28 - 29 October 2001 'working on the lines'
the catch-22 of industrial life and evolution

(about 2000 words)

Yesterday I switched on the radio to hear train drivers and other railwaymen recalling the days of steam locomotives, of their replacement by diesels in the late 1950s, and of the difficulties of that transition - from what they remembered as high quality work in the harsh conditions of coal and steam to poorer quality work in the seemingly easier but actually worse conditions of sitting in a draughty and poorly-heated diesel cab on your own - and amidst lowered standards of safety, punctuality etc. ('working on the lines', BBC radio 4, 27 October 2001, produced by Angela Hind)

I was enthralled, for at the time of that changeover I was working with some of those drivers - sitting with them in their diesel cabs as I tried to find out, from their opinions and my observations, how to redesign the cabs and the control equipment to be better fitted to the drivers and to this new kind of power source. Everything I heard them say on the radio fitted exactly my memories of that work and of the insight I gained into what I thought of then, and think of now, as the completely hopeless way in which we are still failing to design the changing conditions of industrial work, and industrial living, to fit our own nature - and the fine things we can achieve when the conditions and the people are well adapted and in full accord.

I could write a book about this (and perhaps I should, here and now, for I can't see anyone else doing it) for my memories are plentiful and I think well-founded. But it would take a lot of explanation and effort because there is almost no one who shares my privileged and quite detailed experience of all this - of the work of train drivers, crane drivers, mine-winder engine men, power-station control room operators, computer users, and the like whose activity I was able to study during those years. It was my real education into the combined (and often mis-combined) nature of people-and-machines and I believe it to be the unspoken basis most of what I am writing here in this diary and in all my other works, no matter how poetic, or otherwise far they may seem from the roughness and the grittiness of the people who 'make the system work' despite the gross and blundering inhumanity with which it was and is designed by our own misguided selves and recent ancestors....

Yes I am still angry at what I learnt then and still determined to insist on something better!

Ah! I'm laughing as I write that - at the persistence of my anger and the daftness of the systems in amongst which we still grapple needlessly and self-destructively in the near-total absence of a proper regard for people-as-people when we shape the forms of modern life!... Yes I'm laughing at this angry flow of hard words that pour out of me when something triggers these memories! But I love them, these thoughts about the whole system and about the people who operate industry as it so misguidedly is, in all its inhumanity, as they stretch and adapt themselves so greatly (and I think needlessly) to the artificial world as we wrongly shape it and accept.

As I listened to that radio programme I could feel my unforgotten knowledge of the whole situation of British Rail re-arranging itself in my mind into a new and clear vision of what was wrong in the whole dreadful saga of how the once-fine standards of the old steam locomotives and their drivers and signalmen and everyone, with their primitive but so effective equipment, by one hopeless stage after another became the present near-disaster of a series of disconnected companies, run by accountants not railwaymen, unable to stop themselves causing accidents and unable to keep the trains to the timetable... etc. etc.

But then I remembered how my work in the cabs was suddenly prohibited because I'd sent my provisional conclusions not only to my employers, the makers of the next generation of electric locomotives, but to some of their customers, the leading engineers in British rail. I was almost dismissed for this impertinence and so my work on cab design was never completed. 'You've angered the Jesus Christ of this works' said my industrial patron, Harry West when he told me of the row I'd caused between the rail company and its suppliers.

I think it would be the same today. Anyone able to discover and to make public the profoundly wrong pattern of industrialisation, and to criticise those in charge, is going to be squashed or ignored.

Why is this I ask myself now, fifty years later? My answer is this: to become a chief engineer or a managing director in any of these old industries you have to accept, as do the workers, the awful conditions which any truly human or biological entity (a small child, a member of a pre-industrial tribe, an untamed animal) would reject completely unless forced by punishments and rewards.

By some historical accident I escaped or evaded much of that conditioning and found myself in a free-lance role in a vast company - able and encouraged by the anti-specialised nature of industrial design and ergonomics, and by my patron (the chief of all the chief engineers) to 'do as I pleased'! But even then I was powerless, and so was my chief-of-chiefs, for though we could criticise we could not over-ride the sub-divided responsibilities of the various chiefs and their departments, often at war with each other and with their customers.

For instance: the angry chief of the railway engine design department could not ever get a 'cab pass' to ride in a locomotive his department had designed. Why not? Because the 'Motive Power Department' of the railway company (which specified and purchased the locomotives) was at war with the department which operated the trains and issued cab-passes. I'd got a cab pass by going directly to the railway company's industrial designer - for which crime I was nearly sacked! But these are silly details are they not? The essential point, which I expect is still the case today, is that no one who has a wide enough view to see what is wrong is going to be given the power to over-ride the necessarily narrower vision of someone who has accepted enough of the status quo to become responsible for it. It's the catch-22 of industrial life as we know it.

The solution won't emerge here but in the entry on non-hierarchical or collective power - if and when I get to writing it. Departmentalism!

17:40 A beauteous afternoon such as I don't remember seeing. Three-quarter moon, pink and blue sky, St Paul's and the city towers projecting just above the distant trees, no clouds but for two smears of bluey-grey, one or two aircraft far off moving slowly across the sky - which today seems immense - and close by some tufts of damp autumn grass and a few straggly dandelions. This could be the last day of autumn - the wet cold of winter is already in the air. Nothing moves, no wind, but now comes a passenger plane flying off to the east, and then a tiny helicopter and now a single crow is flapping its way north towards Ken Wood.

I'm feeling cold but content and my mind is full of thoughts that I wish to write down (or should I say digitise?). I'll go home and do it.

I did go home but I was too tired to write - so instead I read a book*, Jared Diamond's 'scientific history' of the geographical not racial reasons why European people became so well equipped and therefore dominant and why others, such as the indigenous people of Australia, became so powerless. He maintains that if these populations had exchanged places the blacks would have become the industrialised ones and the whites would have remained 'in the stone age'. I'm over-simplifying his argument but I think that is close to his main conclusion... and of course I am very glad to know of it. It seems like a huge work of synthesis - and an intellectual or moral relief.

But, convincing as this seemed as I read it, I am uneasy with the whole. I feel that there are important things missing: for instance that 'stone age' people were probably as intelligent as any (I think he states that himself, but I doubt if he is sensitive to the spiritual quality of 'primitive life'?)... and I doubt if he is aware of the immense complexity and subtlety of human life in any circumstances - I feel he is still partially caught (as many of us are) in rigidities of academic and scientific thought (as opposed to religious or artistic)... I know that these are hard sayings, and I've not read the book closely, but there is something about the recent history of popular science writing that does not convince me - often it seems to undermine or ignore the unspeakable 'all'... without which there is no 'humanity', no 'sacredness', no 'poetry', no 'art'?

I remember several occasions when, after visiting science museums, I have come away utterly dispirited. I've had the same feeling in churches (not when they are empty but if I am obliged to take part in the ceremony). And I then I think of the many occasions when I have come away from an art gallery much inspired, seeing the world more widely than I did before, and somehow or other feeling that life is good, as it is, and very wonderful.

I know that scientists can feel this too when they contemplate each other's work and wide appreciation of nature that it reflects. But science museums, and these books of popular science, they leave feeling empty and that life has been diminished.

An exception: Albert Einstein's book Relativity (I can't find my copy now but I believe it's never been out of print). He wrote it to explain relativity to people who do not understand it and many think that he succeeds in doing that. But somehow it does not feel like second-hand knowledge that has been changed in some way to make it saleable. It feels to me like the real thing - and yet I can read it!

29 October: And now, having added all that to this already long entry, do I find any connection between my experience of 'working on the lines' and this book about human evolution?... Yes I do - for they are both stories of the changing conditions of life - and of how, in both the evolution of steam trains into diesels, and in the evolution from stone tools to metal ones, it's the physical context that determines what happens as the people succeed or fail according to their ability to change their ways of life when changed circumstances demand it... This is not 'survival of the fittest' but 'survival of the freaks', the ones who could respond to what the well-adapted majority could not.

* Jared Diamond, Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years,Vintage, London 1998.