You Are Free To Do As We Tell You
This week: the free speech bores strike back, a tube map of the United States, and the problem with every London Underground line name exposed!
Some things I am worrying about this week
What I want to know is, if free speech is really under threat, then why is no power on God’s Earth capable of shutting up the (white, male, right wing) people who won’t stop boring on about it?
Bore of the week number one is education secretary Gavin Williamson (tarantula owner and ex-fireplace salesman; exact same voice and physicality of someone playing the education secretary in The Day Today). He’s proposing to introduce a new “free speech and academic freedom champion”, as well as legislation allowing people to sue universities for no-platforming them. Since one definition of no-platforming is “just not being invited to a thing”, and since the category of people not invited to any particular thing contains almost literally everyone, this seems to me to open the door to almost literally anyone suing universities whenever the hell they like. But never mind, I’m sure they thought it through.
Bore of the week number two is culture secretary Oliver Dowden (the nerdy one from 90s BBC flatshare sitcom and Samantha Janus vehicle Game On after being bitten by a radioactive Tory). He’s summoned 25 heritage bodies to Westminster to explain their shockingly unpatriotic willingness to publicly acknowledge the fact that There Are Things In British History That Were Bad.
All this is part of the government’s nauseating “war on woke”. It also, you may notice, amounts to a government minister putting pressure on outside bodies to say only what he wants them to say, and thus entirely contradicts the commitment to free speech laid out by bore number one.
The contradiction doesn’t really need explaining, of course, because the government doesn’t really care about free speech at all. It’s just that garnering flattering headlines in the Telegraph is a lot easier than, say, tackling a pandemic or sorting out Britain’s relationship with its neighbours or addressing the economic crisis that’s resulted from the first two things. Culture war is easy; competent government is hard. So long as this strategy keeps paying electoral dividends, I suspect we’re all stuck with it.
In unrelated depressing news, Transport for the North is abandoning plans for a region-wide smart ticketing system, equivalent to London’s Oyster Card, because, erm, the Department for Transport has just slashed its funding and it can’t afford to do it any more. More from the Yorkshire Post here.
You know, I’m starting to wonder if this government was serious about “levelling up” at all.
Some things I am delighted by this week
1. This marvellous investigation in the South London Press, which revealed that the @southwarkYIMBY Twitter account was, in fact, not a grassroots group campaigning in favour of housebuilding, but an alt account run by Southwark cabinet member for housing Leo Pollak. He’s since resigned and returned to the backbenches. On the one hand, transparency is definitely good and astroturfing is definitely bad; on the other, I can’t help but stan a Labour councillor who is that committed to housebuilding.
2. The new, more fight-y social media policy at HS2 Ltd, where someone has clearly decided that they are sick of people talking sh*t about them and that it’s time to fight back. In recent weeks the company has produced one Twitter thread dismantling the myth that Britain’s new railway will be a uniquely devastating threat to the country’s ancient woodlands; and another highlighting quite how badly behaved some of those protesting the project have been.
I’m not saying an account called HS2 Ltd isn’t just a tiny bit biased on all this: but by god it’s fun watching someone go after the self-styled environmental activists who, one can’t help but notice, seem far more concerned about a new railway than new roads.
3. The job ad for the post of executive assistant to visionary public money waster Thomas Heatherwick. Responsibilities include managing Thomas’ household staff, organising his holidays, remembering birthdays and buying gifts, and (my personal favourite) “any ad hoc tasks that Thomas may require, e.g. making a fancy-dress costume”. The ad – which didn’t state a salary, because of course it didn’t – mysteriously disappeared after being universally laughed at.
Alas, Heatherwick has form for this sort of entitlement: after his proposed Garden Bridge was cancelled, having burned through £43 million of public money without actually breaking ground, he wrote a whiny column in the Evening Standard about how beastly everyone had been about it. He forgot to mention his financial interest in the project.
Here’s what’s wrong with the name of every tube line
Metropolitan – More rural than any other line.
District – Has more stations, and thus serves more districts, than any other line.
Circle – Bad enough when it was a sort of amoeba shape, but now it’s not even a loop, it’s this sort of spiral thing.
Hammersmith & City – The name of only one of two lines on the network which serve both Hammersmith and the city. Also, the name is annoyingly long: single word names are far superior, IMHO.
Waterloo & City – Another annoyingly long name, especially considering the length of the line, and god it’s aggravating that it isn’t “Waterloo & Bank”.
Northern – Almost inevitably, a name reserved for the line that goes further south than any other. If TfL goes through with its long-term plan to rebuild Camden Town so it can split the line, and if it has any sense of humour whatsoever, it’ll rename the bit that terminates in Battersea, six miles north of the end of the other branch in Morden, the “Southern line”.
Central – I guess it’s kind of central, in that it runs through the middle of the Circle line, but since every tube line serves central London it doesn’t really narrow things down, does it?
Piccadilly – Does technically run under Piccadilly, but only for one of its 46 miles. That said, the name’s pretty so I’m minded to forgive it.
Victoria – There are 16 stations on the line, why exactly did they name it after this one? Which is also served by two other lines? You know they seriously considered calling it the Viking line (a portmanteau of VICtoria and KING’s Cross) yet decided not to? Still angry.
Elizabeth – I’m not saying Crossrail was good in the nomenclature department, but there is nonetheless something deeply, cravenly creepy about naming things after a head of state who is still alive. It’s a bit “hey guys, I’ve decided to rename January after myself”, don’t you think?
Jubilee – Since nationalisation in 1933, London has built nearly three new underground railways. It has named every one of them after the royal family. Hate hate hate it.
Docklands Light Railway – Name’s fine, I guess, but let’s be honest it definitely isn’t a tube line is it.
Overground – Also not a part of the tube, nor, come to that, a line: it’s about half a dozen of the things, each of which, in a better world, would have their own name. But since they don’t I will merely note that the Overground has no fewer than six stations at which its platforms are in fact underground, including Whitechapel where they are actually below the Underground. Which is overground.
While we’re including things that aren’t really tube lines…
Emirates Air Line – No, sure, let’s start naming everything after whoever wants to stump up a few quid. The Coca Cola Number 38 Bus. Kings Cross St Heineken. Waterloo Station, brought to you by BAE Systems. Why not. Why the hell not.
Bakerloo – Perfect. Unimprovable.
The only downside is it just reminds me of the Viking line and then I get angry all over again.
Map of the week
Cameron Booth is an Aussie-born, Oregon-based designer who just loves making metro maps. This, from 2019, is his tube map-style map of the US rail network Amtrak.
It’s a thing of beauty, showing 43 different passenger services covering the entire continental United States (albeit, it must be said, with a distinct east coast bias), each in their own colour. Where routes cross over into Canada, Booth uses a tiny black line to suggest the sense of crossing a border; the key, which uses Amtrak’s outstanding route names such as the California Zephyr, Missouri River Runner or Downeaster, includes a note on how frequently trains run and how long the trip takes. The longest journey I can find is the Sunset Limited, from Los Angeles to New Orleans (with a disused section continuing on to Orlando), which takes 48 hours end to end.
To explore the whole thing you should click through to Booth’s own website (after finishing this delightful email, of course). But just to give you a flavour, here’s the area around Chicago.
(This one came via a tweet from David Lewis, so: thanks David Lewis.)
Links and housekeeping
Some other things I have done this week:
Excitingly, my debut in the opinion pages of the Evening Standard, complete with the sort of photograph of myself that in a better world I’d be able to take out an injunction against: Does Boris Johnson really want to be the Prime Minister who let TfL collapse?
And lastly, some ~serious journalism~ for the New Statesman: why Dilyn the dog has performed better than any other cabinet member.
Still deciding on a strategy for this newsletter, but my current thinking is that, after a couple more freebies, I’ll put out maybe one a month to the free list but that the weekly version will go paying subscriber only. So if you’re enjoying this and want to keep getting it every week, you might want to smash that subscribe button. (Go on, it’s only £4 a month.)
Questions? Comments? Suggested topics? Email me.