Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.
The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.
“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”
Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.
“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”
Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.
For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:
“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”
This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.
Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.
“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”
As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.
A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.
Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:
“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”
Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.
HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.