Mr Norris changes trains

Transport Minister Steven Norris was widely criticised for calling public transport users `dreadful human beings’. But he was only saying what everybody else thinks

SBHD: Transport Minister Steven Norris was widely criticised for calling public transport users `dreadful human beings’. But he was only saying what everybody else thinks

How disappointing it is when an event in public life as rare as it is refreshing is rapidly succeeded by another all too familiar and craven.

When Transport Minister Steven Norris described passengers on public transport as “dreadful human beings” he became for an instant that most scarce of phenomena – a politician who speaks the truth. What a pity then to open the papers a day later and see Norris posing for the cameras in a second-class compartment on the Stockport to Euston train, telling anyone who would listen that his travelling companions were “fine, delightful”.

This unseemly and hasty retreat was in response to “outrage” at his remarks, though such indignation as could be mustered was largely the work of the press. Norris made his commonplace observation on a slow news day, which is why the Daily Mail led its front page with the story. Now, since it is bootless to splash “Minister states the obvious”, we were invited instead to contemplate a “gaffe” of historic dimensions.

His comments were “an astonishing outburst which will offend millions”. Indeed had already offended “his superiors” who were “furious at the remarks”.

Let us look at the cause of all this outrage and fury. Giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee on the Environment, Norris observed that cars were extraordinarily convenient. “You have your own company, your own temperature control, your own music – and you don’t have to put up with dreadful human beings sitting alongside you.”

Now who could possibly take exception to that? Anyone who has travelled on public transport – and there can be only a privileged handful who have not – knows that the most hazardous feature of the journey is the person who sits next to you. There are millions of them out there – the smelly, the noisy, the ill-mannered, the violent, and the plain lunatic – and there is every chance that one or more of them will fetch up alongside you.

And, since there are many ways of being dreadful, one cannot guarantee immunity by travelling first class. I once had what would otherwise have been a pleasant journey from Norwich to London ruined by an oik bellowing into a mobile phone, conversation after conversation. When at last he broke off to draw breath and turned to face me, he was none other than Tim Yeo, former minister, moral crusader, and begetter of a notorious single parent family. Dreadful.

Norris’ true offence was to break the democratic convention that because the people are sovereign they are also pleasant. But few people like crowds, and still fewer are entirely comfortable when placed in enforced proximity to strangers. Politicians, and of course marketing people, must adhere to the fiction that people en masse are an attractive proposition. The rest of us are happy only with individuals, and not all that many of them.

The awfulness of public transport is not entirely to do with class, though social distinctions do of course come into it. Proletarian habits and customs and dress can easily offend those of a more refined nature. When, on a London Underground train, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne found himself sitting next to a man noisily eating a smelly hamburger, he repulsed the enemy with a retaliatory burst of malodorous flatulence.

It worked. The offender curled up his nose in disgust and continued his meal in another part of the carriage. One can only marvel at the ability bestowed on a well-born patrician such as Sir Perry to pass wind at will. At school I knew many boys who could belch loudly to order, a skill which I envied yet never mastered, but none as far as I know could exercise a similar control over his lower intestine. But then mine was not a school attended by the sons of patricians.

Snobbery has something to do with the degree of dreadfulness we ascribe to others, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Although middle-class travellers are less inclined than lower classes to eat hamburgers on buses and trains, they are more inclined to have eaten garlic the night before. Rush hour on the Welwyn Garden City to Moorgate line, with commuters standing shoulder to shoulder, faces inches from each other, takes on a whole new pungent piquancy at Highbury and Islington when the well-fed gentrifiers climb aboard.

When Noriss’ opposition counterpart, Michael Meacher, said, “It (Norris’ comment) shows the deeply-held Tory belief in a two-tier society,” he, too, spoke the truth, though unintentionally. You don’t have to be a Tory to believe in a two-tier society – people you like and people you don’t like. And it’s a curious fact of life that most of the latter travel on trains.

Norris himself is said to be very fond of individuals, and not just the charming businessman he sat next to on his hasty fence-mending journey on the Euston express. He is reported to have entertained no fewer than five mistresses, none of whom knew about the others. As fine an example as one could imagine of elevating the individual above the crowd.

Overcrowding, however awful it is, is not the chief obstacle to wider public acceptance of public transport. Even if there were many more trains with many more carriages, they would still suffer from the irredeemable drawback of carrying people, or, more precisely, other people.

When Norris contrasted the attractions of private transport with the most unappealing feature of public transport – dreadful people – he was dead right. If it is possible to summon any outrage over this incident, it should be directed at the mealy-mouthed critics who made him swallow his words.

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