Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Classical music, neconservatism and some politics

Currently I am listening to an EMI Classics 'Great Recordings of the Century' of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 Resurrection. I first heard this piece, as you might recall as this years Proms. This is claimed to be one of the finest recordings of this particular work with conductor Otto Klemperor, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and two soloists. The recording dates from 1963 and was remastered in 2000. It sounds superb.

With the purchase of this CD I am getting nearer to completion of the complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies. I like Mahler's symphonies because they are extraordinary pieces of music. Ressurrection for example, while mostly concerned with death and thus necessarily dark and melancholic, ends on a glorious and unrestrained climax. Throughout it has moments of ebullience and the large orchestra and chorus required for this piece is given full voice. It is the drama of Mahler's symphonies I love and the fact that in each it feels as if he has literally poured his heart into them. They're tortured, rousing and occasionally disturbing pieces of extraordinary power.

Yesterday I started reading Francis Fukuyama's After the Neocons, which I borrowed from the library last week. Fukuyama is someone whose writing I am only vaguely acquainted with. His book, The End of History, was quoted from and mentioned a few times during my OU course on the United States. In After the Neocons, Fukuyama introduces the neoconservative movement, essentially one of four distinctive schools of thought in America on foreign policy. Neoconservatism has its roots in the 1940s/1950s, being founded by American-Jewish intellectuals and coming to particular prominence in the Cold War. It emphasises the role of America as a benign empire and the moral purpose of American power, thus largely dismissing the usefulness of multilateral and the institutions of international governance such as the United Nations. I have some sympathy with this view and despite all the cynical and negative hyperbole to the contrary, I sincerely believe that a benign American empire is something to be welcomed, not feared.

Interestingly Fukuyama makes it quite clear from the start that while he did consider himself a neoconservative, he has become disillusioned, arguing that neoconservatism has become hijacked by the Bush administration and had its meaning and purpose usurped. But it isn't a rant about the Bush administration or the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Rather Fukuyama argues why the Bush Doctrine is misguided and seeks to offer an alternative set of principles to guide American foreign policy. I haven't as yet got to the 'meat' of this book but it is surprisingly interesting and engaging. I find the arguments logical and relatively clear to follow although some understanding of politics and in particular American identity, is necessary to get the full thrust of Fukuyama's message.

Finally, I wanted to comment on something, which was being discussed over a pint in the pub last Sunday; public transport. This is where the 'some politics' part comes in! Okay, so this may not seem like the most dynamic subject to be talking about on a Sunday lunchtime but it is an issue that I am passionate about and has a direct bearing on all of us, in some way or another.

I think the basic feeling was that people think public transport in the UK generally is pretty useless, of poor quality and simply not inviting enough, especially if you have access to your own car. The consensus is that we all want better public transport. However, its in the detail that generally there is much disagreement. Just how good does public transport have to be before it becomes a real alternative to the private car? And who pays for it?

One form of public transport that all most everybody uses is the railway. A billion passenger journeys were made on UK railways last year, the highest number since the mid-1960s on a considerably reduced network. There is considerable negativity and cynicism about the railways in this country. After all we have just entered the leaf fall season and no matter how hard the operators try to explain just how serious a problem this is, nobody cares to listen. It is easier to make silly jokes about 'leaves on the line.' What amazes is me is that everybody seems to assume that this is a recent phenomena when in fact it has existed since the steam age!

Sometimes the industry itself manages to score some remarkable own-goals and remains very poor at effective self-promotion. Moreover I think the railways suffer from too much political interference with the strategic direction being set by a Department for Transport that hardly seems to understand what the railway is, much less how to run it.

Railways cost a lot of money too, massive sums of money. Why? Because for the most part our trains, although many of them are new, run on infrastructure that dates from the Victorian age. Presently, Network Rail, the infrastructure provider is embarking on a massive programme of improvements, on which it will spend £3 billion this year alone. This is everything from the West Coast Mainline upgrade,signalingg improvements, laying new track, improving stations, civil engineering and freight enhancements.

Major projects in the pipeline include rebuilds of New Street station in Birmingham, London's Waterloo, Victoria and Kings Cross stations. Desperately in need of a rebuild is Clapham Junction although the enormous costs and disruption that such a project would cause is likely to see a stop-gap approach taken.

It is this reticence to spend the really huge sums of money and make ambitious projects work, which is where the rail industry lacks. The West Coast Mainline has perhaps been the best example of how not to do it, a project that hasspiraledd out of control in terms of costs and delivery. However, the Channel Tunnel rail link, which will fully open next year along with St Pancras International is an example of what can be done with political will, adequate funding and strong project management, delivering on time and on budget.

Railways are an expensive business and I think we should get used to that. If we want a first class railway that will be the envy of our European neighbours, we need to invest and invest heavily. We need politicians that are willing to put their support behind ambitious schemes like a new North-South high speed line between Scotland and London. We need most of all vision and I think that is sorely lacking.

The simple problem to me seems that it is easier to sell to someone a new road than it is a new railway. Railways are expensive to build and maintain and they do not attract the political support that roads do. Yet, railways deliver massive benefits in the long term in respect of benefits to the environment, cutting pollution and using much less space than roads as well as providing economic benefits and easing congestion on the road network.

Most of all I think we need a party with the political will and courage to support the railways. The current government doesn't and certainly the last Conservative government didn't. It needs a change of attitude that must come from the government but must also carry with it public will as well, which is where the rail industry needs to work harder.


jamie said...

whoosh-that all went over my head.
i buy a ticket,i get on the train,i fall asleep,i arrive at my destination...

Mark said...

Well, you're not alone there Jamie. And, lets be honest, why should you care as long as the train gets you from 'a' to 'b' safely and on time? I've only got an interest in these things because I have a bit of a passion about railways and the politics of it all fascinates me. But there as I say, its just a personal interest, so why should it matter to anyone else?