because most works of art pander to an ideology that’s so tucked inside the status quo that – to an audience from that society – the ways in which it normalises and standardises the lived experience of that culture isn’t noticed.
Some works of art are a response against accepted culture, are a deliberate and provocative attack against normalised power structures in the real world. Texts like this are not considered propaganda, they are considered protest and are rarely maligned for their politics. Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot rests here – at least within its own ideology – as a book sticking it to “the man”, as a piece deeply emotionally invested in an opinion and relentlessly pressing that through every page. And its politics are deliberately and proudly unprogressive: Signal Failure advocates “radical conservatism”, it praises maintaining the status quo, stopping Westminster from ruining the retirements of “decent, ordinary people” (Farage’s phrase, not Jeffreys’).
We are asked to see HS2 as a bad thing because it will disrupt many people’s lives for many years. And many of those lives are the lives of successful, affluent, people who’ve moved to the Chilterns specifically for a peaceful life. It isn’t fair on them. But HS2 isn’t for these people, HS2 isn’t being built to improve the lives of retired people who already live within commutable distance of central London, it’s being built as an investment in the long term success of the country, specifically the parts of the country that have suffered from years of London and South East-centric policies.
By positioning itself, self-consciously, as protest, Signal Failure betrays a deep southerncentricism, grossly confusing the government’s decision to offend the retirees of Buckinghamshire with being Londoncentric. HS2 is for the North, HS2 is for the Midlands – it will temporarily disrupt the peace of the Chilterns during its construction and then they’ll forget it was ever a nuisance. With the success of HS2 the UK will be filled with skilled workers able to implement large scale infrastructure projects like this one, who will then go on to complete HS3, which won’t even be anywhere near London, a sign of solidarity and respect given from the country as a whole to the North.
The people Jeffreys meets who hate HS2 are all affluent, Southern, successful: they are not going to benefit from the trainline and they only want to stop it so as to help themselves in the short term. They are retired lawyers, doctors, scientists, etc: they are all elites. Their opposition is inherently selfish and should be condemned, not pandered to. I felt scorn when encouraged to feel pity for a person who felt suicidal because the value of their property might be reduced – so fucking what? If your self-worth is rooted in the price of your house, you should be seeking psychological assistance long before that number starts getting lower.
The construction of HS2 will prioritise the long-term future of the British economy and help it stop being so reliant on bankers in fucking smog-ridden London. Opening the UK up with high speed trains will make it possible to reduce aeroplane usage (why fly from Manchester to Paris when it’s quicker by train?), and will show that we’re a forward-looking, future-focused nation that wants to prosper in the real, modern, world, rather than a bunch of backwards-looking isolationists who want to sit in pub gardens drinking pints of bitter with spouses who are also their cousins.
Constructing HS2 will be a sign that Westminster cares about parts of the country other than the Home Counties and self-important London. Opposing HS2 because it might mess up some property values and a few fucking lakes is wilfully southerncentric.
For a bit of context, UKIP and the Green Party are both anti-HS2. If that doesn’t emphasise that being against this project is either irrational or atavistic I don’t know what does. “Stop HS2” banners, blotting the front lawns of racist bank managers and pothead geography teachers everywhere in the Chilterns. And the Chilterns, let’s be honest, isn’t even a particularly beautiful area of natural beauty, it certainly isn’t “outstanding” when compared to the Lake District, the Highlands, the Pennines, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and most parts of the coastline.
HS2 is an important and necessary statement of interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole, and I think it is telling that a book written in protest against it is a book about a man walking in familiar places, meeting familiar kinds of people and going out of his way to engage with people who share his opinions, but not those who disagree.
To dismiss Signal Failure as propaganda, even in my best (long repressed) Brummie accent, would be churlish, because Jeffreys’ book is deeply engaging, and even when I disagreed with it, I felt something very strongly. I was exasperated by the characters who spoke out against the planned railway and irritated by the swift writing away from any conversations with opposing viewpoints.
BUT – and this is important – it doesn’t matter that me and Jeffreys (no, I don’t mean “Jeffreys and I”) disagree on HS2, because I have a huge amount of respect for his production of this informative, witty and engaging book. Signal Failure was a great read for me, so I imagine it will be book of the year for anyone who – like Tom Jeffreys – actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.
Truly, a great book. But one filled with despicable, southern-centric, politics.
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SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY IS UP FOR “BEST REVIEWER’ IN THE SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017.