English Journey

Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)

In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.

The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.

His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.

However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.

Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.

Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.

Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.

What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.

Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.

This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.

Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.

Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.

Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.

Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.

Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.

Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seen.’

Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

– Natalie Bradbury 

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