John Major Balls-up's Train Set

This fine toy engine was discovered in 1961 in a Coldharbour Lane junk-shop. Sadly, it doesn't work.

      Long ago, in deepest Brixton, there lived a dull schoolboy called John Major Balls-up.

      Young John had few friends, but he did have a very smart train set. There were model steam engines and splendid toy coaches with 'LMS' (London Midland and Scottish Railway; not the Latin Mass Society) and GWR (Great Western Railway, not Genesee and Wisconsin Inc) emblazoned on the side. On every opportunity he could find, he would play with his toy trains. They were his pride and joy, and he would sit and gaze upon the magic words on the sides for hours at a time. Indeed, John would often cast his school work aside to make more train-playing time.

      It was a shame he neglected his history books to play with his trains. Otherwise, John might have left school with more than one GCE 'O' Level and he wouldn't later have embarked on a chequered career and left the bequest of a major balls-up to his country. Today John is mostly remembered for this balls-up, his soap-box, and for currying eggs with a lady called Eggwina.

      These history books would have told even John that, after the growth years in the nineteenth century, the railways went into a slow decline. In 1921, the Government of the day, finally gave way to the inevitable and passed The Railway Act, forcing the myriad train companies to 'amalgamate' into just four bigger companies. This took place on 1 January, 1923, and funnily enough, two of the resulting company names were those John was later to find (and to be so besotted with) in his toy-box

      This 'amalgamation' was a nationalisation in all but name. Eventually, with the railways left in a perilous state by WWII and even more so by the feuding in the boardrooms of the four companies, the Government had to give way to reason and pass the Transport Act of 1947. Nationalisation of the railways followed in 1948. This made no real difference to anything. For example, the Western Region of British Railways (later, for some obscure reason, rechristened 'British Rail') was only the old GWR by another name. Nothing much happened until 1961, when a heavily-jowled, wild-eyed man named Dr Beseeching was appointed as the Chairman of the British Railways Board and given an axe to do his job. He was told his job was to 'reshape the railways'.

      The reason for this strange phenomenon of destruction was that the Minister of Transport of the time, an oddball called Ernest Maple-Syrup, was entranced by the new roads of the time, called 'motorways'. He thought these would be the transport system of the future and wanted the railways to be removed as a Victorian relic. Mr Maple-Syrup cannot be blamed for this: to start with traffic did actually move along the 'motorways'. It is a matter of history that, in 1963, Dr Beseeching was told to start swinging his axe and chop up as much of the railway system as he could. Again, it would be wrong to point the finger at the poor, mad doctor. He could not be expected to foretell the future and it was impossible for him to know that many of the railway lines he wantonly chopped up would have to rebuilt in the twenty-first century. By then it had belatedly been realised that, after all, the railways were not a Victorian relic, but a sensible alternative to the 'motorways'. They actually served their purpose as a means of transport.

      At about the same time that Dr Beseeching was madly swinging his axe in a lunatic attempt to 'reshape' the railways, John Major Balls-up stumbled upon secure employment for the first time. Before this, all he had managed to find was a series of odd jobs that suited his odd personality. The secure job was with the London Electricity Board. In 1963, it was wrongly believed that there could be such things as 'nationalised industries', which provided essential services without the need for 'investors' drawing large profits from the public purse without doing anything much.

      Also at the time mad Doctor Beseeching was going berserk John, a young man now with no train set to fill up his empty hours, still found himself with few friends. So he joined the 'The Young Conservatives', a secret organisation which performed obscure rituals. Here he found happiness among like-minded eccentrics. He understood few of the dark rituals, but managed to grasp the essential Tory concept of 'private good, public bad'. This is just as simple-minded and dangerous as the 'four legs good, two legs bad' to be found in George Orwell's Animal Farm, but did no harm so long as it was confined to the draughty halls and meeting-rooms which housed YCs and similar occult organisations.

      John Major Balls-up would have been just another Young Conservative who went on to become a discontented Middle-aged Conservative and finally, if he turned out to be very lucky, the Chairman of a mediocre County Cricket Club. But fate, as they say, took a hand in the form of a series of unfortunate flukes. Seeking to 'better himself', John took a correspondence course in banking, and found that this highly-respected and useful career suited him. With some reluctance, the YCs and then the 'adult' Tory Party were forced to take more notice of him in his new, worthy employment. There was very little talent in the ranks of the Party and John found himself elected as a Tory MP in 1979.

      In that year, the Leader of the Tory Party was an alarming woman who went by the name of 'The Iron Lady'. She swung the secret weapon she sometimes called her handbag freely, and frightened everybody so much that they made her the Prime Minister. She had three major pieces of good fortune as Prime Minister. Firstly, a failing politician on the other side of the world sought to revive his fading fortunes by precipitating something called 'The Falklands Conflict'. This gave the Iron Lady the opportunity to wave not only her handbag but flags and strings of bunting, then to sit in tanks, pretending that she was a soldier. Thereafter, she claimed to be the 'Hero of the Falklands', even though the real heroes were the soldiers and sailors who had sailed half-way across the world to face combat in circumstances which were, to say the least, difficult and deadly. Thereafter, the publicity the Iron Lady received gave her carte blanche to look in her handbag and do whatever she wanted. She could even go as far as calling her destructive madness 'policies'.

      The second was that John Major Balls-up and the other politicians she kept locked up in her cabinet (they wouldn't fit in her handbag) were too frightened of her to challenge anything she did, even when she found Dr Beseeching's axe and swung it dangerously, screaming 'there's no such thing as society'. In her deluded mind she really thought that she could chop society up into small pieces, just as Dr Beseeching had started to chop up the railways, twenty or so years before.

      The third piece of good fortune to come the Iron Lady's way during her reign (we may as well call it a reign; it was the way she thought of it) was that drillers in the North Sea discovered oil. This did wonders for the economy of the UK. Everything the Iron Lady did in the nineteen-eighties, no matter how misguided, could be declared to be part of the 'Thatcher Miracle'. In fact, it would have been more correct to call it the 'North Sea Oil Economic Miracle'.

      Eventually, however, even John Major Balls-up and the other Ministers locked up in the cabinet found enough courage to challenge the Iron Lady, even though this took until 1990. 'Courage' is probably the wrong word to use. They found a dupe called Anthony Maybe-I'm-a-Stalking-Horse to stand against her. Although the dupe only polled thirty-odd votes in something they called a 'leadership election', after further dark rituals the Iron Lady found herself running in tears from Downing Street as leader no more.

      To everyone's surprise, not least his own, the new leader and Prime Minister blinking into the sunlight of Downing Street (some stray sunlight still filtered down to Downing Street, despite the fortifications the Iron Lady had to build to protect herself from her subjects) was none other than John Major Balls-up. Perhaps everyone thought his gentle, consensual style would make a change from the frightening one of the Iron Lady.

      The Iron Lady didn't altogether share this view. Although she endorsed him as her successor, she asserted that she expected to continue in control as back-seat driver. John Major Balls-up, however, proved to be made of sterner stuff (he'd learned from years of blowing his whistle over his train set and pretending to be the Thin Controller) and he became a front-seat driver. The Iron Lady was sent into exile and was thereafter only wheeled out periodically to frighten the horses and backsliders.

      John Major Balls-up didn't wish to be thought of as a backslider. He continued with his predecessor's policies, insofar as he could understand them. Most of all he remembered the mantra he had learned years before in draughty YC halls: 'private good, public bad'. But he dearly wished he could think of an initiative he could call his own.

      Then, one night, he had a wild dream. It started off as his usual happy one about the childhood train set. Bur then it merged with the more troubling one he'd been having of late that ended with everyone shouting at him, 'private good, public bad'. It startled him awake, gibbering about Brixton, correspondence courses, and the Great Western Railway. Then, desperately trying to get back to sleep, he suddenly had an idea. It was the first idea that John could call his own since he'd been a boy in Coldharbour Lane playing with his points, so he wrote it down.

      In that morning's meeting of the cabinet, he told his colleagues about the idea. 'I want to privatise the railways,' he said. John was very excited about this. In his mind's eye he could see engines and coaches with GWR and LMS on their sides. A number of his colleagues grumbled, 'There's no money in railways these days'. They weren't a bit interested in John's vision of the future. Then they saw that, even through his glasses, he had a gleam in his eye. They mistook this gleam for the mad glint they had so often seen in the eye of the Iron Lady, and so they started to sit up and take notice of what he was saying for the very first time.

      Finally, he won them over to his argument. But he had to promise that all their investor-friends would somehow make pots of money from the railways. The thin and all-but-invisible moustache John had been trying to grow since he was a YC was dripping with sweat as the meeting of the cabinet finished. On the way out of the cabinet room, one of the Ministers was heard to mutter, 'It's a good job they didn't have Thomas the Tank Engine train sets when John was a boy. Otherwise, all the engines would have to be become blue, red and green and have faces painted on the front.' Another was more pragmatic. He said, 'Lunacy. But I'm going to tell all my friends that there's going to be money in this for them.'

      The plan for privatisation was enormously complicated and expensive. There was an 'infrastructure' company called Railtrack and around one hundred train operating companies. The clock was going to be turned back to well before 1923. No matter: all the trains were to have the names of their companies painted on them. This was the really important thing. The expensive process took about three years to complete, but everything was done by 1997, the year in which the Government of John Major Balls-up became a total laughing-stock and he fell off his soap-box.

      The next Government might not have been able to see any sense in the rail privatisation, but couldn't have done anything about it in any event. There were three reasons for this. Firstly, it would have been ridiculously expensive to take back into public ownership the things that had been in public ownership until the end of the twentieth century. Secondly, the Government was singularly unlucky with its Prime Ministers: the first developed staring eyes and became a war criminal and the second was a singularly charmless man who made an easy target for the meeja. Thirdly, the YCs and Big Cs had uttered the incantation, 'private good, public bad' so often that not only they, but people who should have known better had started to believe it.

      So the 'privatised' railways ambled along. Naturally, the 'privatisation' was a waste of time and money. There was no chance of it working. Some of the many problems encountered were:
* 'Railtrack', the original 'infrastructure company' failed and had to be replaced at great expense with something called 'Network Rail'.
* The public couldn't grasp the complexities of actually buying a ticket to travel and the structure had to be simplified for them.
* Some of the 'train operating companies' wouldn't play the game properly and the 'franchises' had to be constantly shuffled.
* The safety record of the railway system declined because of desperate cost-cutting attempts.
* Although more and more people wanted to travel by train, the railway system was badly run by the multiplicity of companies and, in an attempt to cut costs, train services became more and more overcrowded.

      By 2010, the Government had run its course and was replaced by a Coagulation. This was a special type of Government headed by someone called David Comeon. Comeon didn't actually have to win an electoral mandate, but by capturing the helpless Leader of one of the smaller parties, Nick Click, he was able to use him as a human shield and implement policies that even the Iron Lady could only have implemented in her wettest dreams.

      Although David Comeon had received a far better education than John Major Balls-up, his knowledge of railway history was very poor. He didn't even know what had happened in the nineteen-nineties. Nor was he present at the Cabinet meeting at which poor John had promised a share of the non-existent profits from the railways. David Comeon was obsessed with not spending public money for any reason, and came up with a few ideas for saving money on the railways. These ideas could be summarised as:
* Raising rail fares even more.
* Jamming even more people on the already overcrowded trains.
* Shooting a few of the railway workers.

      He didn't think of eliminating the drain on the public purse caused by the shareholders of the railway companies.

      After 1997, John Major Balls-up never went near a train again, either a toy one or a full-sized one, even if it had 'LMS' or 'GWR' painted on the side. Sometimes, during one of the frequent drubbings his cricket team receives at the ground called The Something-or-Other Oval, an insensitive person mentions the railways. Occasionally, John can be heard to mutter in response, 'four legs good... no... private good, public bad' under his breath. Most times, though, his eyes simply glaze over as he thinks of his train set.

      It's a pity that his favourite toy was given to a rag-and-bone man in about 1960.


Pinko Prose
Back to Main Page