Stuart Reid

Diary - 9 August 2003

The rail network inhabits the wrong kind of universe

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It's no good complaining. The rail network inhabits the wrong kind of universe. If the sun shines for more than two days, the network goes down. You can't argue with science. In the last heatwave I travelled back to London from Brighton in a train whose air-conditioning had given up under the strain. I rang the customer-services office to complain that passengers couldn't even open the windows. Less than a fortnight later I got a letter from South Central. It was not an apology. It was a patronising explanation of the principles of air-conditioning. It doesn't work, see, if you open the windows. The point is, however, that if it is not working, the only way to get some air is to open the windows, or to break them. A guard with a window key would have come in handy, but there was no guard on the train. As privatisers will wearily tell you, advanced technology has made the guard redundant. How I yearn for the days of nationalised railways, when the air-conditioning did not break down – because there was none – and when there were not only guards but porters. All you had to do was cry 'pawtah!' when your train arrived at King's Cross and a forelock-tugging man in uniform – salt of the earth – was instantly at your side, and glad of a sixpenny tip.

Cornwall is the fashionable place to be right now, whether you are a toff or a methadone-swigging hippy. My wife and son are there again, and again without me. I can't warm to the place. Its narrow lanes are jammed with Renault Espaces and caravans, the food is rubbish, the architecture is uniformly ugly, and – though I hate stereotyping as much as the next man – the locals sometimes give the impression of being not only stupid and cunning but grasping too. At any rate, a little-known survey of the folkways of coastal Britain shows that the most frequently used construction in Cornwall is, 'That'll be ten pounds, m'dear.' I'm glad I'm not there.

My hatred of stereotyping extends even to Germans – indeed, especially to Germans, since they are given such a hard time in our oafish press. And yet ...last month, just after Germany and Italy had started trading insults, my wife and I stayed in an apartment on an agriturismo outside Arezzo. Below us, and on every side, were Germans. We were close enough to them to watch their underwear dry. The trouble with these people is not that they are humourless. On the contrary. In Arezzo at least there was nothing they did not find funny. In the pool they played with a rubber ball. If the ball hit the water in front of one of them and splashed him, he laughed; if he caught it and it didn't splash him, he laughed; if it hit him in the eye and momentarily blinded and stunned him, he laughed. One of the laughing Germans was reading Michael Moore's Stupid White Men in translation, which struck me as odd because he – and all the Germans at the agriturismo – spoke perfect English. ('You have been enjoying another fine sunset, yes!?') At a time when Europe is crying out for a revival of Prussian militarism – essential if we are ever to assemble a credible defence force – all we get from Germany is laughter and good manners. It is not good enough.

Mercifully, the Germans in Tuscany keep their kit on. Not so the Germans on the Adriatic coast of the Romagna, who romp naked and glistening in the humid heat, the men pausing occasionally to rub Factor 2 into their penises. I was in the Romagna to visit my good friend Nicholas Farrell in Predappio, birthplace of Benito Mussolini. Nick moved there from France in 1998 to write a life of il Duce. The life has now been published. Since it is a revisionist work and therefore not entirely unfavourable to Musso, Nick has come in for some stick here. In Italy, however, he is a celebrity: the only Anglo-Saxon ever to have written an unbiased account of the fascist era, etc., etc., etc. Last week, fascist pilgrims arrived in Predappio to celebrate their leader's 120th birthday, and converged on Nick's flat (in a converted nunnery) to salute him. He had to shout at them through the letter box, 'Please go away. I am not a fascist. Mi dispiace!'

Musso's crypt – in fact, a shrine – rather does your head in. When your eyes adjust to the gloom, you see the tomb and a large bust of Mussolini's preposterous, helmeted head. There is also a small flask containing part of his brain that was removed by the Americans in 1945 in the hope of discovering what caused fascism. They returned it 20 years later none the wiser. Then you notice what at first seems to be a waxwork figure but which turns out to be a young man dressed in a black cloak. He is the honour guard. Behind him is a tiny chapel. More spooky is the nearby fascist gift shop. The window is filled with busts of Hitler. The works of fiction on sale include not only the The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion but the even more popular Lord of the Rings. 'These fascists look like bad buggers to me,' I say to Nick. 'They are not fascists,' he replies irritably. 'They are Nazis.'

What confusing times we live in. It was much simpler in the Thirties. I imagine we all know conservatives who would rather vote SWP than Tory. As the primaries approach in the United States, some of my conservative friends there are finding it unusually difficult to decide how to cast their vote. One of them, Bill Kauffman, author of America First, tells me that to begin with he was quite attracted by Howard Dean, because the former Vermont governor has conservative instincts, being both anti-war and anti-gun control; but the attraction did not last. Bill has decided that Dean is just another bagman for the establishment. So whom to vote for? Al Sharpton, obviously. He's the candidate most unacceptable to the liberal ruling class.

Still in America: more and more people are saying that George W. Bush will go the way of his father, and not win a second term. I do not believe it. Here's an interesting thing, though. Dubya is not a cowboy. If only he were. When he failed in his first run for Congress in 1978 – he was standing in a district whose main town is Lubbock – he blamed his rejection on Texas 'provincialism'. That insolent swagger has nothing to do with John Wayne, therefore. It is the body language of big government. The President's wars and his tax cuts have resulted in the biggest budget deficit in US history ($445 billion this year and $475 billion next year). As the late Senator Everett Dirksen (Rep, Illinois) once remarked, 'A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon it runs into real money.'